Committee for Children Blog

For Educators Aspiring Toward Allyship: A Note on Where to Begin

See all posts in this series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

One of the most pivotal and foundational lessons in my work toward allyship has been that sitting in discomfort is absolutely necessary in moving this work forward. In my last blog, I mentioned the power of sitting in a room of educators at the one-day symposium, “Talking with Children and Youth About Race.” Drawn together by our desire to expand our students’ racial vocabulary, we found ourselves pushing our own limits and definitions. Every time the air in the room grew tense and awkward, we swallowed and pushed through. Our willingness to be uncomfortable was critical in order to proceed and gain the skills we needed to facilitate future conversations with children.

By reading this blog and seeking new perspectives, you’ve already shown your willingness to step outside of your own comfort zone. Whether you’re just beginning or working to continue your allyship journey, the ability to sit in discomfort is one of the most powerful and necessary skills to develop. Here are three suggestions to move forward into that uncomfortable space with vulnerability and resolve.

  • Listen. A key tenet of social-emotional learning (SEL) is perspective-taking: the power to look at a subject from another’s point of view and understand what they’re fundamentally feeling. When listening to someone speak about their experience, try to see things from their point of view and engage in active listening—that ability to focus completely on a speaker and thoughtfully explore their message. When having a conversation about race, especially when discussing race with someone of a background or perspective different from yours, offer them your full attention and willingness to understand where they’re coming from.
  • Learn. Seek new knowledge from a variety of sources: read books, attend lectures, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts. There’s a wealth of information online, but if you’re looking for a succinct list, you can start here. One thing for aspiring white allies to remember when learning is that it’s not the responsibility of people of color to educate you. The burden of shouldering systemic racism’s dangers and effects while patiently explaining the history and those outcomes is an unfair request to make. Resources exist to pursue your own allyship education, many of them free! And many activists and educators of color have stepped into these spaces to speak to their own experiences. You can buy their books, follow their social media, seek out their leadership, and compensate them for their work. Remember, this journey toward allyship is ultimately a self-directed one.
  • Reflect. These uncomfortable spaces, as messy and awkward as they may feel, are fertile grounds for new ideas—about yourself, your experiences, your emotions and reactions, and your assumptions about how others operate. Be cognizant of the moments when an uncomfortable feeling surfaces: this may be an impetus for deeper reflection and personal growth. Once you’ve left the space or conversation that felt tense to you, provide some time for self-evaluation or journaling. You can ask, “What about that conversation made me feel uncomfortable? What was the other person saying, and how does it reflect their lived experience? What insights could I gain by seeing through their lens, instead of my own?” And, more generally, “What role does my race play within my own identity, my sense of self? How often do I think about my race? What specific ways have I gained or lost inherent advantages due to my racial identity?”

When I was in graduate school studying racial and socioeconomic inequity in public schools, my very first piece of assigned reading was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was eager to begin my studies and I devoured it in a few days. But I didn’t like it. It made me feel uncomfortable, awkward, and defensive. For days, I sat with that discomfort, trying to get to the root of it. Finally, I realized I had never consumed a piece of media that wasn’t created for a white audience. Between the World and Me wasn’t written for me—it was written for Black readers, for communities of color, for Coates’ own son. I didn’t like seeing myself through that lens. It made me confront my own implicit participation in a system of oppression. Once I came to that realization, I reread Between the World and Me with a more open and curious mind. It became one of the most profound readings of my work toward allyship.

This journey is clumsy work. Even in writing these blogs, I’ve learned it’s often one step forward, a feeling of confidence or assuredness, and then two steps back as I realize the limits of my own understanding. Allowing yourself this bumpy trajectory of growth is important: it provides some grace to learn and relearn, to revisit and reflect and sit in that uncomfortable space. Allyship is a lifelong process and commitment. Letting go of the pressure of perfectionism can be very freeing. Being able to show up, bravely and vulnerably, as I’ve seen so many people do in the last few months, is that first step. Once you’ve shown up, what will you do?

To learn how you can work toward being an ally in the classroom, read the next blog in this series.