The Search for Courageous White Women in the Academy

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Female mentor working with employees

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about how to best describe the type of relationship women of color require from White women in the academy. Although I edited a book using the term “ally,” some call for a stronger word like “accomplice” to describe the ideal White colleague.

Earlier this year, in a meeting with two professors from a nearby university, one Black and the other White, the word “sisterhood” emerged as an alternative descriptor of the optimum relationship between women of color and White women in the workplace.

We agreed this exercise in semantics detracts from what is most important about the relationship — the actual behavior of our White female colleagues as they come face to face with racial bias and oppression.

Most women of color would agree that we want White colleagues to respond with courage by standing alongside us in the fight against racism, speaking up rather than remaining silent about racial injustice, and resisting the urge to make excuses for the racist behavior of their White friends and colleagues.

Regardless of the title we eventually settle on, many women of color prefer White women colleagues who do not turn and run when issues of race and racism arise during meetings, social gatherings, evaluations, and the like, ushering in all the associated complexities and discomfort. She must be willing to strategize, using her power and privilege — in the midst of her own discomfort, shaky voice, and even tears — to advocate for others. She can be an ally, an accomplice, a comrade, a sister, or a friend — as long as she exists.

The problem is that many women of color have yet to encounter the colleague described above.

For nearly 20 years, I held on to messages, documented encounters, and spoke to other women of color about the challenge of working with White women and the futility of counting on most of them to support us or to acknowledge and confront issues of racism in the academy.

My conversations with other women of color revealed many of us worked with White women who behaved as if all of their degrees, promotions, awards, and relationships separated them from Whiteness and the various ways they use White privilege every day.

Often, after sharing a particularly painful exchange with a White woman on campus, we would comment to one another, “That’s why we can’t be friends.”

It’s not that we were pining away, hoping for such friendships. Most of us enjoyed good relationships with the handful of progressive White women on our campuses. “That’s why we can’t be friends” was more of an affirmation of the power we had to choose our friends, something we could not do with colleagues, department chairs, deans, and presidents.

Our conversations might have remained segregated had it not been for an invitation from Francie Kendall, a White woman author and diversity trainer and consultant, to serve on a panel during her daylong session about the role White women play in perpetuating racism in the academy during the 2009 National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE).

In preparation, I re-read Sister Outsider, a collection of 15 essays written between 1976 and 1984 by the late Black feminist Audre Lorde. In this text, Lorde writes to a White woman about the need to bridge the divide between her and the woman. Lorde’s first inclination is to avoid the conversation altogether, but she writes the letter despite the potential for emotional damage on both sides and defensiveness on the part of the White woman.

For my part on the panel, I wrote “An Open Letter to White Women,” which detailed a series of what I identified as crimes perpetrated against people of color. Less than an hour later, I ran into two White women at the airport who had been in the session. They encouraged me to publish my open letter.

My conversations with women of color and progressive White women illuminated some of the understandings and behaviors of White allies and accomplices. Though not an exhaustive list, some of those behaviors and characteristics include the following:

Understanding that discussing race is not about guilt, shaming, or reducing anybody to tears: Women of color know emotions can halt important dialogues even when the desire is to move forward.

Never allowing tears to put an end to a difficult conversation or shifting attention away from race: Rather, once the person in tears has regained composure, allies ensure that attention returns to the matter at hand, an issue that is of obvious significance due to emotional expressions.

White allies acknowledging their error in unwittingly benefitting from oppressive structures: Remaining silent when witnessing racist actions, policies, and practices is damaging. White allies should strategize with one another and women of color about how to ensure they do not fall back into the same behavior.

Avoiding inclinations to withdraw, retreat, or run away from uncomfortable discussions: Know that on the other side of discomfort, improved understanding and the development of more equitable practices await.

Acknowledging racism, power, and privilege: Recognize that these elements are real and at work in our structures, practices, and policies.

Recognizing that merely having relationships with, being married to, or growing up in the same neighborhood with people of color does not automatically render one an ally: Actions always speaker louder than acquaintances and relationships.

Although such relationships are difficult to develop, women of color and White women can build strong alliances. Investing time and energy in having challenging conversations and accepting the emotional costs are worth the likely outcome — creating an inclusive campus climate.

Karen Dace, PhD is vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She is also the editor of the 2012 book Unlikely Allies in the Academy: Women of Color and White Women in Conversation.