You say you want to be an ally, but do you really?

If so, Show Up. Step In. Stand In. Stay In.

Update: here:  See actual video (2 hours)

Next week, three black women and three white women are having an “open conversation.”  Insight Into Diversity magazine is hosting the conversation:

The promotion for the webinar says, “We’re bringing Black and White women together to share their experiences, perspectives, and potential solutions to navigating race and gender in the academy. Join us for this free webinar on July 22 to learn more about how women can support one another more effectively. Register Now: We will also be streaming the webinar live here on our Facebook page; be sure to “like” and “follow” us to receive a notification to watch live when the webinar starts.

I’m honored to be invited.  Today, I met the other panelists—Black and White women, experienced, passionate, committed to social justice.  It was a good conversation. I’m looking forward to our conversation live next week.  So many have registered, it will be a Facebook live event, but questions can still be sent in advance, so I encourage you to register and send your questions.

I have been thinking a lot about White people these days.  Of course, my job situates me within a responsibility for navigating Whiteness.

Art by @emmanuealaopc

But, I’ve been thinking about them even more lately.  And so, in addition to preparing for this conversation with White women about “courageous” [this is the operative word] allyship, I had another unexpected gift from friends of mine who happen to be White who engage in active allyship.  And so, I wanted to share some thoughts about what being a “courageous” ally looks like for me.

So, this happened:

July 7, 2020 [Letter to the Editor of the Pantagraph, local newspaper]

I read where a small group of students at Normal Community West High School [This is the high school I attended as the 1 Black student out of 388 students in the graduating class] were causing racial problems and that the president of the school’s Black Student Union, along with their protesters, were hollering “racism has to stop.”

I read another article, “BET Awards honors Black voices, artists.” That then got me thinking of all the Black organizations that currently exist such as Miss Black America, BET, The Black Caucus, and many others too numerous to mention. 

Some folks may also look at these organizations as racist themselves as their name implies, being one race over another. If you doubt me, ponder this. If one substitutes “white” instead of “Black” in these names, many would suggest it might be initiated by the Klan and it would immediately be banned for racism. But when the Black race does it, no one thinks twice.

This is the double standards world we currently live in where it’s OK for one race to say and do something but not OK for another. Some might not think twice about it but others don’t forget the double standards as easily. 

Terry White, Bloomington

July 11, 2020 [Letter to the Editor, Pantagraph local newspaper]

I agree that we live in a world of double standards, and we should all be working to change that.

There’s a Miss Black America because there was no chance that a Black woman would be chosen Miss America in 1921, or 1941, or 1961. There’s a Black Entertainment Network because almost everyone on the major networks was white. There’s a Black Student Union because the Student Union has no idea how to address the interests or needs of students of color. There’s a Black Caucus to give a voice to marginalized communities; there’s always been a White Caucus; it just doesn’t say White in the name.

We have Black Churches because white churches defended slavery and segregation and Jim Crow. We have Black fraternities because white fraternities didn’t admit Blacks. We have Black veterans organizations because Blacks weren’t welcome in the existing (white) ones.

There are plenty of White organizations: they just don’t say White in the name. That’s the double standard.

Don’t be fooled by the false equivalence of Black and White. A White People’s March is almost certainly associated with the Klan and discrimination and a lament of the loss of power of White people. A Black Lives Matter march is almost certainly asking for equal (not better, just equal would be nice) rights in front of the police, and the city, and local businesses.

Marc Miller, Bloomington

Whoa. Let’s pause.  What has happened here?   

Many of you may have thought that Marc was a Black man, because of course, Black people are always responding and saying stuff like this.  But, no, Marc is actually a White man.

So, I want to break this down in terms of White allyship.

An letter was written to the local paper using coded language of racism.    Coded racist material, seemingly innocuous that everyone would agree, “We shouldn’t have double standards,” is used.  “All lives matter” [no one said they didn’t]. 

It would have been easy for a Black person to respond.  We are always responding.  But we cannot as Black people respond to every White racist statement.  That is why allies are needed and that is what allies are for.  Allies step in.

In order to step in, you have to be aware. So, that is the first step.

Awareness:  Be aware of what is happening.  You don’t have to become obsessed with the news and newspapers and social media, but you cannot be ignorant. As an ally, you should be substantially informed about what is happening around the world, not just your neighborhood, your community, your state, your nation, but the world – for everything is interconnected. To be aware, you must educate yourself.

Ok, so you are aware [not the same as “woke,” but you can never be woke if you are not awake and aware.]

The second step:  Acknowledgment.

Acknowledge White racism.  Call a thing what it is.  Marc decoded the code.  The code word was double standard.  He revealed the double standard.  You can only do this after step 1 – awareness and education.

There is real power in Marc’s response. His ability to use the same words and recast them enabled him to educate and dismantle an ideology about a double standard.

The third step: Advocate.

Advocate.  Step in and counter White racism whenever you see it or are aware of it.  Unlike many Whites, he chose to respond. And, more importantly and significantly, he did not reach out to me to review, edit, and ask for assistance. I would have provided it, but I’m glad that he didn’t do it. Many Black people don’t want to have to hold White allies’ hands.  Be a big person; figure it out. Be courageous all by yourself.  Don’t rely on my courage to help you be courageous; don’t make yourself dependent on me.

And the fourth step: ALONE. ALL BY YOURSELF.

Stand alone.  That is what allyship requires.  You step out there, with your knowledge, and you stand. By yourself. On your own convictions.

Aware; Acknowledge; Advocate; Alone.

And then, that could have been the end.  One letter and another letter.  But it wasn’t.

Yet the story continues, a sub-story, because there are always multiple story lines at play. 

The Klan, in fact, showed up.  At their house. At White people’s house, the Klan showed up.

I received a text and a picture: “Police visit this afternoon having found KKK literature attached to rocks on our yard. We have a BLM sign in our yard which “will not be moved”😊

This text was followed by an email after I expressed concern:

“Hi Menah, We are fine so don’t you worry none about the likes of us (smiley face) Other places in town had these little KKK packets show up as well. This administration has given permission for this to happen. At least we have a better of idea of numbers. We will not be moved! Love you too.”

Ok, let’s break this down some more.

The action of advocacy had a consequence.  Black people are always aware of these consequences.  Sometimes our self-advocacy results in loss of promotion opportunities; loss of employment opportunities; retaliation; harassment; isolation; being called and seen as the “angry Black woman.” We are always having to weigh speaking up or being silent and having the silence eat us up inside.

So, allyship and advocacy has consequences. Real allies know this.

The text and email reveal invaluable secrets about allyship.

Reaffirmation. We have a BLM sign in our yard which “will not be moved.”

Reaffirmation.  You stand again in the moment;  You don’t retreat; you don’t backtrack.  Your feet are firmly planted.  The sign will not be moved. This is a sign of strength and conviction.

Reassurance. “We are fine; do not worry.” This statement is another sign of advocacy.  There have been so many “allies” that say, “I’m so scared, I don’t know what to do; I’m afraid.” And then the Black friend has to comfort the White person and try to affirm and assure the White person that they did the right thing in their advocacy. The text said, “Don’t worry.”  I appreciate this statement. I love them and of course, would worry. The gift is that their allyship allowed them to express concern for me even the moment. Don’t worry about us. Truth be told, Black people have our hands full worried about ourselves, our families, our communities, the diaspora.

But there was more:  “We will not be moved.

Retrenchment. It was not only that the sign would not be moved, their advocacy, their acknowledgement, their commitment to the work would not change. Unrelenting support. A strong statement of courageous conviction.

And then, the love. “Love you, too”

Respect. There can be no allyship without respect for the relationship that must exist between the ally and the allied. Our relationship is grounded on respect and a deep love. We are family friends. We have been so for years.

For almost 25 years, Marc and Darlene Miller have been managing and leading the Pratt Music Foundation that has awarded over 400 scholarships to talented students in the local community through Illinois Wesleyan University.

It was established after my father died in conversation with my mother about how to recognize a man they had just met before he died.  My father was so private, almost reclusive, but somehow he developed a special friendship with Marc.  And in his memory, the Pratt Music Foundation, through the stewardship and love of Marc and Darlene, and other White friends, has become a legacy for my parents. 

Marc and Darlene are extraordinary.  They started Not In our Town. On its website:

“Stop hate, address bullying, and build a safe, inclusive community…”

For more than 20 years, Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal has worked behind the scenes and at the forefront of social change in the Twin Cities, attempting to build understanding between individuals and communities and create an inclusive and secure environment for all

When my parents died, Marc and Darlene stood in for them at every major event of my life – my children’s graduation from high school; from both children’s graduation from the University of Illinois; from my daughter’s graduation from University of Michigan; to my vow renewal in New Orleans. 

They showed up; stepped in; stood in; and stayed in. That’s what advocates do….Show Up; Step In; Stand In; and Stay In.

In preparation for the panel, I learned that one of my colleagues, Karen Dace has a book on women of color and White women conversations.

The blurb about the book:

“Unlikely Allies in the Academy brings the voices of women of Color and White women together for much-overdue conversations about race. These well-known contributors use narrative to expose their stories, which are at times messy and always candid. However, the contributors work through the discomfort, confusion, and frustration in order to have honest conversations about race and racism. This valuable book offers strategies, ideas, and the hope for moving toward true alliances in the academy and to improve race relations. This important resource is for Higher Education administrators, faculty, and scholars grappling with the intersectionality of race and gender as they work to understand, study, and create more inclusive climates.”

Her article,

provides a quick guide for White women who want to be allies. My other panelist, Dreama Moon, also shares important content about the challenges and opportunities around teaching about Whiteness.

For White women (and men) who want to learn more, I encourage you to read these articles, and then read Presumed Incompetent:  Volumes I and II and become angry and horrified at the “oh my goodness, did that really happen” racist and sexist treatment women of color experience in the academy.

And then, read “An Inclusive Academy” and learn concrete steps to advance diversity and inclusion, so that you can decide as a White woman, how far are you willing to go.

“An Inclusive Academy” is also important for White men who want to be allies. I think it is important that White men begin to understand more about the complex relationship between White women and women of color because it is so easy for White men to think that a White woman can be a mentor for a woman of color.  The assumption of the shared womanness should not be a defacto decision, because if the woman isn’t sensitive to issues of race, her mentorship is not effective. And a White male mentor might actually be a more effective mentor, particularly if he chooses to use his privilege, power, and connections to advocate  and sponsor women of color.

Many women of color have had more effective White male mentors because the White man has power to give, whereas often the White woman doesn’t even have any power to give, let alone compassion. White men are often blunt, but share the knowledge sometimes more readily than White women: “This is what you need to do and this is how to do it.” Blunt to the point, but core information.

I only learned how to practice law, to be a lawyer because the White men in the commercial lending department at the law firm, especially one man, took time to teach me with red ink on red ink how to edit loan agreements.  He was a mentor.  He introduced to White male loan officers as “his associate.”  He was socializing the White male clients that I was competent and could be trusted as a lawyer. As the only Black lawyer at the firm, I really just wanted to hang out on the 25th floor in the mail room with all the Black mail room workers, but  I needed to learn the White male culture of the firm.  I did make some wonderful friends there. 

Black people have to learn how to have White friends or we will have no friends in professional environments.  White people don’t have to learn how to have Black friends. They can choose to ignore us and our presence and our uniqueness.  That is what often happens in the workplace.  Our presence and uniqueness is ignored. We are not invited to book clubs; we are not invited to after work happy hours; we are not invited to weekend wine tastings; we are just not invited.  You would be amazed at how unhappy many people of color are in the workplace.  It’s actually terrible for them. And its because White women (and White men) are not allies, and do not care.

In preparing for the webinar 1300 people have signed up.  That’s good.  Our panel met to prepare and review some of the qeustions that have come in. One of my main take aways was the fearfulness of White women.  They are afraid – of saying the wrong thing; of being branded as a racist, of not being able to not cry, of doing the wrong thing, of asking the wrong questions, of being disliked by women of color, and on and on. Scared to even send questions in to a webinar with their names.

This fear is not helpful.  It is a terrible energy of powerlessness and cowardice.  You cannot be an ally with that fear and women of color do not need fearful allies. The reality is yes:  you will say the wrong thing; you will be branded as a racist; you will irritate the Black women and women of color for crying [White fragility], and you will do the wrong thing and you will ask the wrong questions.

So what????????   Try again. Why should you not have to deal with what we deal with every day? There’s no better way to be an ally than actual experience.

Women of color are always doing an internal dance in our minds with coded language, coded culture, uncommunicated norms, hidden values that all the White people in the workplace know, but the people of color don’t. Do we bring our beans and rice, our curried rice,  our fried chicken and mac n’ cheese for lunch, when White people are eating food with no smell or odor? Do we wear “cultural clothing” or “traditional Western business casual clothes? Do we do an Afro, or come with a hair wrap, or is that “too Black or too radical” or too “angry looking?”  Do you know how many women of color have mastered the ability not to cry in the workplace? How many of us cry in the bathrooms in your office buildings, wash our faces, put our make up back on, head back to our offices and cubicles, and finish out the day? How many of us have gritted our teeth in anger and humiliation, but not shed a tear, when we have been demeaned and demonized in front of colleagues? WE DONT GET TO CRY IN FRONT OF YOU. That is the double standard. You get to cry.

So, yes, White women, you will mess up.  You have already messed up.  That’s ok, because Black people are some of the most forgiving people I know.  The Charleston murders – we forgave; the White woman who shot the Black man – we forgave – hugged her on the way to her prison cell. The list of forgiveness and reconciliation of Black people with White racism is endless. 

White women allies are essential, and absolutely critical. It always confounded me why our shared identity as women and the experience of sexism based on gender couldn’t make us better allies. But of course, I shouldn’t be confounded because White women have been the largest beneficiaries of affirmative action and “diversity” efforts because womanness was more palatable than Blackness. White women who understand this benefit and who have benefitted from the Black civil rights movement have a moral responsibility to support the eradication of racial injustice in the workplace, rather than ignore and/or perpetuate it with silence, silently turning and walking away, looking down in meetings in conversations about race, or perpetuating their own racism.

So, stop standing on the edge of the water, longing for the “difficult conversation” so you say, but being so fearful and paranoid that you see sharks in the water, when it is only a pond.  Jump in, sink, swim, you will survive, because you have your Whiteness as a flotation device.  You can always go back into invisibility, non-allyship, no more worn for the wear of jumping into the diversity pond.  We can’t talk off our Blackness, so we will always be here…waiting, sometimes willingly, sometimes not.

These conversations between women of color and White women are important.We need to have these conversations.  I often think of unfinished conversations that I haven’t finished with White women who wanted to be allies and think of themselves as allies.  We had difficult moments in our working relationship and they invited a conversation of reconciliation. I wasn’t ready for it. Sometimes we aren’t ready for those conversations and I think it is fine and empowering to say, not now. And sometimes, it is not never.  …

I’ve spent time thinking about my allies.  I’ve written about some.

Hope and I have a wonderful friendship.  

A tribute to an amazing friend

She was an administrative assistant when I first started in the Office for Equal Opportunity and Diversity at Illinois.  I was so lonely.  So lonely.  I missed all my friends in Nashville, where I had been for almost 15 years.  She must have just sense it.  And one day, some flowers came for me, with a little note.  “for whenever you need someone to talk to.”

Wow.  I cried.  I cried from the gesture of kindness. And what a friendship we have had, connection through work, professionally and personally.  We need kind White women in the workplace.

The other day, my office hosted a conversation with Black faculty and staff at VT and they talked about how hard it is to be the only one.  My brother and I shared about this experience:

I find often that some White people are very nosy.  They want to know all about the Black person’s life, and rarely share about their own life.  Make it a mutual and shared conversation.  Start with your own life.  Let me tell you a little bit about me.  Now, tell me about you.

The issue of welcoming some different into the work culture is important.  What happens with lunch times? Are White people’s lives so different that there is no way to bridge to include a Black person’s life or a person of color? White people who want to be allies MUST be intentional.  You must see color.  You must intentionally include.  You should turn your Black colleague at the “watercooler,” in the breakroom, or even God forbid, go into their office,  look them in the eye, and say,  “How are you doing??”    How is your family?   How was your weekend?  And then REMEMBER what they have said.  Do not be dismissive.  If they have a family, ask about their children’s names, ages, schools, interests.  Follow up later about them, specifically.  It means you heard them and care.  Then, share about your family. 

Heidi.  Heidi was another incredible colleague and ally and advocate.  She was the Director of Affirmative Action at Illinois.  She cared, she listened, she executed. She was kind; very kind.   Kindness goes so far. Wendy was another. A full professor. A staunch advocate. I miss them. Their kindness, but also quiet fierceness and fearlessness.

At Virginia Tech, in my office, I have amazing White colleagues – White women.  Michele Deramo and I had a conversation  — very much about White allyship and engagement.

She has pushed me even when my own sense of diplomacy and managing Whiteness led me to advocate for a more conservative approach to mitigate White opposition, she calmly said, “I’m not afraid. I can handle the opposition.”

It’s ok. I can handle the opposition – courageous ally. My chief of staff, Stacey Wilkerson, is a White woman from Appalachia, from the region where I work and live.  When we first started the Black College Institute three years ago, no one wanting to help. Offices that I hoped to partner with back then pulled out.  But she stayed, and worked almost full-time to start a program that now has over 400 high school students.  Quietly, with conviction and determination, she worked tirelessly to get the program off the ground.  And still, to this today, she advocates for people of color; situates herself to talk to White people; and stands with Black people.  She is kind.  Extraordinarily kind.  It makes a difference.

That’s what “courageous” advocates and allies do….Show Up; Step In; Stand In; and Stay In.

So, ask yourself, Are you ready to be a courageous ally? If so, join me and my colleagues – Black and White women for our conversation next week.

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