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White academic anti-racist allies: What are you willing to give up?

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

I'm not usually a fan of questions that imply a sense of loss from the very outset. As a woman of colour whose life has been co-opted by fighting the most basic practices of racism within the academy over the past months, I have felt the toll that doing more than my share of this work has taken on the time and energy that I have for other areas of my life. And so, to those who identify themselves as allies in the academy to people of colour: if your reaction when a person of colour talks about racism is usually a sense of powerlessness, of feeling too busy, too overwhelmed or too much a victim of the system to feel like you have any agency, my question to you is: what are you willing to give up in order to make space for this work? What are you willing to give up to help strengthen life-lines for the people of colour that are struggling to breathe in the spaces that we share?

I have found the message from people of colour in the meetings that I've been attending on fighting racism at Birkbeck recently to be quite clear: white allies, we cannot do this alone. Please, stand with us by 'doing the work' that you need to do so that you notice, and challenge racism as it happens. Do the work that you need to do in order to unlearn the ways in which power flows through you and works to diminish the people of colour that you teach and work with. I have been shocked by the vitriol that has publicly come at us when voicing our experiences. It is clear to me that even in rooms that are full of self-identified allies, the challenges to inter-personal acts of racism almost always come from other people of colour. So white allies, I'm asking you...what is it that you need to do in order to make time and space in your lives to actively participate in the labour that people of colour do everyday to fight injustice?

I'd like to share a little of what I've had to give up in order to do the work that I'm doing - which basically feels like working to educate people that I'm paying (a lot) to educate me. I don't want to seem self-centred, and definitely am not looking for validation - I'm simply sharing one form of what being committed to acting on your politics can look like. In late July, after six years of struggling to make time, I made a deal with my partner that I'd take a few months of not working to focus on my own thinking*. We agreed that during this time. we'd use our savings to get us though, and I'd supplement this with some occasional freelance work. This was an incredibly special opportunity that I'd carved out for myself after some tough decisions. I had enough time to come up with the concept for 'Birthing Ourselves' and the opportunity to flesh out some articles that I've been wanting to write for some time. Since deciding to make this space for myself, most of my time has been sucked up into working to challenge the most banal racist practices within the academy, and amplify the voices of people of colour who have been silenced in various ways.

My unwaged time was supposed to be spent thinking creatively; finding innovative and nourishing ways of using the situated knowledges of the communities that I belong to - in order to contribute to building those communities in different ways. My interactions with students and staff of colour at Birkbeck have been so alarming that I could not, in good conscience, have this time and not use it to organise against the ways that racism is so clearly operating within my department(s) and the university more widely. I have given up valuable thinking time for myself, I have given up the chance to earn (some much needed) money and have neglected time with friends and family because there just hasn't been anyone else to do this work. Being a single-income couple in London isn't easy, especially when there are masters fees to pay for too.

The psychic life of being an agent of change is never easy. The truth is, there are many creative ways to use our agency and our privilege to do the work of challenging racism, even if the place that we start is with ourselves. Doing this work takes time and energy; these are precious and finite resources, but they must be consciously invested. So my question is...what do you need to do, white allies, to make time to challenge your own racism, your silencing of people of colour, or your own silences as you recognise injustice happening? It cannot continue to be people of colour who consistently lose out on precious time, working to protect ourselves and eachother from you or your silences, and not moving as far forward as we might otherwise. How can you learn from the white allies in your own communities that do this important work, that I might have an hour longer in bed, a day longer to spend with my loved ones, a month longer to dedicate to birthing or nourishing my own inner world?

As always, we are trying to create an engaged learning community. If this piece spoke to you, please share - and maybe make space for reflections - so that others may engage with your thoughts, and with ours.

*I had taken some time off prior to this for different reasons, but our deal was that I'd go back to work in August.

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