What Makes Effective White Allies? Training, Not shaming
What Makes Effective White Allies? Training, Not shaming
By George Lakey / wagingnonviolence.org

It’s not a new idea to access training as a way to strengthen white people’s ability to be allies of people of color. In the 1970’s some of us brought to the world of direct action training a session designed to support everyone to move beyond racial and gender oppression. For example, during an all-day training before a planned action one of the modules would address oppressive dynamics that show up among activists.

Not a bad idea, but I for one didn’t understand then how deeply racism and other oppressions were embedded within us. It turned out that the road to liberation would be a long one, not only for the larger society where oppression is actively supported by the economic structure, but even among white social change groups deeply committed to justice.

Since then, a group of activist trainers evolved “direct education,” an updated version of popular education that brings two additional resources to training: state-of-the-art group dynamics and re-invented learning tools that formerly had a class bias.

For me, as a member of a largely white climate justice group, the good news is direct education helps us grow beyond white supremacy. For me, personally, as a white person in a majority African American family, the resource also supports more integration in my life.

Grab the opportunities

At our best, activists stay nimble. We scan the environment looking for lemons that can be turned into lemonade, noting that our society gives us lots of lemons. One way that class-unaware anti-oppression work has slowed whites down is by stimulating blame and shame, reducing the self-respect we need to stay nimble and do our best work.

The recent series of outrages from Ferguson to Baltimore could have provoked another guilt-bath in the group I’m part of, Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT. But, as a result of learning direct education, we could respond freshly. When an African American staff member asked for a leave of absence to respond to a request for his help in Ferguson, EQAT supported him to go immediately, with his salary in hand, while we took care not to make his mission a fundraising ploy for the organization.

Baltimore erupted with another racist killing shortly before an EQAT monthly meeting. At the meeting we placed it first on the agenda. We asked individuals in groups of three (so as to foster intimacy and confidentiality) to share their inner feelings aroused by the stormy events. I watched the body language in those sharing groups, which said it all: vulnerable and passionate sharing with very little of the defensiveness shown by angry outbursts against “those (other) racist white people.”

Later in the meeting, EQAT considered the proposal for a new campaign that would frequently put our members in cross-race, cross-class situations. This could be another five-year commitment, as was the campaign that won EQAT’s first victory. White middle-class members acknowledged it would pull them out of their comfort zones. The group agreed to continue to research the proposal.

Whether or not EQAT finally chooses this particular campaign idea, I was struck by the moment’s rarity in a largely white, largely middle-class climate justice activism. Decades of anti-racist work among progressives has not put that movement or most others in a new place. If the old anti-racism methods of blaming and shaming worked, I would still be doing them, but those methods have resulted in defensive reactivity and walking on eggshells. Too many graduates of political correctness training have learned to disempower themselves and their comrades, often through second-guessing. Ironically, such outcomes make white people less effective allies of movements of color.

Continuity matters for working against racism

EQAT’s experiment has been to partner with Training for Change, or TFC, the internationally-known group that invented direct education. From the start, TFC facilitated strategy sessions in which EQAT learned to create six-to-nine month action “arcs” that escalated our campaign, successfully pressuring PNC Bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. TFC also facilitated EQAT meetings where we saw the chance, with help, to push beyond the tight boundaries of middle-classness and become more “real,” and therefore more diversity-friendly.

EQAT members attended TFC train-the-trainer workshops where we learned group process skills that made our meetings more lively and welcoming, processes that supported attenders to be more authentic. Nearly all of the 125 actions that EQAT organized to achieve its victory were preceded by a training that increased skills and boldness, and at the same time encouraged teamwork and mutual awareness and support. Further, nearly all the actions were followed by a debriefing, in which participants were encouraged to claim their courage and acknowledge their mistakes.

Our pro-training organizational culture is all about “the learning curve” and “being on our edge,” so getting help from outside trainers is to us a no-brainer. Our group is evolving a pro-training culture that supports flexibility, making mistakes, being vulnerable, expressing courage, showing affirmation instead of judgment, and making lemonade out of those lemons.

Significantly, the direct education training tools TFC is teaching us address many of the characteristic descriptions I’ve heard from people of color and working-class people who feel distant from white middle-class activists: arrogant, cold, defensive, reluctant to give authentic support, in their heads, afraid to be real and spontaneous.

Within a pro-training culture, working on racism is a very different process from my early experience in the movement. Using direct education for movement-building increases the ability to be effective white allies even when it omits the special words of anti-racist discourse. A liberatory organizational culture downplays the correct language and trendy abstractions that academics love so much.

My own working-class background taught me that what counts in an ally has nothing to do with knowing what “intersectionality” means. What matters is knowing how to express the spirit of solidarity. My observation is that many college-trained white people who use the word “intersectionality” have trouble expressing solidarity, even with their fellow white people. In fact, the reason I left the training world of anti-racism was because I saw language being used as one more technique of middle-class correction and control, a use of language that is in direct contradiction to the goal of liberatory empowerment.

As EQAT moved into our process of discerning its next campaign we decided to become more explicit and invited a TFC trainer with deep experience supporting whites confronting racism to lead a workshop on that theme. Erika Thorne chose a simulation and other activities that generated many “a-ha’s” as we saw ourselves in fresh ways. Her facilitation built a container that supported a loud “storm” where white members could express passionate disagreement, a breakthrough for EQAT in diversifying its communication and conflict styles. The experience helps prepare group members for the rough-and-tumble that might show up as EQAT works in coalitions across class and race lines.

Erika followed up by working with a small group of EQAT members to strengthen cross-cultural conflict-waging skills. All groups have conflicts within them, and culturally homogeneous groups endorse one or another style for dealing with them: avoidance, emotionally-rich argument, rational dialogue, physical contest, mediation, hierarchical decision, and so on. Group members often have a loyalty to one or two styles, shrink from those out of their comfort zone, and reflexively label others as immoral. A living revolution invites white middle-class people to broaden their subconsciously-formed ways of handling conflict and develop a larger repertoire of skills. That will equip us to “play well with others,” forming robust coalitions with sufficient unity to overthrow the dominance of the economic elite.

Other groups may have other growing edges for their anti-racism work, but my guess is that all will find that their beneficial changes are accelerated by direct education training. For EQAT the opportunity is to stretch our organizational culture with a wider range of conflict styles. If we succeed it will be a win/win/win: for the larger movement, for our members’ fuller expression of authenticity, and for the racial and cross-class welcome mat of EQAT itself.


George Lakey co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group which just won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 9,284 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
This Short Film Plays Out Like an Epic Movie That Will Shake Your Soul - But the Movie Is Real, and We are The Actors
6 min · 3,965 views today · For next year, we need a resolution capable of confronting the crisis we face, and making a future worth fighting for. This short film looks back on the crisis and confusion...
Social Media Echo Chambers: Here's How Most of Us are Living in One
2 min · 3,763 views today · Americans are blocking out the friends and news sites that won't confirm their views.
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 3,369 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,176 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Daily Show's Trevor Noah Talks With Conservative Host Tomi Lahren
14 min · 2,830 views today · "Tomi" host Tomi Lahren gives her take on the Black Lives Matter movement and explains why she lashed out against Colin Kaepernick for his national anthem protest.
Why We Need Big Picture Activism
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 2,381 views today · Despite the countless grassroots projects already under way, the global economic juggernaut can seem too powerful to stop. But because more and more of us are becoming aware of...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 1,549 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Escape! From the Cult of Materialism (2016)
50 min · 1,529 views today · Does the philosophy of materialism work to destroy our identities, experience, and environment? Join narrator Daphne Ellis on a radical romp through the evidence and decide for...
Where Do You Draw the Line? (2016)
60 min · 1,416 views today · Why is the Ecuadorian government proposing to extract oil in an area frequently classified by ecologists as one of the most bio-diverse rainforest regions left intact on earth?...
How a Land High in the Western Himalayas Can Help Us Understand The Crisis of The Modern World
9 min · 1,010 views today · This is a clip from The Economics of Happiness. Watch it here. It's a brilliant film that was easy to put at the top of our list of the top 100 documentaries we can use to...
Who's Really to Blame for Fake News? Look in the Mirror, America.
Neal Gabler · 998 views today · Consider for a moment the oxymoronic concept of “fake news,” which we have been hearing so much about lately. This isn’t your typical disinformation or misinformation —...
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 977 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
Bernie Sanders: Carrier Just Showed Corporations How to Beat Donald Trump
Bernie Sanders · 922 views today · We need a president who can stand up to big corporations, not fold to their demands.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 909 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
The Most Mind-Altering Photograph of All Time
4 min · 704 views today · Carl Sagan narrates the story of the Pale Blue Dot, the one place we all call home. 
South Koreans Are Really Good at Protesting
2 min · 692 views today · South Koreans organize some of the largest and most peaceful protests in the world. Here's what makes them so good at protesting.
The 6 Grand Illusions That Keep Us Enslaved
Sigmund Fraud · 575 views today · For a magician to fool his audience his deceit must go unseen, and to this end he crafts an illusion to avert attention from reality. While the audience is entranced, the...
Corporate Giants' "Sustainable" Palm Oil Revealed as Sham
Nika Knight · 555 views today · Nestlé, Kellogg's, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and others are linked to child labor and forced labor in Indonesia
What Humans Are Really Doing to Our Planet, in 19 Jaw-Dropping Images
Michael McCutcheon · 547 views today · Last week, Pope Francis and church officials encouraged everyone to consume less and think more about our impact on the environment. It's a timely warning because the next six...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
What Makes Effective White Allies? Training, Not shaming