The Importance of White Allies
I grew up in a predominately white, suburban neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland. Despite being the only Hispanic family on the block, I never felt “marginalized.” I’m sure there were questionable moments that as a young, naive person I simply didn’t notice. In my youth, for many various reasons, I didn’t think a lot about race and I was very much insulated, probably due to my parent’s sense of obligation to assimilate to a country they had immigrated to. A lot of my friends are White and before my active participation in the discussion of museum equality and intersectionality I never experienced a significant cultural clash that affected my relationships with them. Thankfully, time and maturity have widened my perspective and understanding.
Expanding my frame of racial awareness and unpacking my own cultural identity in this world, I have recognized the substantial importance and power of having White Allies by your side. But simply having a racially diverse groups of friends with similarities is not enough because “diversity” alone is superficial. The kinds of allies and support system I’m talking about goes beyond surface congeniality, beyond the relationships we form when we share similar interests. It is the kind of support system you would expect of family, or if you don’t have that, of anyone who sincerely cares about your happiness, your success, and your well-being.
That is what I found in graduate school. I made many friends during my time at George Washington University, but I became particularly close with a group of (White) girls from different parts of the country who all had an appreciation for cheese and wine and at first, this was good enough for me. We all got along, commiserated over papers and student loans, and I learned how to be a better girl friend if I’m being honest. There were certainly moments when I felt a culture clash between their upbringing and mine and there are simply some things I can only discuss with my Latinas. I reserve my right to keep my Latino culture-related topics from them (for now) but overall, they came into my life at the right time and I learned a great deal from them.
But there was something more to this group of gals that solidified what it means to be a White Ally and not just a White Friend. On November of 2016, Donald J. Trump became the United States’ 45th President. I woke up around five in the morning to get ready for work and was quite exhausted from trying to stay up the night before. I reached for my phone and the first thing I read woke me up instantly. The train ride that day was eerily somber and quiet. I felt a knot in my chest that whole morning, confused as to how to feel. I wanted to cry but couldn’t.
The girls and I are all in a group chat and I knew I could confess to them how disappointed I was but also how worried. This was the turning point. None of us were happy, none of us were quite sure of how to even process the information, but in this moment and there are many like them, there was an opportunity to recognize their privilege and actively put aside their feelings for someone else who is hurting for different reasons that affect them on a different level. This moment was highlighted even more so by another White female (no longer in the group) who insisted on having her voice heard and pouted when attention wasn’t paid to her so the contrast of this particular life lesson was stark. All that aside, what happened next took me aback and not because I didn’t think they were good friends but because White Allyship means going the extra mile or twenty out of your comfort zone without being asked to and I simply do not expect most people to do that.
I began writing about my fear in the group chat, feeling partly silly because I know there are Latinos in this country who have far more legitimate worries (I say that recognizing that a lot is happening right now that would appear out of the Twilight Zone, but although we all understandably fear the worst, I am trying to remain confident in our Democratic system and with that in mind, reasonably and legally have nothing to worry about). I emotionally vomited in this group chat and suddenly the girls dropped their fears for a moment (well, except the one girl but whatever) and came to my side with comfort, support, and most importantly, a listening ear. Sure, no one was happy but in that moment it really meant a lot to me that they would recognize the inequality of the situation and understand how their lives might not change as dramatically as many people of color whose fears are founded on something more life-changing and perhaps even, more dangerous.
White Allies in the Museum Field
These group of girls are very active, very vocal. I have no doubt that when push comes to shove they would defend me without hesitation. I also know that while we are all forging our way as emerging museum professionals, they are there to help me pull up a seat to the table. They have recommended me to their colleagues, helped craft my cover letters, sent me job postings, and edit my writing submissions. This may all sound like friends being good friends, but through my eyes, I know they understand the leverage they hold and the unequal footing in the world for many PoC and while they can’t do much (yet) they do whatever is in their power to advocate for me.
Since then I feel #blessed to have met two more White Allies in the field (both in social media) who are self-aware of their privilege and what is at stake for PoC when they decide to follow a career in the museum field. Their complete willingness to put themselves out there for me always surprises me in the best kind of way. I don’t always encounter rude, condescending people but I do often encounter those who are ignorant of the barriers to access for people of color and a misunderstanding of the imbalances of privilege that lead to successful careers in the museum field for some and not others. My struggle as a PoC comes with, among many other things, a history of structural inequalities, so often I’m only able to focus on survival. So when I cross paths with magnanimous humans who also happen to be White and Woke, I feel the balance of power shift slightly and I know the marker for equality tics forward just a little bit more. If more people in the museum field truly believed in the diversity they peddle so often, I think we would find many more relationships, professional or otherwise, like the ones I have been happy to encounter.
This piece on White Allyship is by no means complete and there is so much more to be said about the power of it to undermine oppressive histories and equal the playing field. But I hope it opens up a discussion where all of us in the museum world can begin to unpack what it looks like to be a White Ally and how stepping out of your comfort zone for PoC can have a positive impact in the field. ✻