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Campus Women Lead

Spring 2007

Volume 36
Number 1

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Building Alliances Among Women of Color and White Women: Be an Ally, Not a Friend
By Kathleen Wong (Lau), assistant professor of communications, Western Michigan University

Becoming a “friend” is not equivalent to becoming an “ally.” Friends may be sympathetic and genuinely supportive, but alliances require more than sympathy and support: they require action. Conversely, friends can engage in action without forming alliances. Friends can build houses, clean neighborhoods, volunteer in underprivileged communities, donate money--but if they don’t spend intensive, well-planned time learning about their relationships with others and pursuing systemic change of the conditions that create inequities, they aren’t truly acting as allies. 

In interviews I conducted with faculty members at research-extensive universities, women of color reported their frustrations with white women’s frequent inability to act as allies in their struggles. Women of color described their white women colleagues as well-intentioned and pleasant, yet expressed sadness and anger at the irony of feeling isolated while surrounded by so many friendly white women. They indicated that white women allies were cherished, precious, and few. Many women of color reported having only one or no white allies. Paralleling a framework that has also been used to describe LGBT/straight alliance building, these women of color described two groups of white women: those who were friendly, and those who were strategic allies.

Alliances require people to move beyond empathetic grief, rage, and anger to develop cognitive communication and affective skills, to assess the structural conditions that perpetuate injustice, and to strategize action for systemic change. Allies are proactive rather than reactive. They are intentional, overt, vocal, consistent, and public about being an ally. Although there is no such thing as a “silent ally,” allies do not have to be sign-waving activists.

The following guidelines map possible distinctions between friendships and alliances. This list is not meant to imply that a friend cannot be an ally or vice versa; rather, it is intended to prompt thoughtful examination of one’s role as a change agent.

A Friend is Someone Who:

  • Is a sympathetic listener
  • Offers support privately and personally
  • Wants to be supportive but is not always sure how
  • Is receptive to conversation/discussion of issues
  • Takes a reactive stance by responding to inappropriate comments, behaviors, actions, etc. as they arise
  • Is aware that differences affect people, yet is more comfortable focusing on “common humanity”
  • Offers suggestions or advice for ways to deal with an issue or incident
  • Is optimistic/helps cheer up the target group members when incidents occur

An Ally is Someone Who:

  • Addresses issues, not just incidents
  • Mobilizes and organizes to respond to issues without being prompted by a target group member
  • Is willing to take risks that may affect her own place, position, and authority within her (dominant) group
  • Is willing to make public mistakes in front of both target groups and her own agent group(s)
  • Is visible, active, vigilant, and public (even when the target person is not in the room)
  • Is willing to recognize the inherent privilege and power of being a member of the dominant group
  • Views membership in the dominant group as an opportunity to bring about change

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