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How to be an Intersectional Ally in Higher Education

So, you are now my intersectional ally. You’re standing shoulder to shoulder with me in the fight against racism, sexism, and homophobia in the academy. How lovely. No, really. I am glad that you are not a racist, fascist, homophobe, or otherwise engaged in writing offensive comments to non-white writers on the Guardian website. But you will occasionally get it wrong. So here are a few personal, gently worded suggestions to my colleagues and friends[i]. Please forgive any hints of furious sarcasm which may occasionally erupt.

1. I am not here to educate you or your colleagues

I have a job at my university which does not have “equality”, “diversity” or “trainer” in the title. If you think that you or other people need to be educated about racism, sexism, homophobia, intersectionality, snowflakes, no-platforming or any other term about which you are unsure, then take suggestions from the second point below, or insist that your university pays for an equality and diversity trainer to train them.

2. Educate yourselves

If you haven’t got anyone else to educate you, then you’ll have to do what I did. I did not learn about anti-racism, activism, or race and feminist theory owing to my race, gender and sexuality. Just because I am a non-white woman, this doesn’t mean I came fully-formed (and informed) about race equality into the world. Instead, I started my education about these issues by reading about these issues. I read regularly and often about race and feminism, forms of discrimination that affected (and continue to affect) me directly, but which I didn’t fully understand. You should read as well. Here are some suggestions to start with:

- A short article by Audre Lorde Age, Race, Sex, and Class .

- “Invisible and hypervisible academics: the experiences of Black and minority ethnic teacher educators” by Vini Lander and Ninetta Santoro.

- The long read on the Guardian website Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race as an introduction to the concept of whiteness.

If you’ve read and understood these articles, you will know why you shouldn’t ask me to share my personal stories of racism, or tell you about the awful racist experiences of my colleagues, or be the token non-white person invited to your “diversity” event. Nor even summarise race equality theory for you in less than 60 seconds before you tune out and start talking about your holiday plans. These articles explain that my story is not the same as other people’s story (see point 8 below) and you cannot extrapolate my experiences to be the same as others’. Also, my experiences are personal and painful. They are mine and not to be used as a quick and easy learning tool for you and your colleagues.

3. Educate yourselves often

Two of my suggestions are to do with education. That’s because a) equalities work is never ‘done’, it is a continuing struggle, and b) we work in higher education so we should always be engaged in learning and be open to being wrong on occasions. Universities are spaces where ideas are exchanged and debated; they are institutions that provide a platform for us to develop an understanding about an issue without needing to de-politicize it. This is true whether we are academics, in HR, or in senior leadership. Exploit this space to create debate and use your own position(s) to open opportunities for learning to take place. Yes, you can be in more than one category owing to your identity, subjectivity, or job title, in which case there is an even more urgent imperative for you to keep up to date. Here are some free social media and internet resources for you to try:

4. Do not expect me to be permanently grateful

As I said before, I’m glad you’re not the enemy. But you can still be part of the problem. I will be grateful to the extent that you make a difference. If you’re just endlessly mithering[ii] me with invitations to pointless meetings, making me do the work instead of taking it on yourself, slowing down progress rather than making positive changes, causing me and my non-white colleagues and students stress, well, you’re part of the problem. And that’s why I may not be grateful.

5. Accept criticism, act upon it, and apologise

Because you will make mistakes – we all do – you will get criticised. But accept the criticism gratefully, even though it may have been delivered less than tactfully, and make the changes you need to. Sometimes I am tired, grumpy, and generally fed up with having to deal with the racist, sexist environment I live in, so I’m not always as gracious as I would like to be. Also, apologise when you’ve been pointed out as doing something wrong. It makes all the difference to me thinking you are a well-intentioned, bumbler compared to me thinking you are a sneaky, self-serving hypocrite. If you’re not sure how to apologise properly, John Scalzi's wordpress site can help.

6. Accept your privilege

My non-white skin is in the game. If you are white, your skin isn’t. This means that I, and other women of colour, face consequences for speaking out that you don’t. For example, the wonderful Dr Priyamvada Gopal had to take her Twitter feed down following months of racist and sexist abuse. Dr Gopal spoke up for anti-racism, feminism, and union activism. Twitter was a poorer place for her absence and while she is back for now, her account is under attack constantly. If you are white, and/or male, then you will not have experienced this type of discrimination. We experience discrimination differently: this is the underpinning concept of intersectionality. For example, I am privileged in some ways (middle-class, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered) and not in others (non-white, female) so I have experienced racism and sexism, but not other forms of abuse. If you have privilege and you want to be an ally, then use it. Speak out to your mates, pals, BFFs, wives, husbands, or colleagues when they express views you disagree with. And don’t assume that I have views that you agree with. This leads me to my next suggestion.

7.Just Ask

We are higher education workers, right? This means that we are curious about the world, we don’t make assumptions, and if we have constructed hypotheses, we test them. Just because I’m non-white doesn’t mean I like Bhangra music. Instead, I prefer Radio 3. This preference may put me at odds with my ethnic demographic, but not with my class demographic. If you want to know more about me, just ask. One of the nicest conversations I had recently was with a white ally who, after I talked about a recent visit to my home country, put a series of perceptive questions to me about my home country, listened carefully to my answers, and applied a theoretical lens familiar to him (not to me) to add a different dimension to my experience. We both learned something. That was cool. Even if you don’t have a theoretical lens bit, you wait for an appropriate moment in a conversation, ask me sensible questions and listen carefully to my answer.

8. Believe me

My worldview is different to yours. That is because I experience white supremacy and white privilege in ways that are necessarily dissimilar to your experiences of them. This does not mean that my worldview is wrong, exaggerated or fictionalised. It means that white supremacy positions me differently compared to you and it follows that I have access to a different worldview – one that you may get an insight into by reading or listening or watching – but one that remains ontologically impermeable to you. Your first point of interaction with me and my experiences needs to be one where you believe what I say, your second point of interaction should be where you uphold what I am telling you about racism in all that you do going forward.

In summary, I’m really glad you want to be my white ally, you probably do mean well, but you can do even better. Without our allies, we will be less powerful. We need you to be better. I hope this post has helped.


[i] I do not speak for all non-white women. You may also wish to visit Not Your Expectation or Everyday Feminism for advice on allyship.

[ii] For those readers not from the North of England, “mithering” means “make a fuss, moan, pester or irritate.