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  • Writer's pictureCultures Connecting

Q&A: White Women Allies

question and answer with llsa Govan's and J.P. Anderson's headshots

Welcome to our Question & Answer segment! You wrote in and we answered! This next question is about about White women allies.

I'm struggling with a co-worker who centers herself in our team's equity work. We are both White women. She doesn't seem to be self-aware about how she centers herself, her experiences, and her own efforts in our project's equity work. She shares a lot about how she is working hard on equity, but there are never any offerings of how she is taking on the work or the specifics of the work itself. 
Our project leadership continues to allow this to happen and lacks capacity to properly manage this person away from centering herself in the work. So, she continues to step into the work, even though she has a track record of breaking trust with colleagues, in particular colleagues of color, community members, and others. 
I find it troubling because this co-worker does an inadequate job, does not bring in others to contribute to what should be a team-wide effort, and often weaponizes her role against other people trying to make contributions to the work. It seems she wants to hold it as a badge of honor that nobody else should be able to contribute to. The issue has been reduced to a conflict between her and me, rather than an issue of properly serving the work.
Most of our team is White, all of the leadership is White, and it seems that I am the only person bothered by this. What should I do? Am I trying to tear down another White person who may not be doing the work "perfectly"? Thanks in advance for any guidance you can provide.

Note: This letter has been lightly edited and identifying details were removed. 

Dear Co-conspirator,


As a White woman (this is Ilsa responding and Tilman Smith also contributed her thoughts), the question of how to support and challenge other White women in equity work frequently emerges for me. First, I’m curious about your self-reflection around your interactions with her. Do any of her behaviors remind you of yourself now or in the past?


Sometimes the problematic actions of White women are more obvious to me because they are a reflection of ways I behave and ways I don’t want to be seen today. I simultaneously feel shame and a sense of superiority when I see my reflection in someone else.


For example, I can very quickly point out and often roll my eyes at another White woman who is over-controlling in meetings precisely because I’ve worked really hard (and still am) on trying to unlearn that pattern of White supremacy and internalized sexism. And trust me, “sounds like you’ve got some issues around control to work out,” does not usually lead to collaboration.


If this is at all the case for you, instead of distancing yourself, it may be the very opening you need to connect with her. Think about what it took for you to be able to even recognize what centering oneself in conversations looks and sounds like.


And even if you’ve never done these behaviors, try to transform those feelings of judgment to empathy. As long as you see her as problematic and needing correction, she will feel this from you and an us/them dynamic is the most likely result. What hidden needs might she have that are being met by her behaviors? Perhaps she has some deeper insecurity around her role in equity work, especially since she is likely aware she has broken trust in the past and may be trying to prove her competence.


Looking at it that way, an approach to invite conversation could be, “I can tell you care deeply about the equity issues we’ve been tasked with addressing.” Ask genuine questions around the specifics of the work she’s doing in a way that shows you want to work collaboratively. Try doing this one on one outside of your regular meeting time.


This is the harder work White people have to do to show up as allies for justice, being willing and persistent in our work with one another, rather than leaving that to management or People of Color on our teams. Although it may be easier to see her as the issue or wait for someone else to intervene rather than work alongside her and grow together, ultimately that would better center your work for justice.


This is JP, and I’ll chime a bit about the impact that these kinds of tensions can have across difference in the workplace. I am writing from the point of view of a tall, middle-aged, brown, cis-het, middle-class, educated man. And although this body & identity endow me with all kinds of unearned privilege, the situation you are describing could cause me a great deal of anxiety as your co-worker.


Meaning, if I were to witness two White women co-workers struggling for presence and credibility in the equity space of my employer, I may keep my head down to avoid getting drawn into a conflict where I would feel distinctly vulnerable. My experience tells me that many People of Color of various genders would feel similarly vulnerable and would perhaps also disengage to protect themselves. And this is worth considering in terms of how you choose to handle the conflict.


Part of the complexity here has to do with the sort of power White women can access in a culture of patriarchal White supremacy, even when they are actively participating in equity work. For sure, it’s not the same kind or extent of power wielded by cis-het White men, but the power of White women can nonetheless be profound and terrifying to many who carry other kinds of marginalized identities.


For example, despite the very real harms imposed on White women by a sexist and gender-violent society, middle-class White women may experience more credibility with authority figures such as law enforcement, medical professionals, and legal professionals. That is, patriarchal White supremacy in American society harms while simultaneously granting them a special access to the justice system, which is disproportionately administered by White men.


These historical and continuing aspects of American society are the basis of the “Karen” stereotype, and although this stereotype has been unfairly exaggerated by the media, it speaks to a fear among many PoC that angry and/or scared White women can be especially dangerous because authorities—and potentially also supervisors—may listen to White women in ways they do not listen to others.

As your issue resolves and hopefully improves, try to be sensitive to the possibility that this workplace conflict could not only make your PoC co-workers uncomfortable but maybe even a bit frightened. It’s best not to pressure POC colleagues to take sides or get involved.


 And finally, Tilman and Ilsa have written extensively about the dynamics between White women in their book What’s Up with White Women? Unpacking Sexism and White Privilege in Pursuit of Racial Justice. We also have a workshop on this topic on June 20th and 21st. We hope these resources can further support you through this challenging situation.

Thank you for the question!

Ilsa and JP (and Tilman)


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