“The white liberal and the white supremacist share the same root postulates. They are different in degree, not kind.”
This quote by Lerone Bennett Jr. starts Shannon Sullivan’s book Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism. With this quote she takes a strong stance of critical analysis on what it means to be white in relation to societal racism. She goes on to pose the ever-present question, “What can white people do to help end racial injustice?” This is a question many are striving to answer.
Interracial relations are tied up in more than ethnicity, Sullivan explains. Socioeconomic status, the desire to be superior and the tendency to alienate and burry the past all add layers to the problem of racial inequality. Throughout her book Sullivan explores what white people currently do that doesn’t work, and what they can do to do better. “To say that white people can do nothing is to let them off the hook too easily… White people need to make a positive contribution to racial justice even though their contributions will be secondary to those of people of color.”
This is where the concept of white allies come in. The term white ally has become accepted and liked because of the term “straight ally” that was popular in the 1980’s used to define people who support the LGBTQ+ community. However, the idea of the perfect white ally is an unattainable goal, Sullivan argues. “In fact, the white ally might need always to be considered an unachieved ideal and never a fait accompli.”
Sullivan also makes the distinction between white alliance and friendship. Too often white people feel accomplished as a white ally if they have a friend who is a person of color. “A white ally may or may not have close, affectionate relationships with people of color, but she can be aligned with them and their interests in that she struggles for racial justice.”
White alliance is more than having an African American friend or supporting your local favorite Mexican restaurant, it’s more than the middle-class deferring racism onto lower-class white people, it’s more than flaunting the fact that you voted for Obama. People of color will always be the most important factor in racial justice movements and white people are not required for the success of the movement, Sullivan explained, but white people can play an important and positive role as well. “Just as feminist movements need men who are willing to speak out agains sexism and male privilege… racial justice movements need white people who are willing to speak and act against white racism when they encounter it in their families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and elsewhere.”