Can We Talk? How Allies Can Help Dismantle White Privilege

Can We Talk? How Allies Can Help Dismantle White Privilege

Era-defining events in 2020 – namely the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black and Brown people, the tragic killing of George Floyd and worldwide resistance led by the Black Lives Matter movement – have placed anti-Black racism and White privilege firmly on the public agenda.

In the higher education sector, university leaders rushed to issue cringe-worthy statements in support of Black Lives Matter, steeped in hypocrisy, conveniently side-stepping their own complicity in anti-Black racism.

Black academics are the smallest ethnic group with the lowest numbers in senior roles and experience the widest pay gaps.  We are something of an *underclass in the neoliberal academe – university leaders know it and are happy to maintain the status quo while professing commitment to ‘diversity’.

Can there ever be any meaningful progress in academia towards dismantling White privilege? Can White people ever be true allies  – and if so, what does a true ally say and do? I was recently forced to  call out a government official who I initially thought was an ally, but turned out not to be – and I explained to them why they did not meet the criteria of an ally:

“I have dealt with many individuals and organisations over the years and when confronted with direct issues relating to their (whether intentional or not) complicity in perpetuating White privilege through their policies and practices, there are always two common responses. One is to engage with people of colour, give due consideration to the issues we raise, to reflect on their complicity and ask how they can resolve the problem.
The other response is a complete avoidance of the issues raised and an attempt to emotionalize and personalize the issue. The former is the response of an ally, the latter is the response of an individual/organisation that is not an ally, that has an agenda based on their own objectives that are not consistent with addressing deeply entrenched racial inequalities.”

During a recent engagement with a White, male colleague he listened to the issues I raised about my experiences of White privilege in the faculty and the pain it caused me. He reflected on my assertion that all Whites are complicit in the process of White privilege, for which the solution is payback (equity) and not goodwill gestures (diversity).

We published our discussion in the latest issue of the journal Media Practice and Education, in the hope that it will inspire other honest reflections and incremental steps to dismantling White privilege. Here is an excerpt:

“**I have come to learn, painfully at times, that White people, especially White men, see the world differently to us because of their experiences as the norm, the authority, the superior etc. It means they are often oblivious to our pain and the ways they dehumanize and devalue us – even when we explain this to them. Unfortunately, unless White people are convinced we are victims/in pain, they ignore our oppression because it has become normalised in their psyche.”

The full article can be accessed HERE There are 50 free downloads available, after that the article can be accessed through a university login.

Main photo: Professor Julian Mc Dougall with Dr Deborah Gabriel at Bournemouth University

*Gabriel, D. (2021). Do Black Lives Really Matter? Social closure, White privilege and the making of a Black underclass in higher education in  Handbook of Critical Race & Whiteness Studies. Tate et al. (ed). USA: Routledge.

**Gabriel, D., & McDougall, J. (2020). Can We Talk? A White, Middle Class Male’s Perspective on Transforming the Ivory Tower: models for gender equality & social justice, Media Practice & Education Issue 21:3


Dr Deborah Gabriel

Dr Gabriel is a leader in race, education and social justice as the Founder and Director of Black British Academics. Her intellectual work is interdisciplinary and broadly focused on the dynamics of race, gender and culture and the relationships between race, power, privilege, and inequality. As a consultant, she specializes in strategic approaches to equity, diversity and inclusion centred on social justice and transformation.