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Social Studies Opinion

Where Do White People Belong in Black History?

How to avoid the common pitfalls of teaching about white allies
By Ryan M. Crowley, William L. Smith & Carly Muetterties — February 01, 2022 4 min read
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What role should white people play in the narrative of Black history? Undoubtedly, white people and the white power structure are the antagonists of Black history. Yet a small minority of white people have played more positive roles, challenging the racist systems and ideas of their time. Some education scholars argue that highlighting the stories of these individuals may benefit both white students, by creating white anti-racist role models, and students of color, by demonstrating that some white people have challenged white supremacy.

To explore this issue, we analyzed three prominent secondary-level Black history textbooks (African Americans: A Concise History and The African-American Odyssey, both by Darlene Clark Hine, Stanley Harrold, and William C. Hine, and African American History by Lisbeth Gant-Britton). We examined how the texts portrayed white actors who played more positive roles in the struggle for Black rights. We refer to these individuals as “white allies.” Sociologist Shannon Sullivan defines a white ally as “a white person whose racial identity and habits challenge white domination.” Education scholar Beverly Daniel Tatum adds that a white ally is “one who understands that it is possible to use one’s privilege to create more equitable systems.” Across the scholarship about white allies, writers suggest that the work of white allyship must be engaged and conspicuous.

We found 89 individuals and 39 groups were mentioned in the three textbooks at least once taking actions that supported Black interests. Most of the white-ally activity we noted emerged in the Antebellum Period or during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Overwhelmingly, these individuals (such as Levi Coffin and Thaddeus Stevens) and groups (such as the Liberty Party and the American Anti-Slavery Society) related to the abolitionist movement. The only other era with a significant presence of white allies was the 20th-century civil rights era (where white individuals were mentioned less by name and more as members of civil rights groups).

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Beyond a quantitative accounting of white allies and groups, we were interested in how the texts portrayed white allies. From our analysis, we developed three white-ally archetypes: the earnest white ally, the paternalistic white ally, and the self-interested white ally.

Earnest white allies were those with consistently positive portrayals. For instance, descriptions of Eleanor Roosevelt’s advocacy and John Brown’s unwavering abolitionism positioned them in this category. The paternalistic white-ally archetype included those who were lauded for their contributions to Black rights but critiqued for their problematic views about Black people. All three texts praised the abolitionist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but critiqued the racial attitudes they perpetuated. Finally, the self-interested white-ally archetype encompassed those whose actions primarily served their own interests. President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to send federal troops to Little Rock Central High School serves as a prime example. Eisenhower was not a vigorous supporter of Black civil rights, but he backed school integration because he felt that he couldn’t allow a state to defy a federal court ruling.

The findings from our textbook analysis can help educators think about how (or if) white allies should be included in a Black history curriculum. Teaching about white allies comes with significant learning risks. We feel the primary danger is the potential to represent white allies as uniquely empowered and positioned to help people of color. Such portrayals shift the narrative from white folks aiding the struggle for racial progress to white folks being responsible (and getting credit) for racial progress. In the context of Black history, African American agency could get obscured if white-ally figures are given undue prominence.

Despite these pitfalls, in our view, the benefits of teaching about white allies justify the risks.

Despite these pitfalls, in our view, the benefits of teaching about white allies justify the risks. To avoid centering or misrepresenting these individuals, we recommend several considerations for educators. First, contextualize white allyship within the broader freedom struggles in which the allies’ actions took place, with special attention given to how people of color were the true animators of those movements. For example, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, relied on the struggles and sacrifices of Black abolitionists who supported and disseminated the publication.

Second, avoid portraying white-ally figures as flattened caricatures of heroes or saviors. Instead, try to consider the full scope of their actions and what those actions meant for the struggle for Black rights. Drawing on the archetypes we identified above can help to give a more complete picture of white-ally behavior, highlighting how white support for Black rights has sometimes sustained racist ideas or served white interests.

And finally, use the study of historical white allies to consider what allyship might look like today. Of course, the social and political circumstances will differ by time period. But students can use earlier contexts and examples of allyship to consider questions like: What would it look like to contribute to the struggle for racial justice today for both white and Black students? What are the risks of acting or not acting? What allows white folks to opt into, or out of, this fight for racial progress? Is it comparatively harder for Black folks to make the choice to opt out?

Though not an exhaustive list, we believe that these three practices—teaching allies as part of the Black-led movement for rights, avoiding hero narratives, and considering allyship today—will aid educators in meaningfully incorporating white allyship in the study of Black history.

Coverage of race and opportunity is supported in part by a grant from Spencer Foundation, at www.spencer.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Where Do White People Belong In Black History?

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