Racist VS Ally

Senator Robert Byrd, leaving a racist past behind for advocacy for people of color: At what point can we call a racist an ally?

The late Senator Robert Byrd was remembered in his epitaphs for his ability to change.  Once a Ku Klux Klan member, Byrd seemingly transitioned from a racist opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to an advocate for legislation that positively impacts people of color.  How can an outspoken racist become an ally to people of color? How can one person move from attempting to filibuster the Civil Rights Act to introducing a bill to the Senate for funding of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington D.C.?

Academic scholars have long proposed a process of white racial identity development that describes how a white individual understands their own privilege and role within a larger social system context.

Transformation through the stages is indicative of what a white racist like Robert Byrd may have gone through in his development.  His earlier view of people of color seems consistent with a retreat into white culture where someone becomes defensive and often angry when in contact with a member of a different racial group.  At some point Byrd realized that his racist efforts were supporting an intolerant America.  He changed his ways and apologized for his actions.

Examining and understanding the white racial identity development helps us better understand changed behavior, here evidenced in observations of Robert Byrd.  His legislative actions show us how a racist can become an ally to people of color.  But can society and people of color forgive their previous actions? Is forgiveness possible for people who have in the past used their privilege against people of color? Teaching Tolerance has an engaging resource discussing what it means to be an ally to people of color and describes why saying “I’m not a racist” is not enough.  Actions show that they have a commitment to facilitating change in their lives and may indicate reason to forgive people like Senator Robert Byrd. 

As educators, what can we do to show that we are allies to people of color?  Teaching Tolerance and Edchange provide ideas of activities and literature that can be incorporated into curriculum. 

After reviewing the provided resources, consider the following questions:

  1. How do you feel about the white identity development model and how it might affect your identity or your students’ identities?
  2. Why is it important for teachers and administrators to be seen and heard as allies to people of color?
  3. How could you show your students that you are an ally to people of color?  How would you incorporate ideas provided by Teaching Tolerance and Edchange in your classroom or school?
  4. What other ideas do you have that would show your students and colleagues that you do not tolerate racism in your classroom?

Thank you for subscribing to our weekly discussion.  Please visit the Center for Culturally Responsive Urban Education (CRUE) website at www.cruecenter.org for more information and resources on educational equity.




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