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How Can White People Become Stronger Racial Justice Allies?

by Stacy L. Schroeder


Many whites who seek to learn about racial justice, including adoptive parents and partners or siblings of adoptees, have no idea where to start. That is not surprising. These issues are so deeply embedded in our societal history that it can feel impossible to parse them out. The abundance of books and resources on the topic can also make choosing materials a challenge.

Do not allow uncertainty of where to begin scare you off. The only wrong way is not to start at all.

Since its inception, the United States has been driven by the perspectives and experiences of white people, especially white men. As part of this, white people are used to taking charge of situations. Don’t do that as an ally. When you do, you center yourself and your voice, continuing the pattern. Instead, start by listening and learning.

Learn about yourself

Potential allies can benefit by first examining themselves. What are your biases and blind spots? These checklists can help you identify where you might need to grow and improve:

Learn about systemic racism and related issues

The teaching burden should not be on your black and brown friends or an adoptee in your family. Some may choose to do so but it is not their responsibility just because of their skin color. Expecting such a tutorial is once again centering yourself and may be invasive or fatiguing for them.

Seek out good resources instead. Don’t know a term? Google it. While not everything you read will make sense at first, I promise you over time more things will stick.

Begin by learning about white privilege. You cannot push back on something you do not understand. We whites are so steeped in the system that, despite good intentions, we often cannot see it clearly. Recognize you are part of a system you did not create but from which you benefit. You may feel defensive. Lean into those sore spots. Here are some powerful pieces to help knock down that institutional wall:

Additional beginning resources:

I also highly recommend attending a conference like KAAN where you can wrestle with these concepts in person alongside others committed to doing the same. At KAAN, you will also hear about the unique intersectionality of race, adoption, and other aspects of identity in the lives of adoptees. KAAN offers this list of resources from the adoptee perspective.

Adjust your behavior

Once you have some knowledge under your belt, concentrate on improving your actions. What did those checklists on your biases and blind spots point out? Here are some key aspects on which to focus:

  • Use inclusive language. You may hear “but we’ve always said it that way” as a defense for sticking to the familiar. Guess what? That may mean there are people who have always felt excluded and less worthy.

  • Learn how to say unfamiliar names appropriately. Even if you mess up at first, people will see you value them. Don’t make a joke about stumbling over pronunciation to cover up embarrassment.

  • It is the impact that matters, not your intent. For people who experience numerous microaggressions each day, your comment does not stand alone. If you accidentally kick a bruise, you apologize because you caused discomfort. You accept responsibility for adding to the pain and make a point to avoid repeating that action in the future. It should be no different with your words.

  • Watch out for cultural appropriation versus genuine appreciation. Don’t commercialize or objectify a culture as a commodity. That includes dressing as an “Indian” or “geisha girl” at Halloween, choosing “mission” trips to orphanages in other countries where photo-ops overshadow meaningful, lasting relief for those supposedly being helped, and posting social media images of yourself at protests to show how “woke” you are. Instead, ask: how can I authentically engage in and support what is already going on?

  • Look at current events through fresh eyes. Gather news from multiple sources to gain insight beyond your own echo chamber into other influential platforms. Develop an awareness: how do I feel when I hear about [insert latest news or incident]? Is that the same way my black and brown neighbors might feel? How might this be impacting my friends and family who are adoptees? What might they need from me?

  • Participate in this 21-day racial equity challenge.

  • Regularly self-evaluate. That introspection that kicked off your allyship efforts should be a staple in your habits. Periodically, hold up your actions again this checklist for allies.

Get involved in change

You may feel an initial rush of energy: indignation, anger, a strong desire to push hard for immediate change. Check yourself. Your black and brown peers have been at this, literally, their whole lives. They do not need to add your frustrations at the slow speed of change to the list of things they must negotiate. Use those feelings to help you empathize, use that energy to get involved with racial justice work and education (especially of other white people), but don’t make your emotional reaction the middle of anything. While you are joining partway through, this is still a marathon.

Pace yourself. Accept that you alone cannot solve this. There is, however, plenty you can do to help make it better.
  • Affirm people of color in your daily life. Patronize the Korean grocery that just opened in town. Choose the checkout line with the Muslim woman or sit near the black family in the restaurant. Don’t make a big deal about it or expect a relationship to grow out of your gesture. Simply be a welcoming face. As for those friends and family of color to whom you are already connected, follow their lead. Check in but don’t press if they do not want to talk. Be careful not to "whitesplain" with your new knowledge if they have a different opinion than you expect.

  • · Work on any hesitations to speak up when a racial slur is made. This may be awkward or not seem “polite.” You may fumble the first few times you try. For some, it may be harder to do in public and for others, within your family circle. Practice anyway. It can be as simple as saying: I am not OK with that. If you see someone of color experiencing harassment, let them know they are not alone. For advice, review the Southern Poverty Law Center's Responding to Everyday Bigotry, Teaching Tolerance's Six Steps to Speak Up, or ihollaback's Guide to Bystander Intervention.

  • · Attend protests and donate time, money, and skills to racial justice organizations. Handle behind-the-scenes jobs that free up leaders of color to do other things. Be reliable. Follow national and global movements but also see what you can do locally. If asked to speak or lead, look for ways to partner with or elevate non-white voices instead. As someone who cares about adoptees,

  • · Want more ideas? Check out 75 things white people can do for racial justice.

Final thoughts

Learning to de-center yourself, notice and speak up when you see racial injustice, and be part of positive change is challenging work. Be sure to practice good self-care. You are no good as an ally if you are not in a good place. Rest, meditate, exercise, work on personal triggers, and take time to regroup when you need to do so.

But perhaps my most important closing suggestion is to not get so caught up in the movement that you lose sight of those who inspired you to get involved in the first place. Life is about relationships and treating each other with care.

Be present with those you love and see them for the whole, beautiful people that they are.


Stacy L. Schroeder was executive director of KAAN from 2010-2018. She is a white adoptive parent, sister, and aunt who continues to grow as an ally. She is involved with Ta-ri, a south-central PA group celebrating Korean culture and community and also coordinates the racial justice blog of the ELCA’s Lower Susquehanna Synod, where an earlier version of this piece was posted. KAAN continues to be a deeply important organization to her as a source of education, support, and friendship.

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