How to be a white ally in the national security field.

Hey white people. I am also white. And I think it’s a good time for us to have a conversation about how to be better allies to our non-white colleagues in the national security community.

I’m a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear nonproliferation foundation based in Washington, DC. Recently, I was asked to conduct a literature review in nonproliferation, so I cast an incredibly wide net across the national security field. As it turned out, a vast majority of the books and resources I found were written by white people. And that’s interesting, because white people only make up about sixty percent of the US population.

I used to work for and serve a community that was majority non-white. I am no expert in allyship and cannot claim to always be a good ally. But what I can do is share some experiences, ideas, and resources that can get us started on the path to being better.

1) This is not about us. Well, this article is about us, but allyship is not. We don’t do it so that we can get credit, or so that we can appeal to a wider audience, or have good karma. Allyship is about communities that have been oppressed and marginalized for centuries, not how good an ally you are. If you start veering into “what about me” territory, come back to square one and get back on track.

2) Listen. This is probably the most important one for a lot of us in this field. We read, we learn, we have opinions and perspectives, but at this intersection, now’s the time for us to stop talking. My voice is listened to regularly and if I’m going to be a good ally, I need to learn how to put other voices first. Remember: if you are talking, it means someone else is not talking.

If you happen to be in a space (committee, task force, etc.) dedicated to diversity and inclusion, be silent. Seriously. I am sure you have opinions and perspectives, but this space is not about you. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Instead, listen to what is being said.

3) Pass the microphone. Let’s make it common practice to decline to be on all-white, all-male panels. If you are invited to be on such a panel, decline and tell them why. Use your name as leverage. Moreover, if you are contacted for a speaking or writing opportunity, ask yourself: is there a non-white person who was overlooked for this opportunity? Is there a way for me to pass the microphone to them or include them? Use your power to lift others up.

4) Print this linked piece out and tape it to your face. Let’s face it: we are all not doing enough to be good allies. And we often fall short because of our fragility. A lot of folks read the phrase “white fragility” and find it offensive… let’s challenge that. (Read. This. Piece.) Let’s build our own racial stamina and do our own legwork; if all the well-meaning white people in our community did so, it would be revolutionary.

5) Read. Read books by non-white authors, both in the national security sector, but also about the experience of being a non-white person in America. Some suggestions to start:

  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, by Frank Wu

Maybe you make a commitment that you will only read books by non-white authors for the rest of the year. Or, maybe you make a commitment that you will read at least one book by a non-white author per month.

Do. The. Labor. Allyship requires action. It is not a mere thought or sentiment.

6) Critically evaluate the ways you may be contributing to the problem. Spend time learning about the different ways racism shows up in our society. Are you a toxic white feminist? Are you accidentally “spiritual bypassing”?

Let’s take hiring practices as an example: A common mistake we make is failing to spend extra time and labor to recruit from non-white communities. But even more common is reading resumes, conducting interviews, and then reflecting: “Well, this [white] person just seems to fit our culture more.” Change your culture.

Racism is pervasive and structural. We need to take the time to learn about the ways in which we are complicit in and perpetuating racist systems.

7) Talk about it with other white people. Our sector has major work to do, so make a start by bringing this conversation up or sharing these resources with your fellow white people. There’s no way around it: we’ve just got to do the work, and we’ve got to do it together.

Robin Diangelo said:

A structural understanding recognizes racism as a default system that institutionalizes an unequal distribution of resources and power between white people and people of color. This system is historic, taken for granted, deeply embedded, and it works to the benefit of whites.

It’s time to do our necessary work to dismantle this system.

So let’s begin here. There will always be more to do, but we must start where we are.