Moving Toward Allyship: Mizzou as an Example

Allyship cannot involve checklists. According to this white educator, “The walk—the movement toward allyship—is ongoing.”


This past weekend, national buzz arose around a public announcement from black University of Missouri football players stating that they would refuse to play unless their university system president, Timothy Wolfe, resigned in response to critique of him mishandling racial issues in the university. Forfeiting the next scheduled game would cost the university system $1 million. Head coach Gary Pinkel publically supported and stood in solidarity with his players. On Sunday, he posted a statement on Twitter that includes #ConcernedStudent1950, a hashtag from a student group acknowledging the first year Mizzou admitted a black student.

Yesterday, President Wolfe publicly resigned, and Mizzou pledged to hire their first diversity officer within the next 90 days.

Many people will question whether a university president’s resignation will help stir systemic change of a racially broken system. I’m sure in the coming days, we will see numerous articles arguing pros and cons from various news sources. We won’t all agree on this resignation. Further, most of us do not know all the details on how Pinkel runs his team. We do not know how he recruits his players, how he discusses race and racism, how he manages private conflict. We don’t know what institutional pressures he may have received for or against his decision. What we do know is that in that moment, Pinkel—a Division I football coach and educator—moved toward white allyship. 

In a press conference, Pinkel said, “I got involved because I support my players. With something like this, football became secondary.”

Hundreds of miles away in my office, news of Pinkel makes me consider my own white allyship and how I can exercise it publically and privately in my own context.

As an educator working toward justice, I often want a recipe card for allyship. Don’t you want that, too? I think you know what I mean. Many of us social justice educators work hard so we do not unwittingly perpetuate the system we toil to undo, a system that cultural critic and social justice writer bell hooks calls “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.” I admit to yearning, at times, for a checklist of “dos” and “don’ts” to make sure my whiteness doesn’t screw things up, doesn’t hurt, doesn’t silence…again. I want a laundry list I can follow so I don’t end up further marginalizing or micro-aggressing my students of color. Or anyone.

But ally behavior means that we understand a checklist will not cut it. And I say behavior here because there is no magical moment when we become full Allies with a puffy-paint capital A on our nametags. When we feel we have arrived at allyship, that’s exactly when there’s more work to be done.

In a keynote I attended while presenting at the Association for Experiential Education last month, Dr. Caprice Hollins vividly described cultural competency—one pathway toward white allyship—to a group of primarily white educators. Hollins explained that cultural competency, like other theories of learning, can be understood in nonlinear stages, to which I add clarifying descriptions below.

Unconscious incompetence: “I don’t know or recognize that I am incompetent.”
Conscious incompetence: “I know and recognize that I am incompetent.”
Conscious competence: “I am aware of and work at being competent.”
Unconscious competence: “Without exerting conscious effort, I am competent.”

These stages can be applied to how we learn to be allies.

Last Thursday, I attended Lawrence University’s convocation, where Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke on his recent book, Between the World and Me. He masterfully described how a history of white supremacy bears on current institutions and relationships. As is wont to happen, a white person stood up during the Q&A and said something to the effect of, “Thank you for your talk. I recognize my white privilege. What can white privileged people do?” A direct quote from Coates:

That's up to the white privileged people, I think. ... You have to want it for yourself. You can't want it because it hurts my feelings. ... You can't want it to not offend me. You gotta say, ‘Listen, this is bad for me, bad for my country,’ and then start walking.

So, I can’t want an ally checklist just so I don’t hurt someone. The walk—the movement toward allyship—is ongoing. We, as educators, will not “arrive” at our destination. In his talk, Coates acknowledged a 400-year history of institutionalized racism in this country. That’s the system that bears down on Mizzou, that bears down on me, that bears down on all of us. It means that allyship is part of a long process of undoing this heritage of oppression.

Some days, I’m at conscious incompetence: I recognize that I don’t get it. On the rare occasion, I look back and realize I exercised unconscious competence: I disrupted my own internalized notions of white supremacy and acted accordingly. And I’m sure more often than I realize, I’m at unconscious incompetence: I don’t even notice what I’m doing, who I’m harming, the whiteness I’m exercising.

So what is my call? To keep moving toward allyship.

Here are some tools I use with my students to move toward allyship. There are many more out there; these are a just few accessible, visual resources.

Czarnik-Neimeyer is the assistant director and chief of staff at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center, which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity.

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