My Continued Journey as an Ally

Justine Hollingshead

The following is a guest editorial.

As a member of Generation X and a woman in her 50s who grew up in rural small-town America, my journey to who I am today could have been very different. My path to being a social justice advocate and ally happened over time, through personal experience, learning from many mistakes and intentional effort. 

Growing up, I was shaped by my parents: my mom, a nurse and union organizer, and my father, a machinist and volunteer firefighter. Neither went to college, but they knew higher education and getting out of our little town was important for me. I was a first-generation college student and my parents’ passion to help others and give selflessly influenced me, and here I stand, decades later, involved in diversity, equity and inclusion work.

I remember getting my college acceptance letter and not long afterward I received information about my roommate. Having a roommate was not a worry for me given I spent most of my formative years sharing a room in a small home. What did worry me was that my roommate lived in Pittsburgh, PA and I immediately assumed she was Black. 

I do not have a valid reason for my irrational fear other than ignorance, but what was pivotal to me was my mother’s response. She asked me why it mattered. Of course, I didn’t have an answer as an unaware young person, but I took the lead from my mother in that Michelle and I would be friends and that I would treat her with respect and dignity as a human being regardless of her race.

I try to use my privilege every day because I go to sleep and wake up as a white person. I can take a break and turn off thinking about racism and the impact. Of recent, the pain and anguish is so raw for my Black friends and colleagues. These are just facts. When I was 18, I didn’t realize the anti-racist work that would need to be done over time in my ally journey. 

What I hope for all of us as allies is that we keep a light on and keep working even when it is uncomfortable and challenging. It takes effort and vulnerability. We need to utilize each other to be held accountable and for the strength to keep pushing. As white allies, our role is to raise up the voices of our Black friends and colleagues. This is not the time to think we, as white people, have all of the answers and will save the day but instead, we need to work together, side by side.

Those who know me personally know that I am the “do” in the Think and Do equation, someone who is a problem solver at heart. That is what I know how to do and where I am most comfortable. Fixing problems is important, but so too is support. I am not perfect and I have failed many times. Some of these failures have come at the expense of people of color who I care about. 

What I have learned is the value of saying I’m sorry and pledging to do more, to work harder and to use my power and influence. I worry that just being an “ally” isn’t enough and maybe it is not the answer but in absence of how to motivate others, I will use the simple term of ally and implore white people to take action. Do this for others and not for yourself.

So how can you be an ally?  You can say — I see you, you matter, and I support you. Start with a Black friend, co-worker, or neighbor and say — you matter. Don’t make this about you, because you aren’t suffering here — you are just uncomfortable; that is different. Be authentic and genuine, speak from the heart. 

Then you need to listen to the lived experiences of the Black community, just listen. This isn’t about defending who you are in life. Don’t tell your story about that one time you thought someone might have treated you differently; it is not the same. Listening is just the beginning and then talking with others about race, learning from those around you, and understanding. Expect for it to be hard and emotional — you will survive.

Do your homework and be intentional about it. I am positive we did not really learn about inclusive history growing up, so start there. It is NOT the responsibility of the Black community to educate us as white people. If you have a question, start with Google or the library. There are MANY resources and no shortage of ways to gain knowledge (books, articles, podcasts, etc.). 

Participate in what is called white caucusing to understand and discuss your white identity. Caucusing takes on many forms and is a powerful tool BUT you must be ready, and please, don’t get overconfident. Take advantage of professional development opportunities. Find a way to challenge yourself even if it means taking a risk. Use your voice and speak up in spaces where Black friends and colleagues aren’t present.

Black Lives Matter — say it and mean it. If you are still caught up in “all lives matter,” then you need to go back a few steps and do more learning. Find a way to get involved and take action. This looks different for each of us. Not everyone is comfortable with marches or rallies, but the important part is to find a way to be authentically visible. Put your money to work and give back whatever you can afford. Support Black-owned businesses, authors, retailers and the list goes on. 

Social media — tread lightly and put some thought into what you are saying. While feelings are important, responding with too much emotion in a Facebook post does not always yield the outcome you might have hoped for. Think about what you want to accomplish and be realistic about an exchange via social media. Don’t forget about self-care. This is important for everyone during this time, as we do this work.

Recently during the Poor People’s Assembly and Digital Justice Gathering, Reverend William Barber asked, ”What would you use your last breath for?” My hope is to use my last breath to speak up when an injustice occurs, to keep advocating for equity and inclusion, to dismantle systemic racism and to fight for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. I challenge you to join me. 

At NC State, we are all going to complete a diversity and inclusion learning module. That barely scratches the surface. Don’t let it be the beginning and end of your journey. We are going to need to have those difficult conversations, and white people cannot continue to remain silent. Seek to truly understand the moment we are in, and let’s work together on the path forward. In Reverend Barber’s words, now IS the time. 

Justine Hollingshead (she/her) is chief of staff and assistant vice chancellor in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs. She was also the inaugural director of NC State’s GLBT Center.