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‘They will discover their own humanity’: Nekima Levy Armstrong on racial justice and white allies

Nekima Levy Armstrong
MinnPost file photo by Kristoffer Tigue
Nekima Levy Armstrong: "'White saviorism' is a form of white superiority … And if you believe that you are superior, then that means that someone else is inferior in comparison to you, and that someone else is often African-Americans and other people of color."

Nekima Levy Armstrong has received some criticism for the $175 registration fee for the “Five Problems Everyone Has With White Allies and How to Solve Them” seminar she’s leading Dec. 14, but from the sounds of it, a cram session with one of the state’s leading thinkers on black power and white racism may be nothing short of a bargain.

Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney, former professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and former president of NAACP Minneapolis, has become a prominent leader of her generation in confronting institutional racism — which she did in an open letter to city leaders last week. She lives in Minnesota, a state regularly championed for its culture and overall progressiveness, but which remains second in the nation in racial inequality, and she has much to say about all that. The recent founder of Activism and Allyship University and the consulting firm Black Pearl LLC (company slogan: “Boldly addressing the elephant in the room”), Levy Armstrong spoke last week with MinnPost about black power and white allies by phone from Washington, D.C.

MinnPost: What is Activism and Allyship University, and how long have you had it up and running?

Nekima Levy Armstrong: I run my own consulting firm, which is called Black Pearl, LLC. At Black Pearl, we focus on racial equity, and our clients include nonprofits, governmental agencies and corporate clients, and we also advise community members. So through my work with Black Pearl, we put on trainings and workshops and events, and Activists University is a way to organize those trainings to try to help shift the consciousness of white people who want to be allies, or who believe that they are allies, so they can go deeper in their anti-racism work in their employment, and outside of their employment.

MP: You offered this “Five Problems Everyone Has With White Allies and How To Solve Them” seminar in November. How did that go?

NLA: It was well-received, and I had a number of people asking me when I would offer it again, because they knew people who would benefit from it, and so that’s what’s happening Dec. 14.

MP: Historically, have there always been white allies? When did the idea of “white ally” come into being? I’m thinking about the phrase, specifically, and how long it’s been named as such.

NLA: Honestly, from my perspective, the notion of white allies goes all the way back to abolitionists and folks who participated in the underground railroad with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who was an abolitionist up north, and those who helped found the NAACP.

So white allies have always played a role in the fight for racial justice. Some are more visible than others, and some take greater risks than others in advancing the cause of justice, particularly for African-Americans.

In my reading and studying of history, I have seen the presence of white allies throughout history, and I think they serve an important role. We saw during the civil rights movement, folks who privately supported Dr. King; folks who showed up, some of whom put their lives on the line as white allies, like the two young men who were killed in Mississippi alongside of an African-American man, trying to register black voters.

Then there’s Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was very prominent during the civil rights movement for her role as an activist and the risks that she took, and she was actually killed as a result for her work during the civil rights movement. So we juxtapose people like her with the “good white people,” who Dr. King called out in his 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail, where he talked about white folks who were saying that they cared about racial justice. They were part of the movement, they supported his work, and yet he said that they were cogs in the wheels of progress because of the fact that they thought the movement was asking for too much too quickly. They wanted to see time as an agent of change as opposed to African-Americans and Dr. King being an agent for change and actively demonstrating and protesting.

MP: What about today?

NLA: White allies run the gamut. I think that “good white people,” as referenced by Dr. King, probably outnumber everyone else when we’re talking about folks who are focused on racial justice. I think part of the problem with “good white people” is that they think that they’re helping, but too often they’re hurting — especially if they’re standing in the way of black leadership, or complaining about the methods that activists are using when they’re fighting for racial justice.

And we have a lot of folks like that, in the Twin Cities in particular, some of whom I’ve marched alongside of, many of whom have been out to protests and demonstrations, but who ultimately … on the one hand they might perceive themselves as white allies, but on they other hand they’re actually more like the “good white people” that Dr. King referred to.

I’ve seen the difference. I’ve seen people really willing to go all out and put it on the line and be consistent and support black leadership and not engage in white saviorism. People who support black political leadership and people who are willing to use their time, talents, resources, and their social and political capital to advance the cause of justice, versus those who are just marginally involved and who are actually impediments to progress. And a lot of those folks label themselves as progressives in the Twin Cities.

MP: How do your trainings and seminars help move everybody forward?

NLA: I try to deconstruct a lot of those issues. I talk about my experience as an attorney and a law professor and former political candidate (for mayor of Minneapolis) and the types of so-called allies that I ran into and the types of experiences I had with them, and then we put that into a larger context in terms of what happens in the workplace. You know, when it is time to diversify the workplace, or when people of color are employed in a particular office and they are experiencing isolation or not being promoted, and that’s if they even get their foot in the door in the first place.

I talk about how some of the folks who consider themselves progressives are actually the ones who are perpetuating a form of violence in the workplace towards African-Americans and other people of color. It may not be physical violence, but it’s psychological violence that happens: just everyday racism and bias that happens and is being manifested in some of the decisions that are being made. And the micro-aggressions are also a form of violence that African-Americans and other people of color encounter.

So in my workshop, we go through a lot of those issues, deconstruct them, we have hypothetical [situations], and I leave them with a PowerPoint that has more than three hours’ worth of materials for them to go through — videos to watch, questions to answer individually or in groups or in their individual workplaces. The expectation is that the work will continue beyond the workshop, and that they will look at their practices. They will look at HR, and how HR responds to concerns about discrimination, and what kind of training is taking place to equip employees in a multiracial environment.

MP: Just thinking about your work, I don’t hear a weariness in your voice, but a wisdom. Still, I just wonder: Can it ever be enough? Can white people ever support and side with and know the African-American experience the way you do, or in a way that comes to be organically helpful? Do you dream that? Can it be real?

NLA: I think it can be real, and it depends on, really, how committed an individual is to unpacking and deconstructing layer upon layer of white supremacy and white supremacists’ ideologies that are around us and imbedded in us and the things we’ve been taught in schools and are imbedded in movies and the media and everything we take in. It takes a lot of work to peel back those layers and to deconstruct that information to get to the truth.      

I think it’s a very difficult journey, but it’s a very necessary journey, because in the end, if people are willing to go as far as they can go, they will discover their own humanity in a completely different way. It’s like scales falling out of people’s eyes and ears, where they’re actually able to see the humanity of their black and brown brothers and sisters in a way that white supremacy currently does not allow. So it’s a lot of internal work that people have to do, and it is day-to-day work that has to happen, because they’re constantly going up against the grain of what they’re being shown in society.

I don’t think that white people can fully understand the depth of what it means to be African-American in this country, but I think they can develop a certain level of empathy that will allow them to do much less harm than they currently do by operating according to the way that the rest of society operates. That’s more what I’m striving for: helping people to do less harm in those situations.

MP: You’ve lived this as a life, but for me over the last decade or what have you, it has been utterly maddening to wake up every 10 minutes in a new way as to how it has been for African-Americans, to how the world is, to the white prism I was born with and see through, and to see that exploded literally every 10 minutes. It’s an incredible time, but how do you, just as a human being, not let it drive you absolutely crazy and create bitterness in your heart, knowing all that you know?

NLA: I think one of the things that’s important is balance. Doing some self-care and a lot of self-reflecting and just taking time out to enjoy life so you’re not consumed by the awakening that is happening in a negative way. It’s difficult, because you’re balancing rage, and outrage, and frustration with, again, trying to enjoy life and trying to reach people and connect with people on a different level.

My faith has played a big role in my ability to be on this journey, but it is still difficult, even as a woman of faith, especially when I realize how far some white people have to go to have a basic understanding of what people of color experience in this country. But I have hope because of all the people I’ve seen begin to come along on this journey, especially since we’ve been out marching and protesting: Folks who not only have been marching in the streets, but who have shown up in the halls of power to advocate on behalf of and alongside people of color.

Even when I ran for office, I was really thankful for the level of support I received from people all across the city, knowing that I was running as an unapologetically black woman candidate. You know, who spoke the truth and didn’t try to fit into some type of nice political box in order to gain acceptance. So to have the number of folks who supported me and who voted for me, that to me is a sign of progress.

In this most recent election, seeing all of the people of color who ran for office and who won, and whose support came from white constituents, these things are unprecedented in the Twin Cities. So all I can do is have some joy about the progress that’s being made, while knowing still that there’s so much more work to do.

MP: Have you received blowback about the term “white ally?” Meaning, are there white people who say, “I don’t need to be called an ally, I am your brother, I am your sister”?

NLA: I personally haven’t. Some of the potential conflict comes in when white people consider themselves to be allies without people of color actually validating that that is true. So we have well-meaning white people who say, “I’m an ally,” but they really haven’t walked the walk and demonstrated consistency in that regard.

Typically, people know that they’re at a certain place when they have people of color approach them or are connected to them in a deeper way, and are able to validate, “Yes, you are an ally,” based on this or that, and on what I’ve seen consistently from you.

MP: Part of your workshop looks at “white saviorism” and “white escapism.” What does that mean?

NLA: “White saviorism” is a big problem in the Twin Cities, and across the nation, but definitely in the Twin Cities. I think part of it has to do with the fact that we’re in a state that is over 84 percent white. If you look at all of our mainstream systems and institutions, they are all controlled by white people.

So white people are used to being the leaders. They’re used to being the go-to people, they’re used to being the folks who know the most in a room, or who are given deference in a given situation. First of all, “white saviorism” is a form of white superiority. It’s a mindset that many people carry with them, whether they recognize it or not. And if you believe that you are superior, then that means that someone else is inferior in comparison to you, and that someone else is often African-Americans and other people of color.

So white saviors may try to put on a cape and try and save people of color and operate from a mindset of, “I’m giving, I’m giving. I’m a charitable person, I’m a philanthropist, I’m this, I’m that.” But in the end, it’s really about you. It’s not really about shifting the paradigm or challenging systems, or challenging the status quo. It’s about what makes you feel good, and about almost being put on a pedestal out in society, as opposed to seeing people of color on equal footing and realizing that when you are standing up and advocating for people of color, you are not doing us a favor.

Number one, you are reclaiming your humanity. Number two, you are in some ways beginning to reject white supremacy and white superiority. Number three, you are trying to help undo some of the damage that you have undoubtedly caused because of the way in which our society has been structured, and the things that white people have been taught about people of color.

It takes a very reflective and humble person to get to that point where they are willing to denounce white saviorism and they step into a room recognizing that they are on equal footing with a person of color, a person in poverty, a person without a college degree. That takes deconstructing, and often you hear folks, when they’re talking about people of color, using terms like”‘disadvantaged” or “minority.” All of those things connote white superiority, in terms of the language that’s being used. You’re not seeing a person of color on equal footing, you’re seeing them as someone to be pitied.

And “white escapism” is failing to acknowledge that there’s actually a problem with racism in our society, and trying to tune out and pretend that the things that are happening are not happening.

MP: After your last class last month, did you walk away thinking you wanted to do anything different with it this time, or did you learn anything that you wanted to drive home or emphasize?

NLA: I tried law for 14 years, so I come in with prepared materials and an idea of where I want to go, but I also have learned as a teacher to be open to the direction and flow that things need to go in. I rely on the energy of the people in the room; I also allow people to share their insights and ask questions, so it’s going to be different than the first class because there will be different people there. But we will cover all of the main points.

The class from November received rave reviews. We had over 50 people who were present, and some people sent their teams; a few companies sent seven or eight people so they could all learn together, and I’m still hearing that they’re working through the materials. People have been reaching out and saying, “Can you come to our office and train our staff?”

People have received a lot of value from the workshop, and being in a safe environment, and having these critical conversations and being challenged to think differently and act differently. I think that’s something that everyone can benefit from — especially those who want to do less harm when it comes to their interactions with people of color.

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