Border Crossing:
Becoming an Ally to Students of Color on Predominantly White Campuses

Mollie M. Monahan

Drawing from the authors Kivel, Helms, Allport, Washington & Evans, and her own experience, the author creates a comprehensive racial ally development guide for White Student Affairs Administrators. Low enrollment and high drop-out numbers lead the author to believe that Student Affairs Administrators are not doing all that they can to provide a safe space for students of color in higher education. It is of the utmost importance that white administrators step forward to do what they can to mentor and support students of color. The author’s guide is outlined as follows:

The Monahan Racial Ally Development Theory
1. Examine your own whiteness.
2. Notice color.
3. Realize your personal gain in eliminating racism.
4. Be aware of language.
5. Act for today.
6. Understand your own oppression.
7. Step outside of your comfort zone.
8. Be a mentor/be mentored.
9. Find similarities/celebrate differences.
10. Be a revolutionary leader.

Within the article, the author describes each suggestion in detail. The article is not intended to be the only answer white administrators will ever need on the subject. Rather, the article should be used as a springboard for white administrators wishing to increase their level of involvement in the area of student race relations.

It was the summer of 1994, and as a 21-year-old “activist” I felt like I was really quite an expert on many social issues. I was a member of the Environmental Action Group and Womyn for Womyn. I worked diligently toward racial equality. So I thought. I was in the midst of training for work at an environmental summer camp for high school students when my hermeneutic was shattered.

My supervisor had been a mentor of mine for two years. He and I had developed genuine trust via deep conversations regarding struggles with race. I, a white woman and he, a black man, maintained extremely different perspectives on racial struggle and yet we came together to learn from those differences. He made a point of surrounding himself with allies during his time as a graduate assistant at Adrian College (a predominantly white, Methodist, liberal arts college in Michigan). I had become a source of support for him and he a source of support for me.

Imagine my anguish and confusion when he chose a staff meeting as the venue in which to disclose more honestly. Before a group of my highly respected peers and colleagues his specific words still ring clearly: “Mollie, you are a white supremacist, racist bitch.” I was stunned, silenced, and mortified.

I still remember the look on his face when he said it, so calm, cool and angry. I would learn later that he had harbored these feelings for quite some time. A horrible silence fell over the staff. His silence was finally broken and mine had just begun.

It has taken me years to feel comfortable working toward racial justice again. I am constantly afraid of hurting another individual on my path to self-discovery, and I live in fear of being hurt so deeply again. I ultimately return to that one experience when evaluating my passion for race issues. Am I still angry with my mentor for inflicting such humiliation in a public forum? Yes. Am I more acutely aware of my ability to harm the people closest to me with my ignorance? Yes. But I am simultaneously thankful for this awakening. That one moment instilled in me an undying drive toward racial justice, especially within my arena: the college campus.

I am personally charged with the responsibility of educating myself on issues of race and becoming a racial ally. While Paul Kivel and other activists have come before me to spearhead an ally movement, too little action has been taken. Waiting for other scholars and theorists to come forward in my community is no longer a viable option. I feel the need to be a part of an active, process-oriented solution.

The only way to learn is to explore, reach out, succeed or fail, and try again. This project in its fullest form is a combination of personal risk and catharsis. I am no expert on the issue, and do not claim to be. I only claim to be a student affairs administrator in search of answers to a question: how can I become an ally to students of color on a predominantly white campus? I believe that by finding answers to this question, other student affairs professionals may be able to adapt my suggestions to other college campuses in their areas of the country and around the world.

I will begin by outlining some of the ally models that exist. I will then describe the general outline of my own ally model, which I derived through readings and personal experiences.

Existing Ally Models

My research uncovered three existing models of ally development. Allport’s Contact Theory and Helms’ Model of White Racial Consciousness relate directly to racial ally development, while Washington and Evans’ Four Levels to Becoming an Ally outlines homosexual ally development. Although Washington and Evans’ model does not directly speak to the issue of race, its references to homosexual ally development are highly transferable.

Gordon Allport’s Contact Theory, developed in 1954, is a highly useful model in promoting interaction between whites and people of color as a form of ally development. Allport asserts that if a level of equal interaction can be attained between white people and people of color, prejudice can be decreased. The model is admittedly a breakthrough in understanding the quest toward racial equality. I am, however, critical of the oversights presented therein. For example, Allport neglects the fact that we, as human beings of varying race and color, are usually unable to reach an even level of equality.

Allport’s Contact Theory

1. The contact should be approved by a person in authority.
2. The contact needs to take place over a period of time, not just once.
3. Contact must be informal and personal.
4. Contact should not take place within a competitive arena.
5. Both parties need to be of equal status. (Kennedy & Voegtle, 1998)

I stand in equal praise and criticism of this theory. In 1954, white Americans were only beginning to think about how to equally interact with people of color. Now, in the year 2000, progress remains questionable. How far have human beings really come? Have great strides been made or have more discreet forms of racism simply been learned? In the midst of current-day civil unrest and the parallels between racial and sexual orientation struggles, Allport’s theory and its application continue to heed attention and action.

Helms’ model of White Racial Consciousness is especially beneficial in helping white people begin to understand their own white privilege. By understanding the benefits of whiteness one may begin to understand the detriments as well. It spans the entire developmental process between primary encounters with people of color to full acceptance.

Helms’ Model of White Racial Consciousness

1. Contact -- The white person realizes that people of color exist.
2. Disintegration -- The white person realizes that he/she is white and begins to explore/understand the privilege whiteness provides.
3. Reintegration -- The white person becomes more hostile toward people of color and aligns with other whites.
4. Pseudo-Independence -- The white person becomes intellectually curious and accepting of people of color.
5. Autonomy -- The white person accepts and respects racial differences. (Helms, 1984)

It should be noted that in Helms’ model the power is in the hands of the white individual. White people need to take responsibility for realizing and acting upon the knowledge of their color. While prevailing societal assumptions lean toward people of color to carry out race education, Helms calls on white people to take an active role. American society caters toward white people. This reality cannot be denied. I feel an obligation to use the power bestowed upon me as a white individual to even the playing field. Ultimately, this will result in the loss of certain current powers but also in the gain of others.

Washington and Evans’ Four Levels to Becoming an Ally, as described previously, is one of homosexual ally development. It is, however, highly transferable to racial ally development because of the similarities between racial and homosexual ally development. Here I have slightly altered the definitions to speak more directly to the issue of race.

Washington and Evans’ Four Levels to Becoming an Ally

1. Awareness: Acknowledging differences and similarities regarding [people of color].
2. Knowledge/Education: Intellectual acquisition of information regarding [race].
3. Skills: Communication and advocacy skills are developed.
4. Action: Actively speaking and acting out against [racial] oppression. (Washington & Evans, 1991)

Currently, oppressed groups are separated in our culture. Each is pitted against the other which in turn fuels white power. Similarly, ally development models (regardless of the oppressed group to which it refers) all address the same issues. Each model discusses some form of risk, exploration, understanding and action. A brilliantly powerful coalition would be formed if all oppressed people were able to come together in solidarity. The same is true for the allies who join in the struggle.

The Monahan Racial Ally Development Theory

The Monahan Ally Racial Development Theory exists as an amalgam of research and personal experience. It consists of ten suggestions for white people who are interested in beginning or furthering their own personal journey toward racial justice and ally alignment. Following are my suggestions:

1. Examine your own whiteness.
2. Notice color.
3. Realize personal gain in eliminating racism.
4. Be aware of your language.
5. Act for today.
6. Understand your own oppression.
7. Step outside of your comfort zone.
8. Be a mentor; be mentored.
9. Find similarities/celebrate differences.
10. Be a revolutionary leader.

Examine Your Own Whiteness
Whiteness is a constructed “norm” in the United States of America. It is transparent, unseen and undetectable. Maintaining whiteness as “normal” allows white people to unconsciously sustain the power that comes along with being white. It also means that any original culture behind whiteness (Irish, German, and French) has been lost.

I am an example of lost culture. My lineage is almost entirely Irish. Faint traces of German and French ancestry can be found, but I remain largely Irish. Even my name, Mollie Marie Monahan, reflects my heritage. However, I know almost nothing about Irish history and culture. What I do know has come from history lessons in school and never from my family. They were forced to abandon their own Irish heritage generations ago, upon American immigration.

While I have involuntarily given up a critical part of my identity in exchange for “whiteness,” with that whiteness comes certain power. Paul Kivel outlines a “White Benefits Checklist” regarding the issue of inherent white power in the United States. Items on the checklist include:

· I live in or went to a school district where the textbooks and other classroom materials reflected my race as normal, heroes and builders of the United States, and there was little mention of the contributions of people of color to our society.
· My parents were able to vote in any election they wanted without worrying about poll taxes, literacy requirements or other forms of discrimination.
· My ancestors came to this country of their own free will and have never had to relocate unwillingly once here. (Kivel, 1996, p. 37-39)

Whiteness is an undeniable status symbol. “Until white women [and men] can confront their fear and hatred of black women [and men] (and vice versa), until we can acknowledge the negative history which shapes and informs our contemporary interaction, there can be no honest, meaningful dialogue between the two groups” (hooks, 1994, p. 107). The anger between groups that stems from a horridly oppressive history needs to be mended and healed, but never forgotten.

Notice Color
There is a prevailing feeling in our society today that if someone talks about skin color he or she will be immediately judged as racist. I am hypersensitive to this reality myself. Students, faculty and staff in higher education live in constant fear of political correctness and the rewards and/or punishment it brings. For fear of saying something that might be construed as racist, we remain silent. Questions go unasked and unanswered. Vital conversations are not happening because we are afraid of what might happen. We need to conquer this fear and engage in dialogue.

I am not suggesting that whenever we enter a racially diverse room we should loudly declare “I’m white and many of you are black!” or something to that effect. I am only saying that we shouldn’t be so scared to label. Labeling is a natural, human characteristic. Problems arise when labeling brings with it a hierarchical structure. I surmise that we can begin to dismantle the hierarchical structure associated with race by noticing our differences.

Annie Stevens, Director of Residential Life at the University of Vermont, is a stellar example of what it is to be a white ally. When she meets with new students of color she is blunt and honest (two things for which she is well-known). She has been known to say, “there are a lot of white people here,” an obvious statement to be made at the 97% white University of Vermont. She does not tip-toe around the issue, rather, she is forthright. Many entering students of color have found her approach refreshingly honest. Most students (regardless of their race!) would rather be met with blunt reality than a sugar-coated version of the truth in any given situation.

Realize Your Personal Gain in Eliminating Racism
Racism is not only oppressive to people of color, but also to white people. “One of the costs of… assimilating into white mainstream culture is that we are asked to leave behind the languages, foods, music, games, rituals, and expressions that our parents and/or grandparents used” (Kivel, 1996, p. 36). Different groups of white people give up their cultural heritage by embracing the power that comes with being culturally “white” and discarding ethnic differences. The fact that I so easily utilize the word “white” to describe Americans of Irish, French, German, Italian, and other backgrounds further illustrates the issue. As an Irish-American woman I know practically nothing of my cultural heritage, and the majority of white people in America suffer the same deprivation.

In addition, many white people carry around an irrational fear of people of color and vice versa. As a result, white culture loses out on contributions that people of color make by not being inclusive. “It can be hard for us to be honest with ourselves about the costs of racism to white people,” (Kivel, p. 37, 1996) but social change through ally development will never begin unless white people realize the rich culture and heritage we are missing.

Be Aware of Your Language
Becoming more aware of the racist language that we use on a daily basis is crucial. It is also important that we do not become so wrapped up in political correctness that we neglect this conversation out of fear. The English language, as it is used in the United States, is just as biased as the rest of our culture. It has come to exist in a form that uplifts white images and diminishes black images. Words and phrases such as “black deed, blacklist, black market, yellow peril, black hearted, blackmail, black sheep, yellow bellied and to Jew down” (Kivel, 1996) all have negative racial connotations. Conversely, “white lie, white hope, and white knight” (Kivel, 1996) each uplift white image as pure and good. bell hooks describes her feelings toward the inherent racist nature of our language by saying, “…[language] speaks itself against our will, in words and thoughts that intrude, even violate the most private spaces of mind and body…” (1994). A good ally will strive to learn the language that uplifts all people equally.

Act For Today
Another issue that we as white people need to overcome is this sense that we are not directly responsible for slavery and therefore it is not our issue. It most certainly is our issue, but it is also something that we now have no direct control over. Now we need to focus on what we do have direct control over: the injustices in everyday life. When we hear racist comments, we need to address them. When we hear racist jokes we need to admit that we are offended by them. We need to realize and remember all that we gain from having an equal balance of diversity in our neighborhoods, jobs and lives. It is important that we not only know of and understand our racist heritage, but that we also move forward toward racial peace and understanding.

Understand Your Own Oppression
This may be a bit difficult for some people, especially straight, white, Christian men. It is not, however, impossible for people of the aforementioned group to understand oppression. Women, for example, are oppressed in regard to gender and should reflect upon that oppression as a way to understand racial oppression. Everyone, at one time or another, has experienced some form of oppression. Even men have experienced some form of injustice due to something over which they had no control. I invite anyone interested in becoming an ally to students of color to reflect upon a time in which oppression has touched your life. How did it make you feel? Did you feel as if you had control over the situation? Questions like these will help individuals internalize a more compassionate understanding.

It is also important to remember that privileged groups are still privileged even though they may have experienced some form of oppression at one time or another. Whites, specifically, continue to hold the power in our society. People of color cannot escape their oppression the way society is currently structured. It is a serious distinction of which I hope each white reader takes note.

Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone
It is increasingly easy for white individuals to remain in white social groups and workspaces, rather than to attend programs and/or social gatherings put on by people of color. It is easier for white administrators to cater to white students as that is their comfort zone. While it is admittedly challenging for many white people to go out of their way to ally themselves with students and colleagues of color, it is absolutely imperative that we do so. This can be done with small gestures such as making a lunch date or taking time to talk and get to know someone. This might sound like an obvious or easy step, but it is challenging for many white people.

For white individuals who are interested in pushing themselves further, there are other suggestions I will make. I also encourage white individuals to critically examine how welcome they might be in certain circles before intruding. In her book Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, Patricia Williams speaks of Harlem bus tours. Apparently, tourists pay a good deal of money to be bussed into Harlem to experience “black churches.” Two hundred tourists at a time often enter the service late and leave early, disrupting worship for all of the parishioners (1997). This behavior is unacceptable. Make sure your presence is acceptable before you encroach on privacy, and then behave respectfully while in attendance. This suggestion may seem obvious again, but there are hundreds of tourists flocking to Harlem every week who do not have a clue.

Experience something that is not a normal part of your culture in a non-intrusive way. Be respectful while you are doing so. Be a respectful participant without being a vicious voyeur. For example, if you are interested in learning more about black churches, perhaps you can ask a black friend to take you. Keep in mind, of course, that not all people of color attend churches that are dominated by people of color.

For the next two and a half years I plan on living in West Africa doing work for the Peace Corps. I will be the only person in my assigned village who looks, thinks, acts, speaks and understands the world in a white, Western, American way. I will not be able to retreat to an American refuge except, perhaps, once every several months. I will not be able to return home except, perhaps, twice. I want to know what it is to be different and misunderstood. I want to understand what it is to be an outsider. Most importantly, I want the experience to be almost entirely inescapable.

I am not suggesting that all white administrators follow my lead. Joining the Peace Corps for two and a half years is an extreme example. I merely suggest that individuals step outside of their comfort zones and experience the rich world around them. Join in an Alternative Spring Break trip constructing Habitat for Humanity in the inner city. Work at a soup kitchen. Attend any one of the many programs on diversity put on by our educational staffs. Read, have round-table discussions with students, make new friends. Start with small risks first and then delve more deeply. And remember that more effort put into an experience yields a more highly educational experience. We tell our students these things every day. We should learn to practice what we preach!

Be A Mentor/Be Mentored
Levine and Nidiffer (1996) speak to the mentorship issue very eloquently. A main tenet of success in college for students who are at risk for dropping out is that they have a mentor. Having someone available who believes in them, encourages them and “knows the system” can be a priceless resource. Presently, many students of color are the first in their families to go to college and therefore have no familial resources to help them muddle through the red tape of collegiate life. Having someone there who understands what it takes to be successful is highly important.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia, found success in college because someone believed in her. When classmates and community members called out “nigger” she did not believe they could possibly be speaking to her because she had been taught that she was a bright, talented, beautiful girl (Hunter-Gault, 1992). We must begin to treat all of our students of color with the highest respect so that they begin and/or continue to believe in their amazing gifts and talents.

Being a mentor opens avenues in which mentors can learn, too. Make time to absorb information and stories from students of color. Let down defenses and be open to new vantagepoints. Mentors have the ability to learn more from students of color than, perhaps, the students of color learn from white mentors.

Find Similarities/Celebrate Differences
Anthony Appiah (1996) asserts that there is one common culture in which there are no races, and everyone has the same roots. He proposes that we are all the same under our skins and that our skin color has nothing to do with the inherent way we are. Human DNA is not significantly different in comparison from color to race to geographic location (1996).

Appiah’s assertions help us to re-evaluate the origins of our biases. We are taught biases and beliefs within our environments growing up. He believes that if we all are able to embrace the knowledge that we are all “human,” then we will have a much greater chance of building racial bridges.

Be a Revolutionary Leader
Paulo Friere asserts that we must discard the benefits of dominant culture to fight with the oppressed. Dismantle the power structure as it benefits only whites and help to rebuild it as a structure that benefits all. Don’t be a patriarchal leader. In other words, don’t condescend to “help” people. Join in the struggle, side by side.

Revolutionary leaders begin to dismantle the power structure as it benefits whites by turning it into a structure of support for the oppressed. We must work together with students of color so that they might “rise up” and take the freedom that is rightfully theirs. Nothing is more frightening for anyone (regardless of race) than going against the grain. White people risk their reputations, their family members' reputations and sometimes even their lives when struggling to end racial oppression. We, along with people of color, have found out in very painful ways that speaking out is not well received in this society. This is where being a revolutionary leader and using the power of white privilege comes into play. Utilize your privilege to benefit the cause. I believe that no social change can occur without the help of white people. Race is not only an issue for people of color; it is an issue for white people as well.

In closing, becoming a white ally to students of color (and people of color, in general) is a frightening thing to do. We are afraid that we will offend someone and that we will do something wrong. It is okay to make mistakes. The most important issue is that we all work together to end racial injustice. It is not merely an issue for students of color, it is a white issue, too.

Take a deep breath.
Stand up for what is right.
Stand up for equality.
Be genuine, kind and true.
Your efforts will make a difference.
--Mollie Monahan


Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Appiah, K.A. & Gutmann, A. (1996). Color conscious: The political morality of race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.

Helms, J. (1984). Toward a theoretical explanation of the effects of race on counseling: A black and white model. Counseling Psychologist, 12(4), 153-164.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Hunter-Gault, C. (1992). In my place. New York: Vintage Books/Random House.

Kennedy, J. & Voegtle, K. (March, 1998). Becoming an ally. Paper presented at a conference of the National Association for Women, Baltimore, MD.

Kivel, P. (1996). Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Levine, A. & Nidiffer, J. (1996). Beating the odds: How the poor get to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Washington, J. & Evans, N.J. (1991). Becoming an ally. In N.J. Evans & V. Wall (Eds.), Beyond tolerance: Gays, lesbians and bisexuals on campus (p. 195-204). Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association.

Williams, P. (1997). Seeing a color-blind future: The paradox of race. New York: The Noonday Press.

Mollie M. Monahan is a second-year graduate student in the HESA program at UVM. She graduated with a BA in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Bowling Green State University (Ohio) in 1996. Before coming to the University of Vermont, Mollie worked full-time as a hall director at Manchester College in Indiana. She currently serves as the Leadership Coordinator in the Director’s Office of the Living/Learning Center at UVM. Upon graduation, Mollie plans to serve a two-year term as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa.