Bill discusses the meaning of allyship, and share stories from Michelle Obama and Jon Goode about what it means—or doesn’t mean—to be an ally.

Allyship

Hi friends, my name is Bill Evertsberg and I’m one of the pastors at Kenilworth Union Church, and this is Douglas, my assistant minister.

Many of us at church are asking ourselves the question “how can we be better neighbors to people of color?” And one of the answers that’s emerging frequently just now is something that’s called “allyship.” That’s not a word I encountered very often before George Floyd died. My computer spell-checker didn’t recognize the word “allyship,” but you can probably guess what it means and I’ll explain it in a minute anyway.

I want to tell you two short, similar stories that both have sad beginnings and happy endings. I read Michelle Obama’s memoir a while back and I noticed there that Michelle Robinson matriculated at Princeton University in 1981 and graduated in 1985, and that was the very same timeframe when I was studying at Princeton Seminary, which is just one block from the university. And so I didn’t know it at the time, but I must have encountered Michelle Robinson dozens of times on the streets of the city and in bookstores and at Woolworth’s.

When Michelle Robinson, at the time, told her guidance counselor at Whitney Young High School that she wanted to attend Princeton University where her older brother was at college, the guidance counselor smiled condescendingly and said “I’m not sure you’re Princeton material, honey.” Michelle Robinson was in the top ten percent of her class at Whitney Young. And so when she arrived at Princeton, she encountered a world that was very different from the one she grew up in. In 1981, men outnumbered women two-to-one at Princeton, and whites outnumbered Blacks 10-to-1. And when one of Michelle’s white roommates told her mother from Louisiana that she had an African-American roommate, the mother hit the roof and headed straight to Princeton to demand that the university move her white daughter from this dorm room with an African-American in it.

Second story is about a man named Jon Goode. Jon Goode works for The Moth and told this story on The Moth Radio Hour. Jon Goode grew up in a predominantly—he’s Black—grew up in a predominantly Black community, but for some reason decided to matriculate at a predominantly white university. And when Jon got to this predominantly white university, he had a white roommate named Shane. And Jon the black man and Shane the white man got along splendidly, so splendidly that early in that first semester Jon the Black man invited his white roommate Shane to a party at a Black fraternity, a very Black party. And they had a wonderful time, and in the wee small hours of the morning, they were walking across campus back to their dorm room—Shane was several yards ahead of Jon—when a security guard approached Jon, the Black man, and asked for his ID. Instantly, Jon reaches for his wallet, nervously, and Shane walks back several yards to where Jon is standing with the security guard, and offers the security guard his ID.   

And the security guard says, “I don’t need to see your ID.”

And Shane says, “Look. It’s late at night and we’re both walking across this campus. Either you need to see both of our IDs or you don’t need to see anybody’s ID.” The security guard just walked away.

Jon Goode says “People ask what allyship means. You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll know it when you hear it. You’ll know it when you feel it. For me that night, allyship felt a lot like Shane.”

And so the moral to those two stories is get a Black roommate or a Black friend or a Black colleague and be an ally, because allyship means, one: take on a struggle that is not your own. Two: stand up, even if you’re afraid. And three: transfer some of your excessive white privilege to somebody who lacks that privilege. Take on a struggle that’s not your own, stand up even if you’re afraid, and transfer privilege.

Now that’s the happy ending to Michelle Obama’s story. When that mother from Louisiana came to Princeton to ask the university to remove her daughter from that dorm room, Princeton just said no. Princeton pushed back hard. And this white roommate came to appreciate this Black woman who told wonderful stories with her long, elegant hands. And 25 years later, the mother to that roommate was very honest about her mistake and apologized for it, and changed her mind. She even said that, in 2008, in the presidential election, “I might even vote for Michelle’s husband.” So be an ally, and God bless you.