What is the role of white people in anti-racism work? Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler, an expert in diversity and inclusion, believes that white people should not get comfortable on the sidelines. In her TEDxMileHigh talk, she wonders, if white people are the ones who perpetuate racism, shouldn’t they lead the charge against racism? Dr. Tyler calls on unlikely allies to bring justice to injustices. With the help of unlikely allies, we can join together to create change.

Nita’s Battle for Ballet

In her talk, Dr. Tyler speaks of one of the first times she experienced racial injustice. As a young girl, she was obsessed with ballet and desperately wanted to join a ballet school. However, in the segregated South, every school her mother tried to enroll her in blatantly disregarded her application because “they did not accept negroes.”

Her mother’s response to this racism was, “Well, they’re just not smart enough to accept you right now, and they don’t know how excellent you are.” But, Dr. Tyler could tell there was something else. “I could see it in my mother’s eyes. She was angry. Well, I decided right then and right there that ballet was dumb,” she said.

Nita’s First Unlikely Ally

After her experience with ballet school, Dr. Tyler was convinced she would never attend a ballet lesson. That is until she met Miss Anne. Miss Anne was a “beautiful, tall white lady” who had come to their school to teach ballet lessons. “Miss Anne stood in front of us, and she said she was going to start teaching ballet classes right there at our school and that she was proud to be our dance teacher,” says Dr. Tyler. “It was unreal.”

“Where there was no justice, [Miss Anne] just built it.”

Dr. Tyler realized later that Miss Anne was her first unlikely ally in the racial injustices she faced. Miss Anne, a white woman, was aware that the white ballet schools did not accept black girls. However, she refused to accept this racial norm. Miss Anne went to the black neighborhood and taught the classes herself. 

This is unlikely allyship. It is standing up for those who face injustices that you haven’t experienced yourself, but you join the fight anyway—you even lead the fight.

The Case for Unlikely Allies

In her talk, Dr.Tyler mentions her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. McFarlane, who said, “Justice requires an accomplice.” For example, she points to the civil rights movement that needed powerful yet unlikely allyship from President Kennedy to succeed.

“When the same people speak up in the same ways they have always spoken up, the most we’ll ever get is the same results over and over again.” 

This idea is echoed throughout the current Black Lives Matter movement—it shouldn’t be only up to those who face injustice to end it themselves. It is up to those who cause the injustice to realize what is happening is wrong, and it is up to them to change themselves. It is about life-long anti-racism work, and consistent, thoughtful allyship. 

Unlikely Allyship Right Now

Dr. Tyler’s definition of unlikely allyship relates to the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and the ways it has opened the eyes of some passive allies. The current BLM movement is dedicated to racism against Black people, but the change, Dr. Tyler believes, has to come from white people. White people have a responsibility to stand up for injustice every day. To internally break down their inner racism, and show up every time, not only when it is convenient. Ending racism, and other injustices, should not be the responsibility of the oppressed. 

However, unlikely allies are important in every circumstance of injustice, not just race. Dr. Tyler considers, “What if men lead the charge on pay equity for women? Or, what if heterosexual people stood in front of LGBTQ issues?” Dr. Tyler’s point isn’t that men should take up even more space in the gender equity conversation, it is that the battle for pay equity is not squarely upon women’s shoulders. 

“To win the fight for equity, we all need to speak up and stand up, and we will all need to do that even when it’s hard and even when we feel out of place. Because it is your place, and it is our place. Justice counts on all of us.”

Want to Learn More About Unlikely Allyship?

Dr. Tyler is the Chief Catalyst and Founder of The Equtity Project LLC, an organization designed to help companies develop their own diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. She is also the author of “White People Really Love Salad,” a book that outlines the ways cultural norms can lead to stereotypes. Her work in equity comes from a lifetime of injustice which also led her to discover the importance of unlikely allies. 

Aside from being featured on TED.com, Dr. Tyler appeared on the 9NEWS panel discussion, “Racism and the Road to Change” alongside voices like Elisabeth Epps from the Colorado Freedom Fund and President of the Aurora NAACP and Director of Black Student Services at CU Denver Omar Montgomery. 

She is also a featured panelist for Denver Arts and Venues virtual IMAGINE 2020 Speaker Series: How to be an Anti-Racist Organization airing Aug. 3, 2020. Dr. Tyler led a TEDxMileHigh adventure on unlikely leadership that you can read about here. Follow The Equity Project on Twitter and Facebook.