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What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship To Coalition

Emma Dabiri’s invigorating book interrogates whiteness and urges wider human empathy

What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship To Coalition
What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship To Coalition
Author: Emma Dabiri
ISBN-13: 978-0141996738
Publisher: Penguin
Guideline Price: £7.99

After an onslaught of widespread uncertainty and brutal instability, we all need a guiding map to help us move forward together. What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, Emma Dabiri’s second book, pioneers urgent new roads to social change and new forms of dialogue.

Dabiri’s hugely successful debut, Don’t Touch My Hair, celebrating black excellence and examining black entrepreneurship, endurance, mathematics and spirituality, is a nourishing read. The discussion now has shifted towards the “myth” of race and the urgent importance of cooperation in order to save our planet.

“I see historic opportunity to reconfigure attitudes and reignite imaginations being squandered by an anti-racist narrative that inadvertently reinforces much of what it claims to want to overcome, and that in many ways alienates people who might be otherwise persuaded,” she writes. “One of the things that allyship fails to address is the fact that you can continue to view black people as inferior while still being committed to their protection.”

The refreshing clarity of what Dabiri is asking of us is grounding, outlined immediately on the contents page. Her chapter titles are presented almost like a manifesto: Stop the Denial; Interrogate Whiteness;Interrogate Capitalism; Denounce the White Saviour; Abandon Guilt; Pull People Up on Racism; Read Read Read (and Dance); Recognise This Shit is Killing You Too.


The Interrogate Whiteness chapter is a fascinating historical account, exposing the stark power structures in place to pacify exploited workers dating back to the Virginia tobacco plantations of the 1600s. The English indentured poor and African slaves had many oppressive obstacles and struggles in common, and tension mounted until a rebellion broke out against landowners. The uprising was unsuccessful but the threat of rebellion was enough to implement a new structure of social order called “The Virginia Slave Codes”.

A small crumb of social status and a whisper of economic mobility was granted to the indentured workers who were newly assigned “white” like the men in power and wealth. The now “black” slaves, who were already dehumanised, faced yet another layer of othering isolation. The indentured Irish and black slaves attempting a similar uprising in Jamaica were swiftly met with the same slave codes. This worked as an excellent method to divide the workers against each other over trivial differences and to forget that they were all being exploited by the same elite minority. Sounds familiar.

Race as construct
The unwavering fact that race is a myth shakes me to my core. Although intellectually I know that race is human-made, it still sincerely affects me. So much of my life has revolved around contemplating who (or what) I am. My mixed identity is complex, and anxious ruminations over where I fit in took a lot out of me, which was energy that could have been used elsewhere. Energy that was conserved by white, Irish friends who never had to consider their racial identity.

White people may find the interrogation of their own race an alien concept but the fact that most have lived their whole life without considering racial identity is a unique advantage, allocated solely to the default. Whiteness is the un-othered. It’s important for that to be investigated by everyone.

“Naming whiteness is necessary; it is the ‘invisibility’ of white people, who are presented just as ‘people’, the default norm from which everyone else deviates.”

Race is not redundant, nor is this an opportunity for people to go “colour-blind” in order to avoid self-investigation of internal biases, it’s saying the opposite of that. Yet we as a society may not be doing ourselves justice by identifying with a linguistic framework implemented to separate us, cause conflict and distrust in communities (vulnerable and thriving alike) and more importantly keep us busy while the powerful and corrupt keep exploiting us. The system that we are constructing our selfhood under is corrupt and the system we need to evolve towards has not yet materialised.

Dabiri urges us to outright refuse the options of social change we have been presented with and begin the discussion on a new way of being.

“Rather than trying to construct ‘blackness’ according to the same parameters as ‘whiteness’, it is in this refusal that we can ‘reshape desire, reorient hope (and) reimagine possibility’.”

Although this undoubtedly will be an internationally acclaimed book, we should appreciate that this book is by an Irish writer and from an Irish perspective. There is much about how we as a society have failed to integrate different races and cultures and our guidance should not come from the US or the UK. Our unique relationship with our colonial past means that we have much in common with First Nations, Native Americans, Indians, African and West Indian countries (I suggest listening to Damien Dempsey’s song Colony). This gives us an empathy advantage that should play to our strengths.

Mechanisms of exploitation
So what is next? How do we form this sense of collective empathy? Dabiri explains that allyship functions on favours, and favours can be taken away based on the whims of the individual, so we need something stronger. I'm reminded of how the multibillion-dollar company Deliveroo, instead of paying their employees properly, or considering them employees, has added a little mechanism at the end of a delivery asking us, the individual consumer, to tip their riders based on their performance. Corporate and governmental responsibility projected on to the charitable sentiments of the individual.

Not good enough. What we need is coalition. A collective commitment to empathy and change based on the foundations of both self-examination and grounded critical thought, aimed at the mechanisms of exploitation, which is capitalism.

“Indeed the sense of superiority encoded into whiteness remains a very effective ruse to distract ‘white people’ from the oppression many of them experience keenly: the pressure of financial precariousness... zero hours contract, the unaffordability of a home, erosion of healthcare and education; as a white person your ‘race’ isn’t one of the impediments to you achieving the good life; the game is still rigged.”

There is a lot to digest in this book and I would suggest you take your time with it or return to it regularly. I was buzzing after reading it in a similar way to hearing a fresh song. In Read Read Read and Dance, I was moved by a discussion on the importance of non-linguistic modes of rebellion. Hip hop, jazz improv, dance and other musical and sonic mediums hold space for freedom and connection, as Dabiri says we need to “think less with our eyes”.

Not surprisingly many of our spaces that facilitated musical and bodily expression are being sacrificed at the altar of gentrification, even before Covid lockdowns. We should be asking why that is. Shout out to the “No More Hotels” movement.

What White People Can Do Next finishes on an important contemplation. There’s actually not a word in the English language that succinctly explains that extension of empathy to all living things and/or our planet. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh created the word “interbeing” to explain how “everything relies on everything else in order to manifest”.

Dabiri uses a similar term,“Dúthchas”, which she explains as an “ancient Scottish Gaelic ecological principle of interconnectedness between people, the land and non-human beings. Dúthchas speaks to the type of coexistence that we are now perhaps too late recognising the utter necessity of if we are going to survive.”

What White People Can Do Next should be in the back pocket of every political party member needing guidance with integration and community building. It is a useful guide to every old media organisation that has bumbled their way through apologies that have started with Father Ted levels of “not racist” exclaims and every new media outlet who think their inclusivity policies immunise them from criticism.

Most importantly, this book is for everyone. We should also appreciate that we have an academic like Emma Dabiri writing as if James Connolly and Audre Lorde had a love child.

As Nina said, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day” and I’m excited for us all.

Jess Kav is a musician and writer. For more go to