Ally Cookies

I am a white woman who recently had an opportunity to publicly apologize to a Black man I don’t know for perpetrating racial harm. The whole situation was complex for me in a bunch of ways, but the fact that I’d messed up, hurt this guy, and was now publicly apologizing for that was not the complicated or difficult part. That felt basic.

When I apologized, a lot of people clapped. I felt sad and disappointed. I wasn’t doing a thing that felt, to me, brave or difficult or anything beyond the most basic of human decency. In that moment, I wasn’t even leaning into my learning edge. When a Black woman spoke up and said we shouldn’t let people applaud our apologies, that apologies were basic and applause was inappropriate, I felt grateful for her comment. I spent much of the rest of the day fielding comments from people who approached me to express gratitude for my apology.

That experience got me thinking about ally cookies, and the different cookie-allocation rubrics that were intersecting in that moment.

Pedagogical cookies: cookies for learning and growing at your personal edge
pedagogical cookie.png

These are the cookies you hand out to someone when your primary objective is their learning.

  • Skillful effective praise from a math teacher for a kid who just got a D after a string of F’s.
  • Applause for someone who’s been working on finding their voice for taking the mic at all, even if their voice shakes.
  • Parental pride when a kid takes their first step.
  • Positive self-talk in a hard situation, “Wow, look at me gracefully accepting this critical feedback!”

In these situations, we’re not praising mathematical prowess or outstanding oratorial skills or exemplary ambulation, we’re meeting someone at the edge of their learning and using cookies to help them get from where they are to where they’re going. Since different people are in different places and working on different things, praising people for doing the thing that’s a stretch for them is a great way to help them learn.

To give pedagogical cookies effectively, you need to know something about the person you’re praising. (It’s also helpful to know something about what kind of praise works best. Applying the concept of growth mindset to white people’s race work is at the top of my list of dissertations to write.) Because pedagogical cookies are not so much about the thing you did as about stretching and growing on your learning edge, people need to know what’s edgy for you before they can know when to give you pedagogical cookies.

(Of course, the people you’re praising and the people you’re trying to teach aren’t always the same people. Just ask any teacher who ever praised a student for bringing a notebook and pencil to class.)

If my primary goal is to help a particular white person learn, and they’ve been working through shame and avoidance and denial, and because of their hard work have finally arrived at, “oh no, I did that, I’m so sorry,” then I think pedagogical cookies for that apology are entirely appropriate.

Also? It feels really great to get praise around a thing you’re working hard on. Just make sure it’s attuned because if you’re wrong about where someone is in their learning, your attempt at pedagogical cookies can feel like:

Crap cookies: cookies for exceeding (low) expectations
crap cookie

These are the cookies people hand out when they’re impressed only because they had really low expectations for that person, often because of their membership in a particular group.

  • Hey, that’s a pretty good throw for a girl.
  • Praise from a racist teacher for a Black boy’s B- when he’s fully capable of A+ work
  • Wow! A white stranger apologized at all ever! Good job!

These cookies are bullshit, and it feels really crappy to get them when you recognize them for what they are. These are the cookies people are talking about when they say allies shouldn’t get cookies. White people have set very low expectations for ourselves by sucking a lot for a really long time. The expectation when we perpetrate racial harm is that we’ll run away or change the subject or lash out, because mostly that’s what we do. When instead we apologize, even in a really basic just-the-beginning-of-decency sort of way, we have exceeded those low expectations, and then sometimes people start handing out cookies. It’s awkward. When you recognize cookies as crap cookies, they don’t feel good to receive.

Manipulative cookies: cookies to get someone to do something
manipulative cookie

When someone gives someone a cookie as part of a strategy to get something from them, that’s a manipulative cookie. These kinds of cookies are often disingenuous in some way, but quite effective.

  • “All the work your foundation did for those poor kids was really incredible,” as a lead-in to asking a rich person for a donation to my organization.
  • “I just want to say that I really appreciate how much you support me in my work,” I say to my wholly unsupportive boss before asking him to allocate budget to send me to a conference I want to attend.
  • “Your child is outstanding!” a teacher tells a board member parent of a difficult student.
  • “What a beautiful wedding,” says the caterer, who’s been to at least three more beautiful weddings this month.
  • Making some sentences about my gratitude for the person I’m in a difficult conversation with in hopes of increasing their stamina for the conversation.
  • All the cookies Mr. Incredible gives to Jack-Jack.

Manipulative cookies are a way to butter up someone with power to get what you want from them. Sometimes they’re straight-up lies and sometimes they’re honest bribery, but their intent is more to manipulate than to benefit the person receiving them.

Excellence cookies: cookies for doing something excellent
excellence cookie

Excellence cookies are awarded for actually going above and beyond.

  • Simone Biles’ Olympic medals
  • Literal cookies I baked my roommate to thank her for cleaning our house when it wasn’t her job
  • Praise for Colin Kaepernick hanging onto his convictions in the face of massive consequences to his life and career

These cookies are the simplest kind: You rock. Good job.

Cookie Trouble

row ally cookies

Trouble often arises when it’s ambiguous which kind of cookies we’re talking about. For example, a white man gets praise for simply showing up to a race workshop. Is that pedagogical cookies from someone who knows that, for him, walking in the door was the next big hard step on his anti-racist journey? Or is it crap cookies from someone who has set the bar for white men somewhere below showing their faces at race workshops? Maybe it’s manipulative cookies from someone who hopes that helping him feel good about himself will somehow improve their experience of the workshop. Or perhaps it’s misguided excellence cookies from someone who really thinks of it as an accomplishment to simply show up. I can see how a person giving out pedagogical or manipulative cookies might wind up in an argument with someone who’s mad about misguided excellence cookies.

hogwarts grading system

At Hogwarts, as in most places that make a grading system on purpose, the bar for “exceeds expectations” is above the bar for “acceptable.” But sometimes, in the real world where things are terrible, reality lowers expectations so far that “exceeds expectations” becomes a lower bar than “acceptable.” When that happens, things get counterintuitive. Like white people get raucous applause for basic apologies, not because a simple apology constitutes the entirety of an acceptable response to having perpetrated racial harm, but simply because white people don’t usually apologize for anything, so people don’t expect it, so it exceeds expectations. Crap cookies.

If you’re a white person in a white supremacist culture, the answer to, “What’s the bare minimum amount of anti-racist work I have to do to just not be an asshole?” might be “a lot more than anyone you know is doing.”

3 thoughts on “Ally Cookies”

  1. This is good, thanks. (< Excellence cookie 🙂 )

    I heard an interesting podcast from a dog trainer turned med school instructor. When trying to teach some surgical technique, such as tying a suture at the bottom of a deep wound, he would break the task up into fairly small pieces, each of which could be learned fairly easily. Upon a student's try at one of these steps, he would say "Good job!" or "Let's try again". He soon perceived an anti-learning aura forming in the room, as people were so intent on getting a "Good job!" that they lost the context of trying to learn a technique. Anxiety spiked.

    He then tried to relax everybody at the beginning of teaching, saying "Don't worry while learning this; it's tricky and only about 3% of people will get each step the first time around. We've got plenty of time." This made it MUCH worse, since everyone in the audience was muttering the mantra "I've just GOT to be in that 3%!!!" (Remember, these were med students!)

    So, he dropped the "Don't worry" speech, and went back to his doggie days to borrow a successful dog training technique. Instead of saying "Good job!" when a step was mastered, he would click a clicker once, meaning, as he explained, "Now we can move on to the next step." If the step was performed incorrectly, no click; he would just work with the student to figure out where things went wrong, and then often break the step up into sub-steps. Everyone stayed (relatively) relaxed, and learned faster.

    So maybe a pedagogical cookie needs no chocolate chips?


    1. Yes. There’s a real art to pedagogical cookie-giving, and creating anxiety is one of the challenges. Another is that extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation. Like, literally, one way to get a dog to stop doing something is to train the dog to do that thing on cue for a reward and then stop giving the cue. Rewarding a behavior can inhibit that behavior in the absence of the trainer or reward, which may be connected to the men in my life who speak up for feminism when I’m around but not otherwise, or white people who are sensitive to and willing to speak out against racism only when there are people of color around.

      In race work as a white person, I find the most pedagogically valuable cookies are the ones that help distinguish between simultaneous helpful and unhelpful behaviors. For example, “what you just said was real messy in a bunch of ways and I want to look at them, but first I want to say that I love the fact that you’re letting your messy thoughts come out where we can look at them together instead of being paralyzed by fear of saying it wrong. I recognize that’s real growth for you, and I appreciate your leaning in in this way.” I think it’s important for us white people to learn to do that for each other and most especially for *ourselves* so that the burden of pedagogical cookie-giving doesn’t fall on the people we’re hurting with our ineptitude, who may quite reasonably respond to our very growthful-for-us behaviors with an entirely cookie-free “Ouch! Fuck you!” because actually what we said or did hurt them in real ways and the lots of learning for us still to do is much more impactful than the small positive step we just took.


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