Racism and ‘allyship’

16 Nov 2020   By Alison Maitland

ALONGSIDE the Covid-19 crisis, the police killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US and many other countries have been defining events of 2020.

They have focused attention on the persistence and the price of racial inequality, something that each of us has a responsibility to acknowledge and address.

Like many other white people, I’ve been listening, reading, watching and taking part in discussions about race over recent months with a heightened awareness that, individually and collectively, we must do more. While it’s a continuing process, here are some lessons I’ve learned that I’d like to share.

‘Not knowing’ has consequences

These are the words of American journalist Isabel Wilkerson. After the publication of her book The Warmth of Other Suns, about the northward migration of millions of African Americans escaping segregation and discrimination in the South, many readers told her they’d had ‘no idea’.

‘It’s time for us to know deeply what has gone before us and how we got to where we are,’ she told the International Women’s Forum World Leadership Conference last month. ‘So that we can find a way together to heal, to transcend these artificial hierarchies and to recognise how much we have in common.’

Here in Europe, some people say what’s happening with race in the US is not particularly relevant. But it is. Many European countries have histories of colonialism. Every culture harbours degrees of racism, xenophobia, and a sense of superiority towards people who are ‘different’. These just show up differently around the world.

We white people need to educate ourselves about racism

To know deeply means to learn and keep on learning. For white people, that is our responsibility. We can’t expect those on the receiving end of racial injustice to do the educating for us. Adriane M Brown, a US venture capitalist, says that white people often go to black people and ask them for their story so they can understand better. ‘I need them to understand that you put an undue burden on the black person to make you understand what is going on.’

I’m struck by how many times I’ve heard black people in recent months say they are ‘tired’ and ‘sad’ to still have to talk about race and injustice. As a white person, I need to be thoughtful about this. Systemic bias saps the energy of its victims. It’s exhausting to have to work twice as hard because there’s a bias that says you are not automatically competent because of the colour of your skin, so that you have to keep proving it, even when you’ve reached a leadership position.

In Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, co-author Elizabeth Uviebinené writes of the double standards she’s encountered at work. ‘When my white colleagues have been commended for holding their ground and being assertive, I’ve been met with accusations of being argumentative,’ she says.

Although she grew up with a ‘twice as hard’ mindset, she says ‘it is the pursuit of excellence to counter white privilege and racism that I can find demoralising’. It’s little wonder that organisations often lose talented black and minority ethnic employees who leave to create their own versions of success.

We can’t let fear keep us silent

White people often fear saying the wrong thing. I know this is a worry of mine. But this should not hold us back from getting involved.

In Me and White Supremacy, Layla Saad says that being ‘called out’ for something you’ve said or done is part of the work of anti-racism. I find this encouraging. If we’re serious about tackling racial inequality and building inclusion, we will get things wrong sometimes. We’re human. And it’s another way to learn, apologize and do it differently. That’s better than holding back because ‘it’s all too complicated’.

We may also fear ‘getting involved’. Brown says people need to be prepared to be uncomfortable. ‘A lot of women will kick themselves and say, I should have said something, I should have done something, or, I didn’t know it was so bad,’ she told the IWF conference. ‘You have these moments. Use that as your flag. Wait a minute. I just saw something that made me feel really uncomfortable. But if I don’t do something about it, I’m going to feel worse.’

Being a good ‘ally’ takes work

Many organisations encourage people in the mainstream population to be ‘allies’ of colleagues from marginalised populations. And many people are enthusiastic to take up the challenge.

This is really positive. And we must be sure it denotes real change, not merely the appearance of change. Saad describes being an ally as a consistent practice, not an identity. In other words, it’s not about you or being known as an ally, it’s about the effective action you take.

Good allies see possibility, open doors, champion, and persist. They are intentional about what they do, lessening the load carried by their black colleagues by asking how they can have an impact that will improve their situation.

We should use whatever influence we have

Whatever our sphere of influence, we should use it. Board director and adviser Rosalind Kainyah MBE says that people from ethnic minorities often struggle with career decisions because they don’t have access to the coaching, mentoring and internal sponsors that will support their progression.

‘There are a lot of white people who are uncomfortable about it and don’t know what to do,’ she told the same conference. ‘I say to people who are quite influential in their businesses: Why don’t you be a sponsor of someone in the business who otherwise won’t have somebody at the table of influence speaking for them? It’s a small thing, easy to do. Sometimes people think it’s such a big issue, but there are things we can do in our small environments. Just get on with it.’

We can also do more by expanding our networks. ‘Who are your close confidants? How many are different from you?’ asked a white colleague at another event recently. ‘Look at your circles, professional and personal. How many people very different from you are in your most active circles?’

This article has been about individual actions. There is much that organisations can and must do too. That may be the subject of another piece. Meanwhile, I’m interested to hear your views and insights. What have you learned about addressing racial inequality in recent months? And what actions are you and your organisation taking? You can contact me here.

First published by IWE, 15 Nov 2020

©Alison Maitland 2020, all rights reserved

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