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October 20, 2022

How to Be a (Real) Anti-Racist Ally

Alice Gledhill

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In a recent blog, we recommended four books to help you to learn about Black history and experiences. But positive change depends on action, and this year's theme for Black History Month U.K. is "change not words." So we need to do more than read to become anti-racist.

Anti-racism is about more than just being non-racist. It's about actively combating racism. This can seem daunting, but there are lots of things you can do. Here, we explore some strategies to help you actively fight racism.

Avoid Performative Allyship

Have you ever seen a viral video of someone doing something superficially generous for a homeless person? Or maybe you've seen a sad LinkedIn post from a manager, upset because they've had to let some of their workforce go? You've almost certainly seen people change their social media profile pictures or post supportive messages to causes they believe in, like posting a black square in 2020.

These could all be considered examples of performative allyship, where support for someone or something is "performed," rather than being something actually helpful. And while these actions sometimes do help the marginalized person or community, the main purpose is to make the ally look or feel good.

Author Nova Reid highlights why not all acts of allyship are authentic. She says, "There's an impulsive desire to fix, to be the hero of the story, to swoop in and rescue and, for some, it also comes from a place of superiority and/or a desire to be forgiven."

So if you're thinking of all the ways you can demonstrate good allyship for social media likes, think again. Being anti-racist is not a TikTok trend. Instead, in Nova's words, "A good ally is a person who advocates and works alongside the Black community, who uplifts communities for a shared common goal."

RESIST Racism

The "RESIST method" highlights steps that you can take to play your part. Its creator, Claudia Crawley, a Black career coach and anti-racist consultant, explains how to apply it:

"Recognize. Racism exists. Recognizing and acknowledging this is the first step in the anti-racist fight.
Educate. Educate yourself. There are lots of books, videos and articles out there to get you going and keep you busy learning. Then, educate others – family, friends, and co-workers.  
Support. Amplify Black and Brown voices where you can, and support other allies, too. Remember that you too need support. So get support for yourself from fellow allies. It’s a tough struggle and it’s impossible to take it on alone without support. 
Interrupt. If you see racist behavior, interrupt it! Interrupt your own behavior too if you're called out for expressing unconscious bias, prejudice or microaggressions. This means accepting when you screw up, apologizing and seeking to learn from the experience. 
Spot. Look around and notice who is in your workplace. At what levels are they based? Is the entirety of your leadership team White? Speak out if it's not right! 
Talk. Have discussions with your friends, family and co-workers about racism. Normalize talks about racism and anti-racism in the workplace Talk to organizations that are doing things well and learn from them. Talk to your children too and take the taboo out of racism as a topic. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!"

How to Interrupt Racism

Racism doesn't always look like a violent attack. Often, it comes in the form of everyday microaggressions.

Failing to bother to learn how to pronounce someone's name, comparing two Black people that look nothing alike, or touching a Black person's hair are all common examples. Individually, they may not seem like a big deal, but over time they wear a person down – like drip torture. So it's important that we do all we can to stop and correct this behavior whenever we see it.

It can be nerve-wracking to interrupt microaggressions, but there are ways you can help to safely defuse the situation.

In many cases, the person committing a microaggression may not be aware that they're causing harm. It's important to approach gently and with an open mind. Attempting to reproach them could only make things worse if they become defensive.

To keep everyone safe, respond to the situation calmly – don't try to scold or fight off the aggressor. Instead, engage the victim. Talk to them and ignore the attacker. Continue the conversation until the attacker gives up and leaves. Then, check that the victim is OK and offer to escort them to a safe space. 

Get Your Workplace Involved!

Dismantling racism needs to be treated like any other strategic imperative or transformational change.

“Businesses are run on this fundamental formula: define your strategy, set specific goals with clear accountabilities, and then tie rewards to successful outcomes. Creating a racially equitable culture is no different,” say Margaret H. Greenberg and Gina Greenlee, coauthors of "The Business of Race: How to Create and Sustain an Anti-racist Workplace AND Why It’s Actually Good for Business."

Margaret H. Greenberg, who identifies as White, and Gina Greenlee, who identifies as Black, interviewed more than two-dozen leaders from a wide range of industries, roles, races, and ethnicities for The Business of Race. The need for a strategy that is core to the business was stressed again and again. “This is not an HR initiative or a check-off-the-box exercise,” say Greenberg and Greenlee. “No matter your company size, no matter if you have dedicated DEI professionals, no matter your industry – you need a strategy.”

Managers and leaders play a key role in tackling institutional racism. Here are a few suggestions for how to make a positive change in your organization and start building your strategy:

  • Don’t just be a mentor, be a sponsor. (“Sponsorship is different from mentorship,” say Greenberg and Greenlee. “The sponsor actively advocates for the employee of color and seeks out growth and advancement opportunities for them. Rather than pair by age or gender as mentorships are often structured, sponsorships pair senior executives, who are still most often White, with BIPOC employees whom they want to develop into more senior leadership roles.”)
  • Ensure that all images and language used in job ads and collateral material are inclusive. And rather than hiring for "cultural fit," create diverse recruitment panels and consider "blind" interviews.
  • Review your suppliers. How are they diverse?
  • Be involved at diversity and inclusion events.
  • Provide transparency around any racial and ethnicity pay gaps, and how you will address these.
  • Set up sponsorship and/or mentoring, or employee resource groups for underrepresented people.
  • Respond to allegations of racism promptly and seriously.
  • Ask an inclusion expert for advice if you don't have enough internal expertise.

By combining learning and action, we can come together to make positive change. Learn more in our Racism in the Workplace blogs: Our First Conversation and No Laughing Matter

Have an Open Mind, But Pick Your Battles

I spoke to Katrina Bath, Junior User Researcher at Emerald Group, and she was willing to share her feelings on the subject. Katrina said, "From personal experience, I've found that denying someone their opinion usually escalates the disagreement, so I think we need to be able to hear those people out.

"Be mindful that everyone still has a right to an opinion. Change and eradicating century-old mindsets take time. And make sure that you're respectful even if the other person isn't. We don't need to sink to anyone's lower level."

However, sometimes you have to know when to walk away. Try as you might, there will always be some people who refuse to accept that their behavior is offensive or damaging.

Katrina has experienced this too, adding, "I often find that people on the receiving end of racism are the ones who have to be more tolerant of unreasonable views, but why should we have to just stand there and listen? I recently experienced a similar situation and I found it very upsetting and tiring as not everyone is open to being educated.

"Sometimes, facing heated situations with determination to correct the other person might have the opposite effect, which could result in a dangerous situation," Katrina warns. "In these instances, it's more important to put your own safety first."

"Not everyone is going to change their mindset. That's a loss for us, but it's inevitable. Instead, we should focus on getting through to the people who do want to listen. If the majority of people understand that racism is wrong then the minority of people who are racist won't have a platform or opportunities to harass people."

What strategies has your workplace implemented to combat institutional racism? What are you doing to be an anti-racist ally? Tell us in the comments below!


With thanks to Claudia Crawley for permission to use the RESIST method, and for kindly reviewing this blog. And thanks to Margaret H. Greenberg and Gina Greenlee, for sharing their insights and also reviewing this blog.

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