Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash
Author: Luna Mia Sigle
The fight against racism is in everyone’s hands. However, when it comes to white people who want to make change, it can feel daunting, even intimidating, to take part in antiracism. Oftentimes they struggle to identify barriers and problems, and when they do, they might not perceive the power they have to create a more equal society.
This year at the University of Westminster we are celebrating Black History Year, and we had the pleasure to contribute with an episode of our Different Conversations podcast. On this occasion, Mr Stephen Bunbury from the School of Law and Dr Kate M. Graham from the School of Humanities speak about what it means to be an ally. The conversation was highly insightful, so we came up with an ‘ally toolkit’ inspired by their discussion to make antiracism allyship accessible to all.
What does it mean to be an ally?
An ally is typically a member of a dominant group who challenges systemic oppression. To be an ally means to take part in making the world a fairer place, but to do that, it is necessary to acknowledge social inequalities and the structural racism the world is built upon. As Dr Graham mentions on the podcast, allyship is action. Being an ally involves recognition and active participation in social change.
How is racism still a problem?
When we say that society is structurally racist, we are talking about all the ways in which the world is organised in favour of white people. This is not just structured overt racism, but is based on prejudices, ignorance and stereotypes around black people. Education, criminal justice, history, health and even our geography shape the opportunities of BAME groups, leaving them in a disadvantaged position compared to white people, who can more easily move across these spaces. “When we think about inequalities”, says Dr Graham, “we tend to see a model with the centre and the margins, and people are brought in from the margins towards the centre. That only means someone else will occupy that marginalised position.” Ally work is deconstructing that model, changing the social structure.
Still can’t see it?
Well, why would you see it? One of the highlights of the discussion was Dr Graham’s point on dismissal. When discrimination is pointed out, white people can feel a certain level of distrust or even defensiveness. Since they did not see it, did not face it, they dismiss black people’s experiences. The assumption that we would identify every injustice and that our personal experience is the same as everyone else’s is, too, a sign of our privileged position. In those cases, the best thing we can do is listen. Even if you do not fully understand, engage in active, empathetic listening.
“I really want to help; I just don’t know how”
Do not let fear stop you. It is natural to be scared of getting it wrong, and we will probably make mistakes along the way, but that is fine as long as we rectify. We can all learn by reading and doing research. Try. Listen. Ask questions. Question yourself. Allyship is not about ticking boxes. There is no checklist that will stop racism, because ticking boxes is not thinking. There are endless places where we can contribute to antiracism—our workplace, our friendship circles, our family, the content we consume—, and once we start seeing it; it never stops. Our critical thinking skills permeate everything, and if we equip ourselves with them, our fight against racism gets easier.
How to contribute
- Listening is contributing: when we engage in learning, reading and hearing black people’s stories, we are contributing. We never stop learning.
- Show up: be present, take part in activities and offer support. Our presence shows that we care and want to make change. By reading this article you are making change.
- Acknowledge your privilege: people who are allowed to speak, to make decisions, to shape the world, are usually people in privileged positions. Minority groups have a right to be in those places. We can all contribute to that.
- Be emotional: there is nothing wrong with caring about antiracism and showing it. Conversations facilitate change, and these should not be restricted to behavioural codes. As Mr Bunbury says on the podcast, social norms preventing emotional viewpoints work as mechanisms to exclude minorities. If we do not talk about problems unseen by the majority, they are never going to change.
- Focus on small changes: we cannot be experts on everything. What are you interested in already? “Think about how you learn. Think about the spaces that you are in, and then think about how you can read, listen and engage in ways that will help you make changes in the spaces that you are in”, Dr Graham suggests, “we all make culture.”
If you would like to watch our amazing colleagues talking about “How To Be an Ally” on our podcast, click on the video above. Don’t forget to subscribe to Different Conversations on YouTube, listen in on iTunes, Spotify or any other channel that suits you best. You can also follow us on Twitter where we share all the most exciting news and updates.
About our guests
Mr Stephen Bunbury LLB (Hons) LLM MA PgDip Pg Cert SFHEA FRSA is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Westminster. His expertise lies in contract law, consumer law, tort, medical law, employment law, disability discrimination and legal skills. He is also Co-Lead for the Law School EDI Working Group and Lead of the Law School Quality and Academic Integrity. Mr Bunbury is a member of the Academic Council and sits on the Black History Year Steering Committee. He is a Research, Learning and Development Officer on the BME Staff Network Committee.
Dr Kate M. Graham PhD is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Westminster. Her research focuses on Early Modern drama, revenge, contemporary performances of Early Modern drama, contemporary queer culture and queer history. She is also the convenor of the School of Humanities EDI Working Group and a member of the Black History Year Steering Committee.