More than a Hashtag: How do I become an active ally?

Nicola Bartholomew

Growing up in rural Scotland and the Peak District, I had an exclusively white childhood. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I did not study or play with anyone of another race until I went to university.

Thankfully, today, my world is a lot different. I love living and working in a diverse and multi-cultured environment. But in the wake of recent events, I have come to realise that, as a white female, I experience the benefits of this diversity from a position of privilege. I face my challenges with a built-in advantage: the colour of my skin is not an obstacle. I even have the luxury of not having to give it much thought.

This is not the case for the BAME community.

Like most people, I consider myself to be an open and tolerant person. I am anti-racist. But to be a strong white ally, it is simply not enough to just ‘think’ or ‘feel’ or ‘be’; we have to actually ‘do’.

Without positive action Black Lives Matter is just an empty hashtag.

So where do we start?

  • Listen: It can sometimes be hard to know what to say. I, like many, worry about making mistakes or unintentionally causing offence. But often the best course of action is to listen. Listen to what friends and colleagues from the BAME community have to say. By listening we can better understand the steps we need to take to properly support change in our communities or workplaces.
  • Educate yourself: To be an ally you have to understand the roots, and history, of the community you want to support. We cannot expect people to do this for us. It is our responsibility. Luckily, there is a wealth of material on social media, film, and in literature that can help.
  • Understand your privilege: Talking about white privilege often makes people feel uncomfortable, but as uncomfortable as these conversations can be, they are a fundamental part of us (as a society) addressing decades of unaddressed prejudice and inequality. It doesn’t mean that as a white person your life isn’t hard, it simply means that the colour of your skin doesn’t make it harder. By acknowledging and reflecting on this privilege, we are better placed to understand the community we are seeking to support.
  • Challenge your unconscious bias: Many of us don’t even realise that we are discriminating based on race. I was tidying my daughter’s room the other day. One by one I placed 20 blonde, pale-skinned dolls back into a box. Not one was of any other race. I felt ashamed. Subconsciously I had created a world of play for my daughter that was exclusively white. My natural instinct had been to pick toys that mirrored our family. This had to change. Now I have consciously started to introduce toys and books that reflect diversity. Are there areas of your work or personal life where you gravitate towards the comfort of the familiar? Can you start to challenge these biases?
  • Speak up and challenge racism: Finally, whilst racism and prejudice have many dimensions (both overt and covert), where we witness racism we must speak up and challenge it. This may not always be easy, particularly in the workplace, but as an active ally it is important that we are not passive bystanders but instead actively call out unacceptable behaviour.