Black History Month and active allyship in the workplace

Black History Month is not about me. I’m not black. I’m a Scottish Punjabi Sikh woman. And whilst the term BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) lumps us all into one category, trust me when I say – we’re not all the same. (More on this in another blog I wrote). However, the fact that I’m not black doesn’t give me an excuse to do nothing when it comes to Black History Month. Why should I, or anyone who is not black, rely solely on black people to educate us, come up with ideas to make the workplace more inclusive, celebrate black colleagues and their history or find ways to support and engage with the black community? Whilst I might resonate with some of the things that black people deal with on a regular basis, I could, and should, know, do, and learn, a lot more than I currently do about the particular issues the black community faces.

Creating an inclusive and diverse workplace is not easy. It takes determination, effort, commitment and focus. It can sometimes be uncomfortable. And doing this in the legal profession – a profession that many still view as being ‘white’, hierarchical, elite, only for those from a privileged background etc. – may seem even more difficult. However, each and every single one of us has the ability to bring about real change – as an ally. Broadly speaking, an ally is someone who is not a member of a particular underrepresented group but who takes action to support that group. Someone who might not necessarily understand what it feels like to be discriminated against, but who is prepared to take on the struggle as their own, and use their privilege to fight for the marginalised group.

Being an active ally in any workplace, not just the legal profession, can be hard work. Mistakes are to be expected. “What if I say the wrong thing, or do something that’s considered offensive to the very people I want to support?” This may well happen. However, in my experience, the important thing is to own those mistakes, learn from them and don’t repeat them! As allies we must be prepared to learn, and educate ourselves, every single day as well as being open to challenging, and being challenged by, our own peer group. Allies who are in leadership roles should make, and implement, changes to help those not in positions to influence such change themselves. And when making decisions to drive change, it’s important to continuously assess what, or who, is driving those changes and ensure that, in the context of Black History Month, race equality, and eradicating racism in the workplace remain the focal point. Ask the right questions – ‘Do we have a diverse group of talented people, including black people, in our organisation?’ ‘If not, why not?’ ’What can, or should, we do differently?’ ‘How do we make this better for our under represented colleagues?’

Also, while it might be easier to initiate such changes if you’re in a senior position, I strongly believe you don’t have to be in a position of ‘power’ to be an ally. Allies at all levels have a part to play – simple, everyday actions can make a huge difference. For example, I’ve found that a good ally will listen properly, appreciate the differences that exist and act accordingly going forward to show their support and understanding. Importantly, being an active ally doesn’t mean you have to be loud about it. We can educate ourselves on black history without having to tell everyone about it, support black business owners, attend black history events, become more aware about who is doing what for racial justice in our community.

Each of us should also take time to understand and be aware of our own implicit biases – none of us are free of bias and acknowledging that, and working towards trying to do better in that area, is a step in the right direction for any ally. Unconscious bias training is interesting and useful to raise awareness around individual biases and why they might exist. However, having been on a few of these training sessions now, it doesn’t necessarily teach you how to change behaviour. In my view, that can only be done by challenging and confronting actual discriminatory behaviour in the workplace. For example, calling out that derogatory term you’ve heard being used may be more effective than understanding why someone uses it in the first place.

Good, active allies will make every effort to assign the benefits their privilege affords them to those who don’t have it. This can help create a more balanced, inclusive, successful and interesting workplace. It’s important, however, not to become what I have learned is widely described as a ‘performative ally’. This type of ally was particularly prevalent on social media earlier this year as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media stories and posts from ‘allies’ calling for justice, in between a story of their latest fashion haul and a photo of the very pretty cupcake they’ve just discovered in a vintage tea room. Although this type of allyship will likely come from a good place – after all, we’re told that to be silent is to be complicit – it can be seen as performative. Essentially fleeting, it doesn’t necessarily recognise or engage the uncomfortable conversations we should be delving into to address where the responsibility lies for the issues that exist.

So, while the hashtags and the black squares create awareness to a certain extent, it’s not the same as actively advocating as an ally in person, potentially on a daily basis, in the workplace or at home. I accept that not everyone is ready to do that – being an active, vocal, ally can be hard. In an attempt to be helpful, I’ve outlined a few points below that I’ve discovered in my own journey:

  • Acknowledge, encourage and embrace the differences in your workplace. Your colleagues will usually be proud of their cultural heritage and are probably more than happy to share their stories – take the opportunity and learn from them.
  • Where possible, try and make it an organisation-wide effort – as I said at the outset, it shouldn’t just be the sole responsibility of your black/[insert other under-represented group] colleagues to organise all the events! The more people that participate and learn, the better.
  • If there is a gap in your workplace i.e. there are no black employees, try and understand why this is the case, and make focused efforts to improve in that particular area.
  • Get involved with charities/other organisations through your work’s Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives if these are available. My experience is that these can be more diverse than the legal sector. Enriching engagement with a variety of different communities allows better insight and understanding which will benefit your personal working practices, and ultimately, the workplace.

I’ve previously written ‘it's OK to be a work in progress and not the finished article’ – this absolutely applies to being an ally. The important thing is to acknowledge there is work to be done, educate ourselves, be supportive and never stop learning.

So, whilst Black History Month may not be about me, there's certainly a lot I can do to show my support during it and the rest of the year, too.

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