Being an anti-racist ally is something everyone should incorporate into their everyday lives. Here, activist and author, Sophie Williams tells us how to achieve this.
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The Black Lives Matter movement was brought into the mainstream last year after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in May 2020. His death caused an outcry across the world and incentivised people to learn more about the importance of being actively anti-racist and use their privilege to take a stand against racism.
A year on from George Floyd’s death, it’s crucial that the lessons we learned in the summer of 2020 about the experiences of Black people aren’t forgotten and the steps we took to work towards being an anti-racist ally haven’t fallen by the wayside.
“You take the action by building anti-racism into your everyday life”, says Sophie Williams, who runs the Instagram account @officialmillennialblack and is the author of, Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction To Activism & Action.
Here, Sophie gives her practical advice on how you can be actively anti-racist in all areas of your life and how to ensure you are consistently holding yourself accountable when it comes to being an ally.
Listen to marginalised voices
Sophie emphasises the importance of not treating your journey to become an anti-racist ally as an act of self-improvement and acknowledging that the process isn’t really about you. A good first step to helping yourself understand this is to prioritise listening to the voices of people of colour.
“We have to listen to the voices of people who have been having these conversations for decades and generations,” she says. “We have to listen to what people are telling us they need and then amplify that instead of rewriting the message.”
“We have to try to uplift more intersectional voices,” Sophie says, explaining that you should listen to the voices of queer Black women, trans Black women and fat Black women, for example. “All of these added intersectional identities, we can’t ignore and we have to understand those additional experiences.”
Get comfortable with the fact you’re going to make mistakes
“You’re going to make mistakes,” Sophie says, talking about the journey to allyship, “because the language around this changes so quickly. People’s lived experiences are so varied and personal and individual, that you can’t be sure that you’re doing the right thing.”
“We can’t wait until we feel like we finished our education [to take action] because there will always be more education to come as the conversation continues,” she adds.
Accepting that you will make mistakes - and being able to acknowledge and correct them - is a crucial part of being proactive in your anti-racism practice, Sophie explains. It not only ensures that your education is continuous but it means you can take action at the same time as educating yourself, which is important when it comes to making progress. “Learning something is fine,” Sophie says. “But learning without application is not going to change anything.”
Recognise the places in which you have privilege and power
“I define privilege as the areas where you don’t have to struggle,” Sophie explains. “So I am Black and I am a woman, both of which are not the most powerful positions in society. But I am also able-bodied and in a heterosexual relationship.”
“You can be privileged in one area, like me being able-bodied, but disadvantaged in another, like my Blackness,” Sophie continues. “Once we understand that, we can identify that we have privileges which are areas of responsibility.”
Sophie explains that you can use your privilege to take the lessons you have learned from listening to marginalised voices to spaces where underrepresented people are not able to speak for themselves. “And it’s not about rewriting that message,” she says. “It’s just about taking that message to places that it couldn’t have gotten before.”
Identify where you can use your privilege in your personal life
Being an ally means you not only need to recognise your privilege, but use it in order to make change in all areas of your life. This could be somewhere in your personal life - Sophie uses the example of speaking to your family. “Someone talking to their mum about this being important to them is going to have much more of an impact than me making an Instagram post about it because your mum cares about you - she doesn’t know me.”
Sophie says the best way you can use your privilege in your personal life is to be consistent in flagging things that are not appropriate, “I really feel like it’s important that every time you can speak out you do that,” she explains, citing inappropriate jokes and comments as the most common things you need to flag. “If you don’t, the message that the person who is expressing those views gets back is that there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“[Calling people out] takes the burden off marginalised people to do that work for themselves, which can be much more difficult,” Sophie adds.
Understand how you can effectively use your privilege at work
Using your privilege at work is also important. Sophie says that being open about money is one way to be an ally, “Until we start talking about what we have and how we’re rewarded, other people don’t know what’s normal and they can’t advocate for themselves to be on an equal footing.”
If you are in a position of power at work, Sophie also notes the importance of not just recruiting underrepresented talent, but creating a culture that values those people and makes them feel comfortable. “I do want people to look at the sort of culture that they’re building in their workspaces and to make sure that we’re not doing a Meghan Markle – we’re not bringing people into spaces and then saying, ‘oh, how did someone like you get into that space?’”
Don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations
“Wanting to have conversations with people who you think will agree with you is nice and it’s comforting but it’s not really where the work needs to happen,” Sophie says, explaining that the people who you really need to be having difficult conversations about racism with are the people who are likely to disagree with you on the topic.
“It’s just about understanding that your discomfort in raising these topics or discomfort in having these conversations with people who might not be ideologically aligned with you, that’s not more important than the suffering and subjugation of marginalised people.”
“There’s no, ‘here’s one thing that you can say that will make a racist want to listen to you,’” Sophie continues. “It is uncomfortable. It does have an element of risk attached to it. But we have to decide that the risk is not as high as the potential reward of making a change for people.”
If you do feel yourself getting overwhelmed when you have these conversations in a way that means you can’t effectively communicate your views, Sophie suggests having some stock responses ready to help take the pressure off in that moment. Here is an example:
If someone says, “All Lives Matter”, you can respond:
“All lives should matter, yes. But all lives won’t matter until black lives matter and at the moment we treat them as if they don’t.”
Sophie has more examples of stock responses you can use in these conversations on her Instagram page.
Don’t underestimate the value of traditional forms of activism like protests, donating and writing to your MP
On the value of protests, Sophie describes them as “an adult physical representation of the constituents’ beliefs” which will ultimately encourage the people in power to make change. Donating to charities that are organising protests is also important, Sophie explains because organising is difficult and it takes time and effort.
She also recommends donating to charities like Black Minds Matter, where the money goes to people in need, “They’re receiving a tangible benefit from that which, due to structural inequality, they might not be able to access on their own. And that, to me, seems incredibly valuable.”
Sophie also explains the importance of writing to your MP and other politicians about issues you care about. With traditional forms of activism, in particular, Sophie says that it’s important to remember that you may not see results in the way you expect, “We can’t think in terms of months, we can’t even really think in terms of this year or next year. We have to think generationally, we have to think long-term. And we have to believe that the things we’re doing have a long-term impact that we can’t see now.”
“Changes are small and incremental and they stack on top of each other and they become something over time.”
Hold yourself accountable on a regular basis
On her Instagram page, Sophie asks her followers every Sunday, “what have you done this week to be actively anti-racist?” to give people the chance to hold themselves accountable. This is a necessary part of being actively anti-racist, whether it’s taking part in this process on Sophie’s Instagram or holding yourself accountable privately.
“Some people set up calendar reminders and look back at what they’ve done. Some people have accountability buddies, where they make plans and they keep each other accountable.”
This is not so you can pat yourself on the back, Sophie explains, but so you can ensure you’re actually making progress with the anti-racism work you’re trying to do. “I ask people to think about, ‘would you be doing this if no one were watching?’ And I think that’s really important because it’s not a self-improvement exercise, it’s not a personal branding exercise. And so if you wouldn’t be doing it, if people weren’t watching, then it’s probably stepping more towards white saviorism than towards anti-racism.”
The 5 things you need to remember when working towards becoming an anti-racist ally
- Listen to marginalised voices
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
- Recognise your privilege
- Use your privilege in all areas
- Hold yourself accountable
Sophie Williams, activist and author
Sophie Williams runs the Instagram account @officialmillennialblack and is the author of two books, Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Activism and Action and Millennial Black: the Black Woman’s Essential Field Guide to the Modern Workplace. Sophie is also a TED Speaker and a regular panelist, speaker, consultant, and workshop facilitator with a focus on anti-racism, and Diversity and Inclusion