Why privilege matters: activist Sophie Williams on the first step to becoming an anti-racist ally

Activist Sophie Williams explains why recognising privilege is so important in the first step to becoming an anti-racist ally: to take a hard stance against racism wherever and whenever we see it.

The death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many others, has pushed racial injustice into mainstream awareness this year, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain pace around the world. 

But as anti-racist campaigner Sophie Williams points out in an eye-opening seminar for Stylist Live @ Home this weekend, racism (and how to combat it) is hardly a new topic; it’s been at the centre of many people’s lived experiences for centuries. 

“I think we’ve seen a lot of people in 2020 suddenly feel their skin in the game,” Williams, who has amassed a huge platform on her Instagram, Millennial Black, says. “Suddenly feel that they’re a part of this conversation that’s been going on for a long time, but they’ve never had their voice in.”

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With this comes a renewed urge to do something; to be part of long-term change. And one of the best ways of doing so, according to Williams, is to become an anti-racist ally – a process she details in her book, Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Action and Activism

Contrary to many misperceptions floating around, being an ally in the context of racism is not about self-improvement, finding a solution, speaking the loudest or becoming more “woke”. Instead it means “being active, doing something” and “speaking out to make the world a better place for marginalised groups,” says Williams. It’s about learning about and listening to what marginalised voices need. 

Understanding privilege therefore becomes a key element in tackling racism; because, as Williams says, “allyship is about recognising your privileges and using those to speak out and make change”. 

In her fascinating and important talk at Stylist Live, Williams dissects how to build your life about becoming an anti-racist ally. Here are some of her first steps in understanding the process, as told in Williams’ own words. You can find out more about how to put it into action in the workplace with Williams’ session in full, as part of the Stylist Live @ Home festival running all this weekend.

What’s the difference between not being racist and being actively anti-racist?

Not being racist is really a passive state. It’s an important first step and of course it’s the baseline that we want everyone to be at. But it really is, at this point, the bare minimum of what we need. 

Not being racist is about what you believe and what you don’t believe. You don’t believe people should have different or worse experiences, or outcomes in their lives, just because of the colour of their skin. That’s great: but it’s not doing something. It means that you’re probably not out at the weekends committing hate crimes, which is great, but it’s not an active state.  

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Anti-racism, on the other hand; that’s a really active state. We can only judge anti-racism by what people do, not by what people believe. Anti-racism is standing up, it’s speaking up, it’s speaking out. It’s taking a hard stance against racism wherever and whenever we see it. 

It can be awkward or it can be uncomfortable. It can be intimidating to have conversations that we’d otherwise rather avoid in our lives. But that’s what we need. That’s what allyship is; that’s what anti-racism is. It’s putting ourselves in those positions, and it’s having those conversations because we know that it’s the best thing to do, to make a fairer society for everybody. 

What is the meaning of allyship? 

This year we’ve heard a lot of “I’ll never understand you but I stand with you”. And I get it, I get the sentiment behind that. But just like the black squares [posted as part of an Instagram Blackout Tuesday movement in support of Black Lives Matter], that doesn’t quite hit the mark. That doesn’t quite do what we need it to do. 

What we need is: “I’ve learnt and I’ve listened and I’m going to put in the work to make change”. That’s what allyship is. 

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Just like being clever or important, that label of “ally” means a lot more if someone else puts it on you than if it’s something we stick on ourselves. So being an ally is taking on other people’s struggles and using our privileges, using our advantages, using our voices, to uplift and amplify those conversations: because it’s the right thing to do for the good of other people. 

I think that good allies in 2020 recognise that this allyship conversation, this anti-racism conversation, isn’t a new conversation […] Allyship is about listening to the people who’ve been marginalised by society, hearing their struggles, hearing what they want, hearing their lived experiences. And then using your privileges […] to spread that message. But it’s not your message. It’s the message of people who have that lived experience.  

What does privilege really mean? 

To me, privilege is really simple. Privilege is just the areas where you don’t have to struggle. When you say someone has a privilege,  that doesn’t mean their whole life has been easy. That doesn’t mean you’ve had everything handed to you or you’ve never had to work for what you’ve got. That’s not what we mean when we say privilege.

Also having privilege doesn’t mean you have privilege in all areas, because we’re all made up of so many different facets. Intersectionality is a term that was coined in 1989 by Black feminist thinker Kimberlé Crenshaw. And what intersectionality shows us is that we’re all made up of lots of different facets. Lots of different overlapping, overlaying parts of ourselves.

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[…] So when you see me, or anyone else, you don’t just see my Blackness or my womanness. You see all of the parts that make up me, and you, and everybody else, all at the same time. You don’t just take a slice of somebody, and society doesn’t just react to one slice of somebody. We’re all the different facets of ourselves, all at once, all on top of each other. 

Why is privilege important? 

Audre Lorde said, “There’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single-issue lives.” We are all existing with multiple identities, all at the same time and they all come together to make us. So recognising your privileges is just about recognising which facets of those you don’t have to struggle with. Those are the areas where you have privilege. 

Take myself, for example. I have Blackness, which is marginalised in our society and I have womanness, and that is also marginalised in our society. But I have lots of other things that make up me. Able body-ness, Cisgender-ness, hetrosexuality. All of those things are also part of me, and they’re parts of me that society has said are ‘good’; that society values. And those are my privileges because they’re areas where I don’t have to struggle. So we can see that I can be marginalised in some areas of my identity, and privileged in others.

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Another area where I, as a Black woman, am really privileged, is that I am an incredibly light-skinned, mixed race Black woman. And that shouldn’t be a privilege. But in a society that values whiteness, proximity to whiteness is an advantage. And it’s one that I have that I’m aware other darker-skinned Black people don’t. And that’s something that I have to recognise in the work that I’m doing. 

For example, Millennial Black [Williams’ upcoming book] is a book that is about Black women’s experiences at work. But if I want to be an ally, I can’t just use myself as the example here, because my experience is not universal. And so I went out of my way to interview women with all kinds of lived experiences. Black women with all kinds of different intersectional identities. So I could tell the widest, most representative story about them. Because allyship is not just about telling your story; it’s about using your privileges and your platform to uplift the voices of others.

Want to hear more from Sophie Williams about how you can be an anti-racist ally in the workplace? Tune into her session, along with many other thought-provoking talks: Stylist Live @ Home tickets are still available from just £15 and give you full access to the weekend’s events. Don’t worry if you can’t make it this weekend: you’ll also have two weeks to watch the sessions on demand on catch-up, available until November 29, via this link. Stylist Live @ Home guests will also get first access to discounts across our curated shopping collections courtesy of The Drop. All tickets include a £1 donation to Women for Women International.


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