Finally got around to writing down my reflections after listening to this brilliant podcast episode on Niall Alcock’s (@NiallAlcock) ‘We are in Beta’: https://weareinbeta.substack.com/p/white-ally-patrick-ottley-oconnor
A discussion on ‘White Allyship’ with Patrick Ottley- O’Connor (@ottleyoconnor), Allana Gay (@AllanaG13) and Pran Patel (@MrPranPatel). This discussion is part two of a two part episode on BAME leadership, so definitely check out part one, where Allana Gay shares her journey and leadership experience and sets up a really good context for a discussion on White Allyship in education. I’m only focussing on part two for this particular reflection.
The podcasts is structured in such a way that the contributions of each of the speakers is held together by a guiding narrative by Niall.
There were so many important points raised, but I have just picked out a few to reflect on.
White allies have “access to speak to people” that we don’t
Allana starts the episode by highlighting this really important point. We think of ‘access’ has being able to be IN spaces, but often even in those spaces we are not heard. How many times have you made a point in a meeting and been ignored, only for a White colleague to say the exact same thing, and the response be very different?
As Allana continues to share her thoughts on White allyship, she discussed the significance of White allies speaking to other White people. I found the distinction between empathy and community really helpful here. There is a lot of research to support the notion that we are more likely to listen to people when there are percieved similiarities. It is important to understand that this does not mean only White people should speak to White people, but it helps us understand why working with allies helps to ensure that the conversation reaches a wider audience. It moves us beyond just ‘preaching to the converted’ so to speak.
“Become more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable”
Patrick shares his experience of imposter syndrome, which echoes so many conversations I have had with friends and colleagues who are White allies (not self- proclaimed but proven through consistent action). The White allies I know always seem to focus on the negatives of imposter syndrome; feelings of inadequancy, self-doubt etc. However, I think in any allyship work, having some ‘imposter syndrome’ isn’t neccessarily bad.
If being self- critical means we are constantly trying to improve, if not wanting to ‘fail’ motivate us, then surely that’s a good thing? We also need to remember that most people who experience imposter syndrome, are usually competant, they’re just not confident. Maybe we need to rethink how we frame it, to see how being uncomfortable helps us to do the work required, and as Patrick says “be a part of the solution”.
Patrick also reiterates the point made by Allana on the the importance of White allies amplifying (not speaking for), the voices of PoC.
Have the conversation “appropriately”
Another important point made by Patrick was about HOW we speak to people. I agree that ‘calling out’ can be percieved as aggressive, depending on how it is done (and who it is done by). We know that in order to communicate effectively we have to consider delivery and what works in particular contexts, and with particular people. Sometimes you have to call people out in public (although a conversation in private may follow), and however hard you try, that conversation may not be percieved as dignified or respectful by the other person. We have to unpack the language we use. The word ‘appropriate’ is often racialised and gendered and we need to be aware of this, especially when we are talking about the workplace and leadership.
You might lose ‘friends’ along the way
Patrick shared his experience of challenging and losing ‘friends’ in the process of doing allyship work. I wrote a guide on ‘advice for being an ally’ shared by BAMEed in 2019 (link below), and in this guide the 10th tip was to be brave. It advises that consistency in allyship is about pushing past feelings of discomfort to keep doing what is right, even if that means losing ‘friends’, status or power along the way. This, in my opinion is the defining difference between those that self-identify as allies, and those that are recognised as allies.
Patrick highlights the importance of having a community of White allies, to offer support and to model practice. He spoke on creating a ‘safe space’ to practice uncomfortable conversations. Although I don’t think we can really create spaces that are ‘safe’ we can create spaces that support brave conversations and I think that is what Patrick offers.
Niall shared his experience of witnessing racism during a dinner, he reflected on the defensiveness the person who was called out and their adament assertion that they are a ‘good person’ not a racist. Niall’s realisation that he has “ruined dinner” is a common aftertaste in allyship work. How many of us have found ourselves in situations; whether it is a function or family dinner, where we call out something and realise in that moment that we have ‘ruined’ the mood? Niall reiterated the need of action dispite discomfort and the support that comes with having a community of allies.
This consistency in practice, is what Allana referred to as what “builds up on bravery”.
Small steps can make a difference
Allana returned to speak on the importance of access to space and in doing what you can, however small. This is an important aspect of strategic allyship. As much as we need White allies to speak on Whiteness and to amplify the voices of PoC, we also need them behind the scenes to create space. The example Allana gave of giving feedback to conference organisers is one way, another might be to ask questions about opportunities at work. Quite simply “notice the room” and ask questions about the ethnic make up of that room.
Recognise and USE your privilege to “redress the balance”
Pran joins the discuss and highlights the importance of recognising privilege to redress the balance. Pran, again like the speakers before him, highlights that being an ally requires action. He explains that inaction makes you complicit and that sometimes action means sacrifice. If you have been asked to sit on a panel or contribute to an event that lacks diversity, you need to recognise your privilege. That is not to say that you should give up frequent work opportunities, nor is it to suggest that this is all you should do, it is just one of the ‘small steps’ you could take. I will say that not all actions are equal and what may be significant to one person may not be to another so we need to recognise the nuances. A male professor giving up space on an all male panel, may not be the same as a male early career academic for example. Actions are always possible, but sacrifice is relative.
Racism is about power
Looking at racism as a system that works across a power spectrum is necessary if we are to pay close attention and understand how oppression works and effects people differently. Not every person who is White has the same level of power within the system of racism, and not all PoC are effected by racist structures in equal measure. Pran talks about the importance of recognising the privileges we hold and being aware of where we exist within the power spectrum of racism.
Start where you are
Pran and Allana’s final points about allyship being a personal journey and in not being afraid to talk about race, brings me back to the tips I wrote in the guide for allies. We have to start where we are. If that means talking to other White allies and learning about Whiteness, then that is a good a start as any. The important thing is that you start, surround yourself with support, continue to learn and reflect and remember that you cannot change it all, but you can change something.
This podcast episode was brilliant. In less than half an hour it captured thoughtful, nuanced and practical discussion on White allyship.
‘Advice for being an ally’: https://www.bameednetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/advice-5c-20for_38970569.pdf