Leaning in: Personal reflections on anti-racism practice and the journey towards allyship

By Kristy Widdicombe-Dutch, Head of Learning Skills

‘[T]here is no freedom without rights and no rights without the freedom to exercise those rights.’

Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu

The Beginning

Creative expression helps me to process world events as I often feel angry about social and racial injustice.  I have come to realise, however, that this anger and frustration at world events is passive and does not result in any real change.  I have been largely silent, and I am owning this. I have not been the change I want to see.

On the 2nd June last year I posted a #blackouttuesday square like so many of my followers on social media, but I have only since started the real work as I realised that this in itself was a performative act for me – a way of shouting “yes, I’m in the good people club too”; I really believed that I was “one of the good ones”, something that I have now learnt is a symptom of my own white exceptionalism.  Yes, I donate to charities, have written to policymakers and continue to educate myself and my son, but I have mostly been silent about racism and anti-blackness, and I had not previously looked at the ways in which white supremacy operates within me. 

An (Un) Learning

I have learnt that white supremacy is not just about those violent people “over there”, it’s within us and if it remains unseen / unchecked can cause harm, whether we intend this harm or not. As a white, heterosexual cis woman, I have hugely benefitted from my white privilege, but I am only starting to see just how much. As Layla Saad highlights in her book, Me & White Supremacy (2020), white privilege ‘describes the unearned advantages that are granted because of one’s whiteness or ability to “pass” as white.’ (2020: 33).

I’m unlearning.  When I started this journey, I experienced a lot of shame and guilt that made me freeze before I ‘leaned in’, as the brilliant anti-racist activist Nova Reid might say.  I reflected and sat with feeling uncomfortable as this is nothing compared to the level of pain and trauma that Black or Brown people experience due to the colour of their skin.

So, here I am, in transit and on a pilgrimage of becoming.  At a brilliant workshop run by Mary Makinde (Strategic Lead: Closing the Gap) and Gavan Lennon (former Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching for Arts & Humanities) last year, Mary likened allyship practice to a pilgrimage and I continue to find this a helpful metaphor.  I’m not a religious person but I do subscribe to humanist values and I know that this pilgrimage is going to be a long haul, rather than a short trip; there is no quick fix to dismantle racism. We must spread the word and encourage others within our own circles of influence and our communities to embark on their own journey. We must also break our own echo chamber so that we are not always talking to people who share our values or perspectives on life.  As Sophie Williams points out, ‘it’s important to put ourselves in positions where we can hear a range of different views.’ (2020: 99).

Allyship is a journey and a practice rather than an identity that I can claim for myself; I’m only an Ally if someone of the Global Majority considers me so. My journey towards allyship requires vigilance – both within the communities that I inhabit and in my internal world and learnt thoughts and behaviours.

Action

Steps can be small.  Reading and watching to educate ourselves.  They can feel big, like calling out a family member for their casual racism, talking to your child about racism and helping them to recognise their own whiteness and what this means, or ensuring that the books on your bookshelf include a diversity of voices.  I’ve found it helpful to remember that the ‘things [I] do and the actions [I] take have ripples that will spread far beyond [me].’ (Ibid.: 115) and this is something that I have noticed at work and at home. The more I speak to people about the personal work I am doing and the things I have read, the more these actions speak for themselves and influence others to take their first step or share their own reflections on anti-racist practice. 

Home schooling my child during lockdown was a gift and, despite the challenges, I was able to engage my son in conversations on racism, exploring examples of social injustice. I’ve never been prouder of my son than when he first started to notice the lack of Black British history being taught to him at school, or the lack of Black and Brown faces on TV or in the stories that he reads.  When I was at school in the 80s/90s I was taught very little about Black British History and this is still sadly the case in the UK.  If you feel you are lacking in knowledge or want to teach your own child and help to fill in the gaps, I’ve recommended some resources as a starting point below.

Education & Reflection

There are so many brilliant books and websites that can educate and help you to unlearn and recognise your privilege and understand how you can combat racism, but the @laylafsaad book and @novareidofficial work is a great starting point. I have listed my personal top 5 below, but these resources lead to many others. I would also recommend tuning in to the founders of the hugely popular Instagram account @everydayracism_ established by Natalie (a CCCU graduate!) and Naomi Evans. I would also recommend their Book Club which you can sign up to.

After attending Mary & Gavan’s workshop I wanted to continue the discussion & reflection and I asked the people attending if they’d like to set up a group focused on anti-racist education and allyship and this is how the small ‘Becoming a Pilgrim’ peer group began. We started by meeting every 2 weeks to discuss our learning and reflections from the journal prompts in Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy.  This book takes the reader through a 28-day challenge prompting people with white privilege to examine their racist thoughts & behaviours.

To create an environment of safety and trust and, ‘wise outcomes’, we decided to follow the Circle Way structure.  This structure has enabled me to share my own reflections and actions as well as listen and be motivated by others. I can honestly share that this supportive peer group has been my becoming, I have developed enormously as a result and am very thankful to the other participants.  I also find sharing allyship actions, or actions we consider to be actively anti-racist, motivational – both to acknowledge the work that we’re doing and the work that we’re yet to do. Here are a couple of reflections from group members:

“Being in an antiracism circle with like-minded people has been revolutionary for me… I have gone from being truly ignorant to the issues that people of colour face every day to being Aware of my white supremacy and how race affects lives. I recommend this journey for every white person, it is difficult, it is uncomfortable but it is so worthwhile”.

Shauna McCusker, Director of Criminology, Sociology and Forensic Investigation

“It is much easier to point the finger out and it is much harder to point the finger in.” – Mikaela Loach, Anti-Racist Activist. Being part of the Becoming a Pilgrim peer group has enabled me to learn, unlearn and challenge myself in ways I may have not done on my own without the guidance and support of the group. Reading Me and White Supremacy isn’t easy, and nor should it be, but it is so important that we recognise the role we play in enabling it, if we are to truly commit to actively working to destroy racism and oppression in our society and everyday lives.

Kirsty McCarthy, Digital Communications Lead

A Call to Action

As Michelle Obama says in her bestselling book, Becoming, ‘Let’s invite one another in.  Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same.’  (2021: 421). I’m hoping that my reflections ignite your own pilgrimage towards an anti-racist & allyship practice. This is work we all need to do; we should hold each other, ourselves and the institutions within which we operate to account. This work is hard, but we must have hope and make a start, even if we may not see radical change in our lifetimes.  While the majority remain oppressed, we are all trapped and cannot be free.

So, over to you, it’s time to raise your voice as a white ally. How are you going to start or continue your journey? How are you going to keep motivated when racism is not a key talking point in the news? How are you going to hold yourself and your peers to account? You can start with the resources below, but I invite you to join me in monthly accountability check-ins, a safe space where we can come together to share our individual allyship actions and identify opportunities for future individual and collective action. 

My Personal Top 5 Resources

(Remember to check LibrarySearch or order via The University Bookshop)

  1. Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Action & Activism by Sophie Williams – A great introduction and overview with some practical suggestions and recommendations to get you started.  This is a short but powerful little book and if people are on Instagram they can follow @officialmillennialblack
  2. Me & White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla F Saad.  You can’t really practice allyship unless you lean into the personal work and reflection and Layla’s book provides a step-by-step 30-day refection process.  I continue to learn so much from the daily reflection prompts and working through this has made me take a long hard look at my privilege as a white person and understand my own relationship with white supremacy that is the current status quo.  I’d also recommend Layla’s Good Ancestor Podcast.
  3. Let’s Get Started. We’ve Got Work To Do: An Introductory Anti-Racism Guide by Nova Reid.  This is free to download from her website. This is a great introduction and Nova includes a recommended reading list.  Nova is my icon and a brilliant activist and anti-racist educator.  I would also recommend watching her TED Talk and listening to her podcast, Conversations with Nova Reid. Nova has a book coming out later this year called The Good Ally which you can pre-order now.
  4. Black British History: Black Influences on British Culture (1948-2016): 32 Hours of Teaching & Learning Material for the Parents, Guardians, and Teachers of Secondary School Students by Robin Walker, Vanika Marchall, Paula Perry & Anthony Vaughan.  I have been adapting the materials in this book to go through with my primary aged son as part of our shared education, but I can honestly say that this book provides a great intro for any age.  I’d also recommend checking out @blackbritishhistory on Instagram as well as @theblackcurriculum if you have kids and care about them having a more holistic understanding of British history. There is also a free course on teaching Black British History on Future Learn that offers a great introduction to school teachers but also is of wider interest.
  5. This Is Why I Resist: Don’t Define My Black Identity by Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu.  This book is a powerful call to action to end social and racial injustice and a message of resistance against the dehumanisation of the Black identity. Follow @sholamos1 on Instagram for more empowering thought leadership

Kristy Widdicombe-Dutch, Head of Learning Skills