There is no switch you can flip to become an advocate for any cause, and there shouldn’t be. While sharing social media posts and bookmarking resource lists is a start, that doesn’t absolve us of the hard personal work needed to reveal our own complicities. There’s a long-term commitment involved with dismantling systems built on social injustice.
In the wake of the present Black Lives Matter movement, online spaces such as Twitter and Instagram have been flooded with support from influential people, companies, and research institutions. These messages have taken various forms, from statements to the controversial Instagram black square. Many of these statements have been met with calls for accountability toward those who had previously perpetuated racism.
As a mentor, it’s been painful to see Black students (and staff) lament being “unfollowed” by supervisors and colleagues for daring to be vocal about Black lives mattering. As a postdoctoral researcher, I’ve found the way educational institutions with reputations of ignoring racism partake in performative allyship… interesting. And as a writer with dreams to one day publish a book, it was a slap in the face to see the chair of Curtis Brown Agency tweet a statement alluding to the need for voices “unheard” and “ignored” by “the mainstream” to now be amplified.
If privileged members of society can recognize their own weight in the mainstream but fail to grasp their own complicity in anti-Black racism towards co-workers, how can true advocacy even begin?
“Black Lives Matter” isn’t a gold star for the “deserving.” It’s a belief that encompasses all Black lives. Black people shouldn’t need to be exceptional in order to receive due respect and support. All non-Black people wanting to be advocates in the workplace must first understand the added challenges Black people face every day.
The outside world already poses plenty of threats, where doing mundane things like entering our own home can get us killed. If you really believe that Black lives matter, please take the time to cultivate a truly healthy working space where Black people can feel seen and safe to get on with our work.
It’s great that many companies and institutions are openly acknowledging that they “need to do better.” They’re obviously speaking in terms of supporting the Black people they employ and bringing more on board. But continuing to hire Black people into spaces that are mentally and emotionally unsafe for us is counterproductive.
Advocacy in the workplace needs to be practiced at all levels, from the mailroom to the boardroom. This means it should be accepted as an integral part of your responsibility within the culture.
Dr. Addy Adelaine, an international social worker and CEO of Ladders4Action, shared some useful tips on how non-Black people should support Black people in current times:
“I don’t want to hear hollow statements of solidarity. Tell me what is wrong with your organization and what exactly you’re going to do about it. It’s also very important for all of us to acknowledge our own privileges and leverage these towards justice for Black people. Many of us exist in spaces, because of nuanced identities, where we need both allyship from non-BPoC (Black and people of color) and to give allyship within our own Black communities.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant Willie L. Jackson II points out that “real advocacy and comfort rarely go hand in hand.”
He cites the well-known example of actor Jessica Chastain leveraging her white privilege to negotiate more pay for Academy award-winning actor Octavia Spencer. “It’s more useful to be an ‘accomplice’ than an ally,” he says.
Pay transparency is often the first step co-workers can take. Twitter has provided case studies through #BlackInTheIvory, which details the everyday racism experiences of Black scholars. #PublishingPaidMe highlights the pay disparity between white and Black authors in publishing.
Still, these kinds of campaigns need to be habitual as opposed to stand-alone. Acts of solidarity take different forms.
As an advocate, determine exactly what actions best support the Black people in your immediate circle of influence. These actions shouldn’t be temporary, because anti-Black racism certainly is not.
Justice is a process that requires a lifetime of action. This isn’t as ominous as it sounds. What it really means is that being a true advocate and ally requires continuous questioning of your actions, your focus, and your motives to avoid complacency.
Workplace allies can foster trust by building thought patterns of solidarity over time.
Advocacy means expecting the inevitable discomfort that will come with messing up while understanding that the causes we’re fighting for are worth it.
It’s necessary to seek out resources, dive in, make mistakes, and get back in the fight. We will all need to continue learning as we go along, but the most important thing is that we make change a way of life. This means accepting the responsibility of advocacy in every workplace you’re in and then passing it on.
Furaha Asani is a postdoctoral researcher, teacher, mental health advocate, and writer. She can be found being unprofessional on Twitter.