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Are performative allies blocking your progress towards race equity?

Following the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, many individuals and organisations have stepped up their efforts to become an ally against racism.

Although this renewed focus on tackling racism has brought about increased awareness, education and change, institutional, systematic and interpersonal racism persists in our workplaces and across society.

HR's allyship with employees:

Pushing for progress: the workplace's role in political and social movements

What is your response to employee activism?

Why all employers must learn how to become actively anti-racist

A recent YouGov survey found that half of Black Britons are as likely to have experienced racism in the workplace as on the street, demonstrating the urgent need for action across all organisations.

There are many factors blocking real progress towards race equity at work, but performative allyship is particularly problematic because of its deceptive and pervasive nature.

Allyship is not just about intent, it requires proactive action. Whereas performance activism is surface level and done for personal gain, rather than a real commitment to creating change.

Over the past year, many organisations have done just that, capitalising on popular movements or hashtags, such as #BlackLivesMatter, to boost their popularity or appear supportive.

One could argue they are raising awareness by publicly stating their support. In reality it is purely superficial if it isn’t backed up by real changes throughout the organisation and can do more damage than good.

Performative allyship can block real progress towards race equity in the workplace. It can create the sense that organisations are ‘doing something’ but allyship can’t end there.

If there is no active work being taken to change processes that support structural racism, it can suppress attempts to create genuinely inclusive workplace environments.

In some cases, business leaders may use performance driven activism to protect the organisation’s brand from negative attention and distance themselves from potential scrutiny.

But, if the workplace isn’t being rebuilt with an anti-racist lens, the status quo remains and discriminatory attitudes and behaviours continue.

Employers need to start examining why they are advocating for race equity, or any cause. What is their real motive and intention? It is not enough to merely publish a statement of support and do a few tweets. Save your hashtags and put your energy into anti-racist agendas that enact real, authentic change and inclusion.

There are a number of steps employers should take to establish an actively anti-racist organisation.  


Review policies and protocols with an anti-racist lens and beyond

A starting point to becoming an actively anti-racist organisation is a commitment to review current policies and protocols. Policies must be designed and evaluated to ensure they are racially inclusive and Black people and People of Colour (PoC) have been involved in their development, and their lived experience has been noted and addressed.

Organisations must consider whether any policies or procedures could lead to people being excluded. Does the policy uphold institutional racism and can it be updated to reflect the demographics of the organisation?

Consistently evaluating policies and approaches is key to establishing a supportive and inclusive workplace.


Are the decision makers diverse?

Employers must understand the diversity of their workforce at all levels and take action to address a lack of representation.

This includes making sure project teams and decisions include people from diverse backgrounds, and that credit is given to the people who have been involved in the work.

Employers should consider tracking the ethnic pay gap, as well as the gender pay gap, to ensure the workplace is representative at all levels.

Leaders play a key role in driving the change that’s needed but staff at all levels need to educate themselves about race, racism and racial justice, and the mental and emotional impact it has on PoC and Black people. Too often, the onus is on PoC and Black colleagues to drive change in the workplace. This has to stop.


Provide opportunities for high quality learning

Remember, it is the responsibility of White colleagues and managers to understand systemic racism, prioritise anti-racism principles, and proactively lead change, while all the time amplifying the voices of PoC and Black people. That is a core part of being an ally.

Employers can improve this by providing high quality learning and development opportunities on a range of topics from racism and being anti-racist and an ally, to White privilege, language, microaggressions and racial gaslighting.

MHFA England has recently developed a new course Race Equity and Mental Health to help senior managers champion race equity and mental health from the top.

Ultimately any work on racial justice must impact positively on the opportunities and wellbeing of colleagues as we know that a focus on race, race equity and White privilege can be exhausting for Black people and PoC.

Organisations, leaders, managers and White colleagues must provide better support and be better allies. In 2021, no-one should have to leave parts of their identity at the door when they get to work. The impact of this on a person’s mental health can be devastating, which is why employers must act now.


Ama Afrifa-Tchie is head of people, wellbeing & equity at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England


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