From John Amaechi OBE – the seven difficult truths that allies on race must face

The hard truth about being an ally is that it’s a title you have to earn in the eyes of others – and there’s no easy way to do so

October 27, 2020

the seven difficult truths that allies on race must face

The events of 2020 have invested the topic of racism with more urgency than I can remember in my lifetime. People who care about diversity, inclusion and belonging haven’t just joined together to condemn shocking events. A growing number of them are looking with a critical eye closer to home. They’re asking questions of their own societies, their own histories, their own workplaces – and themselves.

This has happened before but never, I think, with quite the same intention behind it. Among the colleagues and peers that I talk to, there’s a genuine urge to educate themselves about the experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds. We want to listen, we want to learn and we want to find ways to turn positive intent into meaningful action. We aspire to be allies.

The challenge, of course, is that this aspiration alone won’t achieve much. The harsh truth is that a desire to want to help and want to support is of limited worth if we don’t understand the form that support needs to take – and if we’re not ready to take on the challenges involved.

This is why we wanted to mark Black History Month at LinkedIn with a conversation about the reality of Allyship. I could think of nobody better to hold that conversation with than John Amaechi OBE. Our LinkedIn Live session on Friday of last week showed why. It was compelling, it was provocative, and it left anyone willing to ask with no doubt about what’s required to be an ally.

For me, there were seven difficult truths that stood out. I’ve collected John’s thoughts on each of those here. There a great way into this topic – but there’s a whole lot more to explore from our conversation as well. It’s available to watch in full here – and I heartily recommend that you do.

Before I launch into these take-outs, it’s only fair that I share a little context about John himself. He’s become an authority on racism, anti-racism and the experience of being black in the UK – but it’s not an authority he celebrates. He doesn’t see it as a success that white people are ready to listen to a black man who’s relatively light skinned, extremely eloquent (“uses words with too many syllables,” is how he puts it), and has a PHD (in Psychology). It just means that they see him as similar enough to themselves to not be afraid. Similarly, he dislikes being remembered as a top basketball player (the first Brit to play in the NBA). He’s suspicious of the fact that people find it easy to characterise a black man that way – but struggle to see him as the “geek and nerd” complete with light sabre and Jedi-styled LinkedIn background pic that he is.

John Amaechi is a walking lesson in the importance of making fewer assumptions about people – even those you want to side with and support. And that’s why he’s one of the most informative, challenging people I’ve met on what it really means to be an ally:

Being an ally isn’t something you can decide about yourself

Potentially the hardest truth for would-be allies to accept is that it’s not something we can simply declare about ourselves. It’s not an intention, but a series of visible actions that make a difference to those you’re seeking to be an ally to. “Being an ally is being a type of role model and much like being a role model it’s a title that has to be bestowed rather than taken,” says John. “You become a role model when just one person looks up to you in that way. You become an ally when people look at you and say that you behave like an ally.”

Anti-racism has to involve intervention in the moment

The most obvious and important aspect of this behaviour involves a willingness, in fact a determination, to confront injustice in the moment that it actually happens. For John, this is the crucial difference between not being a racist – and being an active anti-racist. It’s the difference between support that influences others and support that simply makes yourself feel better.

“Anti-racism is the idea that the way to combat ignorance and malice and bile is to stand vociferously against it,” says John. “You don’t have to do it callously, but when you spot incivility, injustice or micro-aggression, you intervene. Many of us will see racism or sexism go on, even on virtual calls like this. We’ll see a man take credit for a woman’s idea, but then wait until after the meeting to call that woman up and assure them that we’d never do something like that. You see injustice, you do nothing, but you still implore them to see you as a good person.”

Allyship is not about feeling comfortable – and neither is performance

If you find those first two truths challenging (and I’ll admit that I do), that’s kind of the point. Putting yourself in uncomfortable situations about race is part of the ally’s role.

This contradicts many of our assumptions about an ideal workplace culture. It’s easy to imagine that the purpose of that culture is for everyone to get on as smoothly as possible and to defuse any potential conflict. However, that’s far from John Amaechi’s perspective. The business that he heads, Amaechi Performance Systems, is a strategic consultancy that deploys psychologists and behavioural scientists to increase business performance. And from a performance perspective, he believes that there’s something strange about our aversion to feeling uncomfortable on race.

“It’s so strange to me to hear people talking about discomfort around this,” he says. “I work in high-performance environments with driven, ambitious people and in no other part of their lives do they centre their ambition on comfort. Everyone accepts that you can’t grow without discomfort, but when it comes to inclusion there’s suddenly this sense that we can’t push ourselves outside of our comfort zone.”

I find this a really challenging but also an inspiring thought. If we’re to be allies, we need to see ourselves as high-performers on creating a genuinely inclusive environment – and we need to approach discomfort with the same appetite for improvement that we do in other areas.

If you don’t know what to call your black colleague, are they really your colleague?

We often think about empathy as some inherent, instinctive quality – as if we’re always capable of imagining another human being’s experience, just because we’re also a human being. When it comes to discrimination and especially racial discrimination, this falls apart. We can’t empathise without learning about things we ourselves have no experience of. And that learning is our responsibility – it’s not the responsibility of those on the receiving end to teach us.

One of the toughest things that John said during our conversation is this: “This is going to sound a bit harsh, but I need to tell people: there are implications to the things that clever people choose not to know, and smart people choose not to learn.” For John, not knowing how to address a black person because you’re worried about causing offense isn’t being sensitive – it’s withholding empathy because you’re choosing not to learn about their experience and understand where they’re coming from. Part of his definition of Allyship is knowing that you don’t know stuff – and making a commitment to learn it. That includes research and reading – but also reaching out and seeking to build relationships.

“If you don’t know what to call your black colleague, it means they’re not your colleague,” he says. “Because colleagues know a little about each other, understand and make efforts to learn. It’s absurd not to understand that my understanding of you might be enhanced by civil questions.”

Your organisation is not a meritocracy – and as an ally you don’t see it that way

Every leader I know aspires to build an organisation that’s fundamentally meritocratic. Everyone who feels successful in their career likes to feel that that success has come on merit. It can be really difficult to accept otherwise. But if we’re to build truly inclusive workplaces and act as allies in doing so, then it’s a crucial part of the process. As John has put it previously, “if your organisation is a meritocracy, it currently looks exactly like it’s supposed to look.” We know this isn’t the case.

The problem with the myth of meritocracy – and the reason why John is so keen to point it out – is that it puts meaningful efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in a negative light. “Every time we look at trying to make the world more open, those who believe it’s a meritocracy will believe you’re trying to make it unfair,” he says.

This brings us to the concept of white privilege – and the defensive reaction that many white people feel when hearing about it. It’s a reaction that John knows first-hand, because when he eloquently describes the nature of this privilege on BBC Bitesize or ITV’s Good Morning, he provokes a furious reaction on social media. You can tell how much this frustrates him – but of course, it won’t stop him making the point.

“Everybody believes in at least one kind of privilege,” he says. “Most people understand the privilege of being born into a wealthy family and going to an independent school with small classroom sizes. Everyone understands that. What’s weird is for how many people privilege ends at race.” The difficulty, as he explains, comes from the inability to comprehend a barrier that doesn’t apply to yourself. It’s not that white people sail through life because of their skin colour – white privilege is the privilege not to deal with additional barriers on top of the ones you face already. “White privilege is the absence of an impediment,” he says. “It’s the idea that what hinders someone with darker skin is invisible to you. I know people’s lives aren’t easy – especially now – but embracing privilege is always a benefit.”

True allies aren’t colour blind

It’s easy to assume that refusing to recognise a difference based on skin colour is the essence of being an ally. In fact, it can easily get in the way of tackling labels based on race. “Inclusion isn’t enhanced by the colour-blind narrative,” explains John. “The solution is to see the difference but then refuse to make the same ugly assumptions around that difference that others do – and which society has probably programmed you to use over time.”

The labels exist. The mental shortcuts exist. Refusing to acknowledge their existence can often be the opportunity they need to influence the choices you make on autopilot: whether that’s the friends you make or the project team you assemble. You can’t solve the problem if you’re determinedly blind to it.

Make your face the mirror that reflects people’s potential

John cites the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley as an important influence – and he talks eloquently about how Cooley’s ground-breaking concept of “the looking-glass self” relates to the experience of race today. Cooley changed sociology and psychology in the first years of the 20th century by describing how people’s self-image is constructed by their perceptions of how others see them. John describes how he ended up as a basketball player because when he first walked into a gym, “all I saw reflected back was potential.” This was a new experience – and one he wasn’t prepared to give up. The challenge is that it remains a rarity for black people today.

“Every day people are looking into the faces of people who make them feel stupid and sad,” he says. “One of the most important things that you can do is make sure that every person who looks at you has their potential reflected back at them.”

It feels like such a simple and empowering act – and in some ways, it is. But when it comes to addressing issues of race, that act has to be built on hard-laid foundations. As a would-be ally, you earn the right to help others see their potential by visibly addressing the barriers that hold them back – by introducing discomfort into what lots of people still instinctively see as a perfectly acceptable status quo. It’s not easy. If it were, it wouldn’t be so necessary.

Want to learn more about the experience of being black in the workplace – and what it takes to be an ally? Watch John Amaechi and Nico Lutkins’ LinkedIn Live conversation in full here.