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How to be a better ally – Marsha Ramroop, RIBA Director of Inclusion & Diversity

In recognition of Stephen Lawrence Day, this blog on allyship offers practical steps on how we can all be better allies to those from underrepresented racialised groups – supporting our shared goal to create a fairer and more inclusive society.

21 April 2022

On Friday 22 April 2022, we’re joining the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation in marking Stephen Lawrence Day. Twenty-nine years on from when Stephen, an aspiring architect, was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack, it is crucial that we as individuals take the time to assess what actions we can take to break down the barriers of racial discrimination and tackle racism head on. 

We recognise that at present our membership, the profession, and wider built environment sector is not representative of the society we serve. It is overwhelmingly white, male, heteronormative, able-bodied and London-centric.  

Whilst improving diversity is obviously crucial, so too is inclusion. So, what steps can we take? 

How do we acknowledge our own identities and take action to break down barriers, without taking up space, and listening to lived experiences?  

This is what allyship is all about. So, pick up your CAMERA. 

Courage 

Saying you are an ally is far easier than being one. Recently in our video with Danni Kerr for International Transgender Day of Visibility, she said:  

"People often say to me the courage to be out as a trans person is amazing. Well, I think we're at a time in our society which actually takes more courage to be a trans ally.  So trans people are incredibly grateful. We need your support if you're prepared to be visible as a trans ally, that's fantastic. You're prepared to be heard as a trans ally. And, if you're prepared to be seen in the same space as transgender people, that speaks volumes." 

This is also true of other issues, such as race and disability. To stand up and use your position, privilege, and voice for others is powerful for those who do not have that. 

You need to be prepared for the hurtful and challenging pushback, and do it anyway. You need courage.  

Acknowledge privilege 

Privilege is about unearned advantage. It’s not about money, or elitism necessarily. It’s not about what you have had to do to get where you are. It’s about understanding, seeing, and acknowledging what you’ve not had to do or navigate. Structural, institutional, and societal racial discrimination is real. Some of us from racialised groups still don’t see or feel it. Sometimes that’s because the scales have yet to fall from our eyes, sometimes it’s because we’ve not yet faced these barriers, because of our own access and ability to hold white spaces. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in heavier doses for others.  

If you’re white, you’ve not had to face racism. Racism is a system. It plays out in discrimination based on not being white. Whiteness is a power position. So, as a white individual, you may have faced prejudice because of what you look like, but overall in societal structures, whiteness holds power, racialised people do not. 

So, whatever our background, if we’re white or non-white but still have privilege, we need to allow others to benefit from ours. 

Manage mistakes well 

We all make mistakes, it’s how we handle them that matters. Being an ally doesn’t mean you’ll always get it right. But when you don’t, acknowledge the mistake. Listen to how you can do things differently. Learn from the experience, reflect on the feedback, and move forward differently, ever conscious of how to be better. 

Saying sorry, meaning it, and moving forward differently is an inclusion muscle that requires much exercise in order to strengthen; and like any exercise you’re not used to, it’s very uncomfortable at first, and it’s never truly easy, but it does get better the more you do it.  

And, remember as an ally, the struggle for social and racial justice is not about you. 

Educate yourself 

It’s not up to others to educate you about race and racism.  

Take responsibility for reading, learning, being in spaces with those from racialised backgrounds, and listening and reflecting.  There are a number of different RIBA Radio episodes to help with this, and this podcast episode on white shame and discomfort is challenging listening at times, but is very useful. 

Recognise and believe 

Making behavioural changes to support others and being vocal about issues of social and racial justice doesn’t necessarily mean being an activist and campaigning. It’s about being cognisant that it's endemic in our society, and therefore, in our organisations there are structural biases. We must look to dismantle these. Therefore, the likelihood that a non-white person saying to you “I’ve experienced racism” and that experience being real, is extremely high. So, believe them. 

Remember, it’s not about intention, it’s about impact. Not many organisations or individuals set out to be discriminatory, but if the impact is discrimination we cannot deny this, and must create procedural changes to mitigate it. 

Advocate for others 

Amplifying the voices and needs of others, especially when they’re not in the room, and before sharing your own, is a powerful tool of the ally. 

Think about those perspectives not apparent and share some of your knowledge based on your learning about the issues at play. Support those with lived experiences other than your own and vocally challenge those who shared prejudiced or biased thinking or behaviours. 

It’s not easy being an ally. It requires daily conscious work, and this is where Cultural Intelligence (CQ) – helps you to process the discomfort of these moments and work towards behaving more inclusively and vocally for others. 

This is your choice: pick up your CAMERA, apply your CQ lens, and take a deep look into the image of society you need to influence, remove the filters that have been shrouding your vision, open the aperture, and let the light flood in; or don’t. 

Emeli Sande sings in Professor Green’s Read All About it Part III: 

You've got a heart as loud as lions 
So why let your voice be tamed? 
Maybe we're a little different 
There's no need to be ashamed 
You've got the light to fight the shadows 
So stop hiding it away 
Come on, come on… 

Yeah, we're all wonderful, wonderful people 
So when did we all get so fearful? 
Now we're finally finding our voices 
So take a chance, come help me sing this 

Find your courage. Use your voice. Take the struggle as your own. Bear your mistakes. Take up the mantle. Hold up others.  

And, come on. Come help me sing this, for yourselves. For society. For Stephen.  

 Useful resources: 

  • RIBA EDI CPD seminar: 6 May, 12 to 2.30pm. RIBA Director of Inclusion & Diversity, Marsha Ramroop will provide the building blocks to support you in embedding EDI in your work and practice through the framework of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) 
  • RIBA Radio - a series of podcasts focused on promoting diversity and inclusion within the architecture profession, underpinned by the key themes of CQ.
  • What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, Emma Dabiri, Penguin Books 2021 
  • We Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking with Children about Race, Pragya Agarwal, Dialogue Books 2020 
  • Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion don’t happen and what you can do about it, Sheree Atcheson, Kogan Page 2021 
  • Forbes article: Allyship - The Key To Unlocking The Power Of Diversity by Sheree Atchseon  
  • Harvard Business Review: Be A Better Ally  

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