Doing the Work: Who do I think I am to be organising anti-racism discussions as a privileged white woman?

Black Lives Matter typewriter

Miriam Lahage, Co-founder COO of Aequip

Like many others, I had an uncomfortable reckoning with myself at the time of the brutal murder of George Floyd. I have spent the last few years trying to take action and answer my need to do something to support anti-racism. I have tried in the past to deal with my uncertainty about how to avoid centering my own whiteness in that exploration. I went to the US Embassy in 2013 with 15 other concerned Londoners to protest the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old high school student who wore a hoodie on a fateful rainy night walking in his own neighbourhood. 

That was 7 years ago, before the Black Lives Matter movement started. When the first large-scale BLM protest happened in London in July of 2016 in the aftermath of the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, my son and I were there to show support and march between Black protesters and the Met police, most of whom were white and many of whom said “All Lives Matter” to the protesters, including me personally.

But most of what I did was “Salvation by Bibliography.” I am embarrassed to admit it. I read the right books, I watched the right films, I cried sincere white tears at the injustices that were happening all around me. And then I went back to living my privileged life, one where I could choose to take a stand on my own terms and where I could compartmentalise and therefore often ignore anti-Black racism when it wasn’t confronting me directly. I was the typical “nice white lady,” well-intentioned and well-meaning, who could speak against white privilege while enjoying the benefits of it. My silence with other white people made me complicit.

BLM Protestor July 2016
BLM London protester, July 2016, photo credit @_Downtomarsgirl

Then 2020, the year of four plagues, came to pass. In the midst of a public health and economic crisis, anti-Black racism that is present every day across the world had a moment no one could ignore. George Floyd’s murder under the knee of a white police officer, who pushed the very air out of his body over 8 minutes and 46 seconds, was a moment that shocked people all over the world. Through the power of technology, video on a mobile phone that stood witness to the senseless and heartbreaking death crisscrossed the globe. There was no opportunity for ambiguity. There was no question that the manner in which George Floyd’s life ended was cruel. We saw and listened and wept as individuals and as a human race.

Somehow this killing was different from the tens of thousands that came before. I know that horrible things have been done to oppressed people forever. But this time it was different.

I am ashamed to say that I recognised in myself the ability to compartmentalise for all these years. The willingness to push the everyday injustices out of my thoughts. The ability to see my personal success as something due to hard work and not of a system that is built to favour people like me. The need inside myself to stand up for anti-racism, but to approach the issue from my own white centeredness.

Social media came alive with white people expressing shock that this and other injustices could happen. The inevitable sentiment that that sort of thing happens in the US, but never in the UK. And an underlying denial of the systemic racism that exists in the US, the UK, and Europe, a denial that belies the 400 years of evidence that racism is everywhere. It is in the water–literally. It is in the air–literally. (Yes, global warming that disproportionately affects people of colour is our fourth plague.) And if it is in the water and in the air, how can it not be in each and every one of us?

Protest fist on brick wall

Black acquaintances were having awkward conversations with white people in their lives. Were they ok? What can we do? What should we do? What came from a well-meaning intention had the unfortunate impact of putting more burden on Black lives at an incredibly difficult moment. The advice I heard most frequently was to ‘do the work.’ Get yourself educated about racism. Read books. Watch films. Support Black businesses. Donate to Black organisations. Listen to Black leaders. And yes, take action, but not until you have educated yourself to learn to become an anti-racist, and how to take an appropriate role for a white person in the struggle.

For two weeks the morning stand ups at Aequip centred on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. On Friday 5 June my co-founders at Aequip and I decided we needed to do something. Aequip’s origin is that we believe that everyone is born the same, but we don’t all get to start at the same place. We at Aequip want to change that, starting in the workplace. We sent out invitations to a few other people in our network asking if they wanted to join in and do the work together. With three days’ notice, 22 people came together to start the discussion of what we should be doing and how we could do the work of self-education to tackle racism, within us and around us.

Aequip has since partnered with two charities, Newington Green Alliance and New Unity, to create a weekly programme, called Doing the Work: Tackling Racism Inside and Out, with reading, podcasts, video, and experiential learning followed by a Friday afternoon workshop. Over 30 people are taking part in the self-education programme. We are as uncomfortable and awkward and vulnerable as one might imagine. A simpler approach would be to make a donation, to attend a march, to live in the social media bubble of virtue signaling. But that would be too easy. We knew that the action that we needed to take first was in looking at the racism within, put there through the air we breathe.

06antiracism superJumbo

Doing the Work: Readings, videos and podcasts with self-reflection writing and small group workshops

Our stated aims:

  • Gain the ability to acknowledge our own biases with no judgment
  • Work on anti-racism in a community that is both non-judgmental and constructively challenging
  • Engage in mutual support and encouragement for this work
  • Assess where we each are on doing the anti-racism work towards dismantling our own biases
  • Determine what we need to do to take action and  work to dismantle racism
  • Reflect and learn how our own biases may impact other groups and individuals from different backgrounds, at work, with friends, with family
  • Create our own action plans and our own next steps towards racial justice
  • Build a template to share with other individuals or communities to use
  • Build bigger impact by sharing the approach we are taking together

Vulnerability is a lot easier after you have done it than before. I have had pangs of misgivings of starting this work and in doing it in such a public way. I knew that I would not only make mistakes, I would need to relive the mistakes that I have made in the past. The need to embrace my own vulnerability overrode the instincts for self-preservation.

One of our pieces of homework was to explore racist microaggressions and micro assaults. To recount in our own lives the times when we had witnessed, or experienced, or perpetrated, microaggressions. I shudder to think about all that I have done that I am not yet consciously aware of. I do remember a painful conversation with a Black colleague about the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane in Louisiana in 2005. He wanted to embed a donation button on our site in support of the Red Cross. I was totally ignorant in my safe white bubble of the devastating situation that many Black people in Louisiana were facing. He calmly explained it to me after receiving an insensitive comment from me. The fact that I was ignorant did not soften the sting of my words. 

We decided to embed that donate button, and intentionally avoided telling the Group President, my boss at the time, until we had made the change on the site. My colleague and I have moved on from that time, and support each other in many ways, 15 years later. My microaggression was probably just one of many that he had to deal with that day, that week, that month, that year. He was a Black man working in a white company, living in a white suburb, in a white state famous for the duality of its political liberalism and its racism. That discussion and my comment have stayed with me as a painful reminder that I need to do the work, to keep doing the work, and to no longer allow my privilege to buffer me from working to dismantle racism within.

Getting past the shame and moving to a place of constructive self-exploration where we are able to make concrete efforts to dismantle racism is the objective of Doing the Work.

Issues to be explored:

  • Racism and anti-racism constructs
  • Racial neutrality and the problems inherent in it
  • Policies not meant to be racist that have racist consequences
  • Microaggressions–the instigator, the target, and the bystander
  • How to be an anti-racist bystander
  • White fragility
  • How to speak up with friends and family
  • How to receive tough feedback about our own problematic behaviour
  • British history and how it impacts us today

This anti-racism self-exploration started after George Floyd’s murder. As I write this, Jacob Blake is in a Kenosha, Wisconsin hospital, fighting for his life after being shot in the back seven times by police in front of his children. Yes, he was unarmed. Yes, he is Black. The pattern repeats, over and over and over again. It is my great hope that white and other privileged people like me use this moment of reckoning to look within themselves and find a new way to use our privilege in the world.

In the spirit of vulnerability, think about your own circumstances. 

  • What part has racism played in your life? 
  • How has the air of systemic racism around you affected how you look at things? 
  • If you are white or otherwise privileged, how has that privilege sheltered you? 
  • Have you yourself struggled because you have come from a challenging background and never thought of the privileges that you have because of your white skin? 
  • Have you been shocked at the anti-Black racism that you see in current events? 
  • Have you recognised things that you have said in the past that were well-intentioned but had a negative impact on someone else? 
  • Did anyone give you that feedback? 
  • Have you found a way to speak up in problematic situations?
  • Have you found a way to get past defensiveness, to listen, and to express gratitude for the feedback you received?
  • Can you imagine if we were all liberated from racism?

Miriam Lahage has more than 30 years of leadership experience at global companies such as TJX, eBay and Net-a-Porter. Miriam was most recently CEO of Figleaves, where she led a product, digital, and organisational transformation. She is Co-founder and COO of Aequip.