What Are the Dangers of Performative Allyship?

By David NaarLast Updated Jul 17, 2020 4:14:31 PM ET
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Taking a stand against injustice — whether that looks like supporting the Black Lives Matter movement or championing another cause that seeks to combat or reverse unjust circumstances or treatment of different groups of people — can manifest in various ways. Some people head to the streets to protest, while others make donations to support the cause. There’s no one single way to be an activist and ally.

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However, being a true ally and advocating for a marginalized group requires more than posting on social media or expressing anger about an issue. These demonstrations of performative allyship don't assist the movement; in many cases, they hurt it. It’s essential to know what performative allyship entails so you can avoid actively harming the group you’re professing to help.

What Is Performative Allyship?

Before learning how to be a true ally for causes you care about, it's important to first understand what allyship means — and what it doesn't. An ally is someone who advocates for a marginalized group of people that they don’t themselves belong to. An ally is typically from a privileged group and uses their privilege to advocate for groups that don’t have it. People from privileged groups also typically have platforms, meaning they have more resources at their disposal to share and spread their ideas to others. As allies, they may give their platforms over to voices from marginalized groups, allowing members of those groups to access the benefits of the platform and privileges in the process in order to spread a message and fight for justice.

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Being an ally means you're actively willing and trying to understand the struggles of the marginalized group and doing what you can to learn, recognize, acknowledge and help alleviate that suffering. However, it's not enough to merely say you're an ally without taking any action to support or progress the cause. Doing so is the basis of performative allyship.

Performative allyship is not allyship. It's a manner of using the cause for personal gain or promotion. It often involves only taking actions that are publicly visible in order to gain recognition by creating the impression that you’re putting in work as an ally. It's seen in people who expect praise or gratitude for offering support and who feel frustrated if they don't get that attention.

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Someone guilty of performance allyship fails to realize that it isn't about them; their role and responsibility is to listen, support and amplify the cause while helping those affected by it — without recognition or applause. Unfortunately, many people whose actions fall under the umbrella of performative allyship assume that to be effective or supportive merely means to be loud and assertive.

What Performance Allyship Looks Like

There are varying degrees of performance allyship. Some instances are obvious and stem from self-serving purposes. Others are subtler and come from well-intentioned but misinformed people. You may be engaging in performative allyship without even realizing it.

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If you pay attention to social media or the news, you've undoubtedly witnessed examples of performative allyship. It looks like someone trying to make a cause about them or overly focusing on promoting and framing their involvement in a way that paints themselves in a positive light while accomplishing nothing of actual value for the cause they’re purportedly fighting for.

It can be tone-deaf and selfish (posing at protests and taking pictures of it for social media clout) as well as misguided (participating in ultimately meaningless social media trends). A timely example of the former involves social media influencers who used Black Lives Matter protests as backdrops for photo-ops; they weren’t even participating in the protests but wanted to create the impression that they were by posing for pictures near actual participants.

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Another example? Someone who is constantly ranting about injustices on social media, but doesn't do anything to improve them. Similarly, many performative allies turn to social media to share viral posts or use popular hashtags to showcase support and communicate sentiments gilded in language about social responsibility — but stop there. They allow their calls for justice to remain transient, merely capitalizing on social trends before quickly fading away, instead of sticking around to do the actual work.

Expressing your anger, outrage and disbelief is okay and sometimes necessary. But doing so isn’t what makes you an ally. If you’re not doing anything more to right the situation you’re upset about, it isn't productive. True advocacy hinges on action, and real allyship is often covert. While social media can help spread awareness, it's limiting. True allies are motivated by their moral compass, not their social media image.

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There are also many instances in which performance allyship is subtler. For example, if someone doesn't understand something about the cause they’re professing support for, they might ask a person from the marginalized group associated with the cause to explain it — effectively asking that person to perform emotional labor. While this is likely stemming from good intentions, it's not the responsibility of the marginalized group member to educate a privileged person. It’s the privileged person’s job to research the issue, listen to members of the marginalized group when they explain the type of help they need and then provide that help.

Why Performative Allyship Is Dangerous

Performative allyship isn't just irritating; it's problematic. It's distracting and hampers the progression of a movement by robbing attention from or silencing the voices of people who are marginalized.

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A recent example took place on "Blackout Tuesday," which was an event intended to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement and call out police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans whom police murdered. People took to Instagram to post empty black squares on their social media feeds with the purposes of showing solidarity and muting their accounts to make room to amplify Black voices.

The sentiment was thoughtful, but the execution was poor. Many people posted using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag rather than #blackouttuesday. This resulted in informative posts pertinent to the Black Lives Matter movement — many of which were being used to organize protests and keep people safe during them — getting buried in a sea of black squares on the hashtag’s feed. This actively caused harm by preventing people from obtaining timely, helpful information while organizing, limiting their access to that information when they needed it most.

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This is demonstrative and symbolic of how failing to listen to marginalized groups or to learn what true allyship means can smother essential information, drown out vital voices and collectively stall progress. Performative allyship is dangerous because if you're preoccupied with showcasing your support, it means you're not listening, learning and taking action for change, which are critical for true allyship.

Allies can't fully understand the struggles of those who are marginalized, which means they're not the best agents to deliver the messages of the movement. Performance allyship translates to taking up space on platforms that could otherwise be used for amplifying marginalized voices.

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How to Be a True Ally for Causes You Care About

Once you understand the dangers of performative allyship, it's easier to recognize what people mean when calling for true allyship. If you're genuinely interested in being a strong ally, there are some key ways you can start.

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The first is to acknowledge and understand your privilege. Having privilege means you're not affected by a specific problem that impacts others or that you're in a position where your reality doesn't require you to have to worry about issues that cause suffering for marginalized groups on a consistent basis. To be an ally, you need to be willing and able to recognize and acknowledge your privilege and then use it to advocate for those who are marginalized. This requires taking the time to listen and learn.

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One of the most straightforward ways to start being an ally is to call people out — people in real life, not just those online — who make bigoted comments. Practice speaking up and using your voice to stand up to people who express prejudiced points of view or exhibit biased behaviors. In some cases, they may be doing these things unintentionally, and they may be receptive to a discussion about why what they’re doing is wrong. If someone is visibly angry about being called out, take a different approach by asking why they feel the way they do and showing empathy to the group they’re targeting. Providing a different perspective can be helpful for demonstrating why and how certain comments affect groups negatively.

Be willing to make yourself uncomfortable and learn more about injustices, even if it means acknowledging a role you've played in perpetuating them, unknowingly or not. Start reading more books about discrimination and by authors from diverse backgrounds. The more you understand privilege and take time to listen and learn about oppression, the better positioned you'll be to speak up for people who are marginalized and give your platform over to various groups. It's critical of a true ally. It may mean having difficult conversations with friends and family. It may be uncomfortable, but that's the point — allyship is ultimately not about your discomfort. Change often doesn’t happen without challenge, and it’s long overdue that privileged groups start bearing those challenges.

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