Here's The Problem With Performative Allyship

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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Fellow white people, and especially white women, we need to have a chat about a thing called performative allyship—what it is, what it looks like, and why we want to avoid it. If you’re convinced this article is definitely not about you, then it definitely is about you. Oh, put your earrings back in, it’s about me too, and I’m the one writing it. *chokes down glob of humble pie*

First, let’s define what an ally is: An ally is someone from a non-marginalized group who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group. Being an ally is a good thing.

Performative allyship, on the other hand—also sometimes referred to as ally theater—is when an individual from a majority or privileged group (white/straight/cis/abled) professes their support of and/or solidarity with a marginalized group (identifies themselves as an ally) in a way that either isn’t helpful to that group, draws attention away from that group, or actively harms that group.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume everyone who labels themselves an ally genuinely wants to help. I realize that probably isn’t technically true, but assuming as much makes it possible to tackle critical variables without muddying the water with accusations of willful self-aggrandizement. We’re removing blame from the equation so we can examine ourselves with our defenses down.

Now that we know what performative allyship is, let’s talk about what it looks like. I will start with the most obvious (the kind you assume you’re innocent of) and then move to other examples that might make you want to pout in a corner with your #blacklivesmatter T-shirt, pink pussy hat, and plastic rainbow bracelet you got at the pride parade you went to last year.

The most commonly seen example of performative allyship is when a person rants passionately on social media about various injustices against people of color/LGBTQ+ folks/refugees/Jews/individuals who have disabilities/etc., but doesn’t actually do anything about those injustices.

Essentially, performative allyship is a whole lotta talk with not nearly enough walk.

If you’re unwilling to confront your uncle who blurts out during Thanksgiving dinner that he “can’t believe the gays get to adopt now,” you don’t get to post a picture on Instagram of yourself covered in rainbow paint at a gay pride parade. Listen, I get it—Uncle Bob feels like a hopeless case and confrontation sucks. But the thing about being marginalized is this: When you are the marginalized person, you don’t get to choose when to experience confrontation. You live in it. It is your skin. The very least a person with privilege can do is not shy away from their chance to educate problematic indivuals.

Other forms of performative allyship aren’t as obvious. Sometimes it looks like drawing attention to yourself when the attention needs to be on members of the marginalized group you aim to support. Do you sometimes ask a person from a marginalized group to explain things to you? Think about what this does: It positions you in such a way as to demonstrate your alignment with the cause (Look how big my heart is!), but it simultaneously asks the person to do extra work to educate you when they are already busy enough advocating for themselves.

It also puts them in the precarious position of potentially having to defend themselves after calling you out on your behavior. This is a terrible predicament to put someone in. If your question can be answered by Google but you choose to put it to your friend who is part of a marginalized group, what you’re really doing is seeking validation. USE THE GOOGLE.

Examine your motives. Are you involved in advocacy work because it feels good or because there are injustices that need addressing? Does it frustrate you when no one notices your efforts? If you’re secretly hoping for a pat on the back for being an ally, you are guilty of performative allyship. If you feel the desire to share your every action on social media, ask yourself why. Is it to get praise or to shame others for not “performing” in a way you see fit? If so, you need to check yourself.

Marginalized folks have neither the time nor the energy to applaud or thank us for our efforts—they are already busy fighting for their own rights. A bunch of cis white ladies showing up late to the party all shocked about “how bad racism still is!” is not something to be congratulated. Marginalized folks want you to stand beside, or better yet, behind them. If you’re in front, you’re a performer and you need to take a step back. If you’re holding the mic, you need to pass it to a person who is part of the marginalized group. The work of an ally is to amplify the voices of the marginalized, not speak for them.

So if you’re feeling a tad defensive and like no one appreciates all the noise you’ve been making on Facebook, put a lid on that shit.

But since I did say I would assume your intentions were good—let’s talk about what you can do to be a real ally:

Um, well, first of all, don’t label yourself an ally. I didn’t understand at first why this was objectionable either, but it’s like saying, “See what a good person I am?” You wouldn’t actually say that out loud, would you? Of course not, because it’s needy, narcissistic, and gross. It’s even worse to say “I’m an ally” because saying so yanks the attention to you and away from the words and actions and needs of the marginalized person or people, where it belongs.

If you want to be a good ally, you have to do the work. Go to protests and rallies. Donate your time and/or money to organizations like the ACLU, The NAACP, the Trevor Project, or The Native American Rights Fund that advocate for marginalized groups. Call your representatives and ask them to seek justice for the murder of black boys and girls. Educate yourself (GOOGLE). Speak up when you hear someone spouting ignorant bullshit, especially if it’s a friend or family member. Never allow the space you inhabit to provide a safe place for bigotry. Vote for, campaign for, or donate to the campaigns of candidates who belong to minority groups. Share published works written by people from minority groups.

Center the voices of those in marginalized groups. In your activism circles and in the workplace, shift the spotlight to marginalized voices. Ask their opinion (after you’ve educated yourself) and place them in positions of leadership.

Take risks. Be uncomfortable. Remember that for many who belong to marginalized groups, simply walking down the street is a risk. This is not okay. This is not a world any of us should want to live in. We need to do better than this.

White friends, it’s time to stop performing and start doing.

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