The dangers of performative allyship
The prominence of the term “allyship” in 2020 has led to an unfortunate side effect, which can be just as damaging as the oppressive systems it is trying to dismantle – the rise of “performative allyship”.
We’ve all seen the black squares on Instagram, the defiant hashtags and supportive corporate statements, but what happens when anti-racism stops trending? How many of those who voiced outrage knuckled down and took on the hard work of actually becoming an active ally?
What is performative allyship?
As outlined in my previous blog, an ally is someone who uses their privilege to advocate for others. However, performative allyship is when the same person professes solidarity with a cause, usually very publicly, but the support is disingenuous and potentially harmful to the marginalised group. Often this is undertaken so a person can distance themselves from scrutiny, or in want of a virtual pat on the back or increased likes on social media.
Company leaders have also fallen foul of performative allyship. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, many made passionate statements and public memos in support of breaking down systemic racism. However, some black employees took to the media accusing companies of simply talking the talk, highlighting their continued poor record at empowering people from all backgrounds, not listening to concerns, or raising their suspicions about why they had been completely silent about racism up until this point. Has this nod to allyship simply been used as a lazy way to enhance a company’s brand?
Why is it dangerous?
Even if performative, surely anything that raises awareness of the struggles of marginalised groups must be good thing, right? Well, actually, no.
It’s understandable that people want to be seen to be supportive of causes, especially when there is so much messaging on social media reminding us that being silent is complicit. But activism doesn’t begin and end with a hashtag. Without meaningful action, however well-meaning your platitudes, performative allyship can stifle progress and supress attempts to foster genuinely inclusive workplaces. It simply provides an excuse for those with privilege not to make the personal efforts and sacrifices needed to address systemic issues.
When performative allyship embeds itself into an organisation’s culture, it sends the signal that while it is right to show solidarity with the problems faced by marginalised groups, they’re not important enough to tackle properly. What follows is the organisation remains homogenised, those from marginalised groups struggle to progress and toxic behaviours, such as micro-aggressions, go unchallenged leading to further marginalisation and discrimination.
How can I ensure allyship is meaningful?
Here are some steps you can take to ensure your support makes a difference.
- Check your blindspots
While every sensible person should have no problem condemning the deplorable views of the far-right and blatant misogynists, it’s not always these individuals or groups that hold the greatest influence over the mechanics of our society. Systemic apathy and privilege are the real culprits, and we can’t work towards making our worlds and workplaces more diverse and inclusive without examining the part we have played. What privileges do we each possess and how can we really use those to enhance the voices of those less heard?
Regular workplace training, from the C-suite to the office floor, can help employees identify and confront their own biases. However, as a leader it’s simply not enough to be seen to be “woke”. Make the time to listen to the concerns of your colleagues to find out what is taking place in your organisation that keeps them marginalised. That way, when you make your statements of support, you know exactly the work you need to do to make your promises a reality.
- Call it out
Have you got a colleague who constantly mixes up the names of your Asian team members? Has yet another white man been promoted to the board of directors? Does your company prevent trans people from using a bathroom of their choice? It’s easy to censure people from behind a keyboard, but it’s a lot less comfortable to do it in real life. However, ensuring you consistently call out incidents of discrimination and harassment when you see it, is a step towards effecting real change.
Invest effort in creating psychologically safe workplaces where people feel they can speak up or provide clear and simple paths so they can report incidents they have experienced or seen. Most importantly, ensure every incident is investigated fairly and sanctions given where appropriate to reiterate the behaviour that is and is not acceptable in your workplace.
- No need to shout
A lot of the time performative allyship is just that – a big ol’ performance. Sometimes authentic activism does require us to step up and shout, but more often than not it requires us to carry out unsung, simple everyday acts that will rarely be seen. If that doesn’t sit right with you, then you need to check your status as an ally.
If you do want to speak up about your company values, then ensure you’re putting just as much – or more – effort in behind the scenes to evaluate your culture and develop an inclusive environment. If all you’re making is noise, then you could be quickly exposed, and your reputation and brand image will suffer.
- Take action
Not sure what to say? Well, that’s okay, because actions always speak louder than words.
If you want to enhance the progression of those from minority backgrounds in your company, why not look at starting a mentoring scheme or apprenticeships for young people from schools or areas you often don’t hear from? Can you see where you can make a switch in your suppliers to support more black or female-run businesses? Alternatively, your company could donate to a cause that fights discrimination or racial injustice.
All these influential actions show that you are a company that is doing the work to acknowledge its power and is using it to raise up others, hopefully encouraging more to do the same.
Tell Jane can offer you valuable insight through training and support to help prevent and deal with toxic workplace issues, such as performative allyship. Get in touch by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll jump on a video call.
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