In recent years, and especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, social advocacy and activism around the world have evolved and continue to evolve at an admirable pace.
The emergence of activism in the era of social media, which, whether we like it or not has assumed incredible power and sway over public opinion, has also given way to new terminology to shape the fight against social injustices. This stretches across multiple identities, countries, generations, and experiences, and in the thick of COVID-19, has largely taken place in the abstract and complex space we know as the internet.
The danger of marrying activism with media is that despite good intentions, personal action can remain confined to images and online personalities, which will not lead to the real desired change. If you want to learn how to move your fight for social justice from online to real life, then this two-part series (which draws from the work of Jess Mally, co-founder of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion agency Beloved) is for you.
Read on for a deep dive into one of the neologisms born out of contemporary English-language social justice activism: allyship.
What is an ally?
An ally is understood to be someone who advocates for the inclusion and equal representation of marginalized communities for the benefit of humanity on the whole through intentional and positive efforts. Allyship is not an identity but a state of being that continues to support people or groups outside of themselves.
Allyship is not reserved only for the super privileged—anyone can assume allyship as privilege is intersectional. Thus, men can be allies to women, white women can be allies to people of color, economically privileged people can be allies to those who are not, etc.
What is performative allyship?
The rise of performative allyship is closely related to social media, as these platforms offer people a space where their allyship is reduced to a desirable image rather than rooted in the reality of effective action.
Performative allyship usually does more harm than good, because they are centered on the actor rather than on those they are trying to align themselves with. Here are six signs that our own actions add up to performative allyship.
Your education stops with social media
Though following and reposting educators on social media can be constructive (after going through rigorous fact-checking), the oppressive systems that we are trying to subvert are too complex to be completely understood through short tweets or groups of 10 infographics.
You’re quick to tweet but slow to speak
If social media is the only space in which you stand up to racism or other forms of injustice while you let day-to-day incidents go at work or when you’re with friends and family, this is a sign that your allyship is performative.
You’re skipping over the internal work
The world is brimming with other people’s unjust actions, so it’s easy to start pointing fingers. However, allyship begins with a hard look at our own thoughts and actions, past and present. Doing the inner work required of allyship means being honest about past harm we may have caused, making the effort to apologize for it, and maintaining an open and willing mindset to learn (and unlearn).
You’re centering your voice and are profiting from your “allyship”
It can be easy to get caught up in the conversation, so much so that you end up taking over the space—however, the most effective ally is one who offers their resources and privilege to the ones who are most marginalized. So, for any community of color, this means women and trans women of color.
“It also means making space, not taking it,” writes Mally in her piece published in The Good Trade. “It’s essential to resist the urge to become the ‘savior’ (a deeply problematic notion rooted in anti-Blackness, anti-indigeneity, etc.)” She goes on to recommend the work of Black women-led advocacy group NoWhiteSaviors for those who are not familiar with the concept of saviorism.
You’re expecting a pat on the back or a thank you from those you seek to ally yourself with
Advocating for marginalized groups that have been oppressed for generations under broken systems isn’t a favor or even an act of charity. Eradicating racism and all the other “isms” is simply the right thing to do and in the end, it will benefit everyone.
You quit as soon as it gets hard
Allyship is inherently uncomfortable and difficult—it can be overwhelming to be constantly confronted with racism, discrimination, and yes, internet trolls. While the desire to switch off is understandable, it’s important to remind yourself that quitting is a privilege that many people— namely those you are advocating for, don’t have.
Now that we know how to recognize allyship that doesn’t “go beyond the black square” so to speak, check out part two to learn how to practice effective allyship.