Are You a Performative Ally? Here Are the Signs.
True allies don't just say they're committed to diversity and inclusion — they show it. Here's how you can spot a genuine ally vs. a performative one.
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It's Black History Month in the United States. For those that do not identify as Black and want to appropriately celebrate and honor Black history, it might feel difficult to know what to say or do. White people have been conditioned for most of their lives to not talk about racism, to be color blind and were often taught that racial injustice had already been resolved through the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements.
Here are some of the challenges many well-intentioned, yet performative allies have when they show up in the conversation about racial issues:
- Lack of knowledge of the real history of racism
- Self-proclamation of allyship
- Inconsistent action in the face of adversity
Related: Don't Phone It In for Black History Month: 5 Ways to Show You'll Be Dialed In All Year
Sign #1: Lack of knowledge of the real history of racism
I remember hearing these messages as a child: "Things are better than they used to be" or "We all have equal opportunities now." I grew up in the 1980s in the Midwest and mainly absorbed the positives rather than the reality of the lived experience of people of color in my history classes. The story was simplified — we had slavery, it was abolished and Civil Rights solved the problem.
The reality is that we have had slavery longer than we have not had it. For the 100 years between the abolishment of slavery and Civil Rights legislation, Jim Crow laws, lynching and systemic barriers to voting, housing and education through redlining were commonplace. These systems — voting, housing and education — have racial barriers that persist today. The wealth gap today is 6 to 1. For every dollar, the average white American has, the average Black American has only about 17 cents.
Black history is American history. It should be celebrated all year long. That means that our history books need to tell deeper, richer stories about the experiences of people of color. Glorifying and often white-washing leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman create false notions of what success looks like. These stories are modeled as successful activism without addressing the fact that these leaders had bolder visions that were a part of much bigger movements. History books are more likely to be written by the majority group (not people of color) and the lack of lived experience is present in history lessons today about racism.
Take action: Research what you do not understand
Our history books may still be flawed, yet there are many resources to unlearn and relearn our real racial history. The documentaries 13th, Deconstructing Karen and the movie Selma explain more about the deeper systemic issues of racism. There are many more. Once you have done more research, it is fair to ask questions to learn more and share what you have learned with others in your personal and professional lives. Do your research first. Do not expect marginalized people to educate you.
Related: 3 Ways Leaders Can Step Into Accountability for Diversity and Inclusion
Sign #2: Self-proclamation of allyship
Allyship cannot be self-proclaimed. It is in the eye of the beholder. when people show up opportunistically, it feels very performative to those who have been marginalized their entire lives. Allyship is about progress over perfection and mistakes are likely especially as you learn more about racism. Rather than being right, it is about being open to new information and shifting perspectives.
When performative allies label themselves as allies, they are making it about them. They are centering their experience rather than the lived experiences of people of color. For allyship to be successful, power must be shared. It is a power with, not power over relationship.
Take action: Drop the ego
Rather than center your lived experiences, allies shift the attention to those that need support the most. They don't center themselves or try to rescue those around them. They ask for feedback on how their actions are landing and modify them to be better. That might mean sponsoring, advocating or mentoring those in other racial groups. Rather than advice-giving, allyship is more about listening to learn and staying curious versus judgmental.
Compare notes to somebody that's different from you. Privilege is not a bad thing as long as we share it and help others with our privilege. Empathize with the lived experiences of others different from you. By putting your own feelings aside and practicing empathy and perspective-taking of others you learn and grow as a hopeful ally. It's not about you as an ally.
Related: Here's the No. 1 Question White Leaders Ask Me About Black History Month
Sign #3: Inconsistent action in the face of adversity
Performative allies show up when it's convenient for them, not when others need you the most. When white people only show up during Black History Month, it can often cause more harm than good, especially if it's forgotten on March 1. For those that have experienced harm because of their racial identity, celebrating their history one month of the year doesn't feel genuine and perpetuates distrust between races.
Real ally activity does not fluctuate with the new cycle or diversity calendar. It is a consistent and intentional activity over time. Often when we unlearn and relearn painful truths about our history and the lived experiences that are vastly different from others, guilt can emerge. We wonder why we are just now learning these facts and how we might have contributed to the problem. It is okay to feel that way, not to act in a way that harms others. Process pain in private spaces with people you trust without pushing the pain onto others to help do the work for you or feel sympathy for you.
Take action: Challenge the status quo
Those that experienced the harm of racism want allies to speak about the issues that affect those different from themselves. When white people elevate issues of racism, they are heard differently due to the perception of not having the proverbial "skin in the game." Amplify the voices of others. Surface systemic issues that are not adequately addressed in our history lessons.
Consider how you have been complicit with the systems that uphold racism. Perhaps that's through the segregated community you live in or the system or the intergenerational wealth your family has accumulated that you have benefited from. Most white people have experienced the benefits associated with the historical mistreatment of other races. That doesn't mean you didn't work hard or don't deserve what you have achieved — it simply means the hardships you faced were not because of your skin color. Be open to accepting these learning opportunities as an aspiring ally. Apologize and own your mistakes when you make them.
Remember, allyship is about learning and often unlearning history, dropping our egos and consistently showing up in the ongoing conversations about race. Systems of inequality will not be solved overnight, and it takes all races to push for the systemic change needed for positive change.