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(Performative) Allyship

Performative allyship has become the order of the day, with many occupying leadership positions quick to lend rhetorical support to diversity and inclusion. However, to understand what performative allyship, let’s first look at what an ally is.

What is an ally?

Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) leader Sheree Atcheson in her 2018 Forbes article defines ally as “any person who actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole.” She continues by saying that “everyone has the ability to be an ally as privilege is intersectional - white women can be actionable allies to people of colour, men can be allies to women, cis people can be allies to members of the LGBTQI+ community, able-bodied people can be allies to those with different abilities, economically privileged people can be allies to those who are not and so on.” In short, an ally is someone from a non-marginalized group, who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group.

Since the global reaction to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, many leaders have found their voices in attempt to showing solidarity to marginalised communities and championing their equality. However, the black squares, rainbows and other marginalised community symbols they have shared on their social media feeds over the past 18 months, have been far from making a positive impact. This kind of self-proclaimed solidarity is what is called ‘performative allyship’. This usually involves the “ally” receiving some form of reward for their work, e.g., a like on social media that works as a virtual ‘pat on the back’ for being a ‘good person’. And this has a detrimental influence on the overall DEI progress.

Let’s look at some very recent examples:

1) Euros 2020

Football is a huge part of many cultures, and British is certainly one of those. Brits are introduced to football from a young age. This is when they often select a team that they would be a lifelong fan of, advocating for them through their wins and losses. Performative allyship (or fan-ship) comes in when we are quick to switch up the teams, when our team loses. Because how could we possibly be associated with losers?!

This year during the UEFA Euro 2020, the team England got to the finals (first time in 55 years! Pretty remarkable as it is!) where they had to face Italy in the final match. Both teams fought extremely hard, so that the winner had to be determined via football penalties or shoot-outs. The England manager Gareth Southgate picked five players, who would attempt the shoot-outs, out of which three were black men: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho. So it happened that these were also the three men whose shoot-outs were blocked by the goalie and Italy took home the winning cup.

It was a big game, the team fought hard and as loyal fans we are, we celebrated our team’s loss as our own, right? Well turns out – not really. Following England’s loss, the so called ‘football fans’ went online and made racist comments and remarks about the three young men blaming them for England’s loss.

This is an example of performative allyship, where one’s value is determined by their victories rather than their effort, skill or long-term investment. The same applies to our workplaces and communities.

2) George Floyd mural

Since the murder of George Floyd, there have been several murals created in his honour and memory across the USA. On July 14, 2021, one such mural painted on the side of a brick building in Toledo, Ohio got destroyed by lightning bolt.

While some expressed their regret and were planning to renew the mural, some took the opportunity to celebrate this by reposting pictures showing the destroyed mural with captions as “Ha-Ha, Made my day!” and similar.

These online bullies are often the very same people, who show up at BLM, Pride, Free Palestine and other movements and protests, post pictures and stories online, and yet contribute to zero work and make no contribution to the communities that they express fake solidarity to.

3) EU legislation on hijab

This July the European Union’s (EU) top court ruled that employers may forbid the wearing of visible symbols of religious or political beliefs, such as headscarves.

The hijab has sparked controversy and sharp divisions across Europe for years. For instance, in 2017 the EU court already considered ruling against hijabs in workplaces, however at that time this sparked a huge backlash among faith groups. France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, prohibited the wearing of hijabs in state schools already back in 2004. Earlier this year Switzerland voted in favour of banning burka and niqab worn in public. This was campaigned with such slogans as “Stop extremism”.

It is worth noting that in Switzerland almost no one wears burka and only around 30 women wear niqab according to research by the University of Lucerne.

In 2018 Denmark banned full-face covering in public and a few days after this came into effect, a Muslim woman wearing niqab got fined.

Ironically, in 1952 Denmark became the first country in Europe to sign the 1951 UN Convention, which is a legal foundation to protect refugees worldwide; and most refugees “knocking on” Europe’s door are often ones from Muslim majority countries, where wearing a niqab, burka or hijab are not only a norm but also represent human rights and freedom of religion.

Do Better!

The biggest problem with the examples described and many more is that whether these are comments online or passed bills and laws, it is real people doing these things. Real people, who are wishing harm and violence on their fellow-citizens and whole communities. And then, on Monday morning they’ll walk right back into their offices, as though nothing has happened, without even entertaining a thought that they might be kept accountable for their actions.

Where this becomes really damaging is when these people are in decision making places and positions, from making hiring and promotional decisions and creating corporate policy to crafting and influencing national and international laws and legislation.

Sadly, we are these people… So, here are some suggestions for you to do better:

1. Become a sponsor. Mentorship is about providing direct guidance, advice, feedback or coaching to your mentee. Whereas, sponsorship, is acting as brand manager and publicist for your protégé. Rosalind Chow has presented a great Sponsoring ABCD in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, which I have included in the further reading. Sponsoring means not only Amplifying, Boosting and Connecting, but also, (and, to my mind, most importantly), Defending you protégé. This means challenging others’ negative perceptions and protecting the protégé from harmful exposure. This might manifest as speaking up in meetings, where annual reviews are being discussed and you notice that the same characteristics used for male employees are perceived as negative for female employees. This is what will prove that you are willing to risk your status and deal with backlashes that come with standing up for what’s right.

2. Call out inappropriate behaviour. You know exactly what this is... All the comments and activities of your friends, colleagues and even family that have not sat right with you, but for the sake of your own comfort you have chosen not to say anything. These have to be called out! The more often you do it, the easier it will come.

3. Use inclusive language. Build your own self-awareness of gendered and racialised words you use. Could you swap using such racially charged phrases as “master” bedroom or list to “main or primary”? Or using the word “partner” instead of saying “boyfriend/girlfriend” to make the LGBTQ+ community more included? Or, using your pronouns in your email signature or when introducing yourself to encourage others to do the same and avoid situations where someone might be referred to by the inappropriate pronoun?

4. Recognise your privilege. This can be an uncomfortable activity, however one that is a real eye opener and vital in becoming a more mindful and respectful being.

5. Assess your circle. Who are the people you engage with on a day-to-day basis? Do you have a range of voices you can learn from? What voices are not being represented in your ecosystem? Find these people on your social media channels, follow them and examine ways you can learn from them. And remember, it is not their responsibility to teach or explain anything to you, so be prepared to do a lot of self-learning rather than demanding them to do that for you.

Equity Strategist Tara Jaye Frank summed it up perfectly when she wrote: “Want a better world? Let's be better people!”


Useful links:

EU rules hijab could be banned at work

My conversation with Hannah Drake in the two-part podcast episode “Note To White Allies”

Hannah Drake’s blog for those prepared being pushed out of their comfort zone

HBR article on Sponsorship vs. Mentorship


*Originally published in SOCIALight Magazine Conscious Growth column Issue 17. Link


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