Pass the mic

Identifying and eradicating performative allyship

Last summer, my friends and I spent most of our Friday and Saturday nights on the Main dancing in various renowned clubs of the area. No matter which club we would go to, the same phenomenon kept happening, though I did not grasp it back then. Every time a white guy would hit on me, he would always take the time to tell me how much he liked Kendrick’s verses, or how his parents either really loved Obama or had said Black Lives Matter at the dinner table. Each time this happened, I did not know how to react. Was I supposed to thank him for appreciating renowned Black figures, or for the fact that his parents had once claimed that Black lives were worth considering? Why did I even feel this urge, or rather this obligation, to thank him for his “services”? And most importantly, why did I feel like this was wrong? Patterns such as “I’m not like the other white folks, I wrote Black Lives Matter in my insta bio” were unmistakable — but I still couldn’t figure out how to define what was happening. Weeks later, I came across the term “performative allyship” and it clicked.

What is performative allyship?

According to the Anti-Oppression Network, allyship is “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people.” In other words, allyship is the constant use of one’s privilege as a tool to help marginalized groups resist oppression. Importantly, using one’s privilege as a tool should always be informed by the goals of the marginalized group one is in allyship with. Allies are people who are able to act, engage, and listen. Allyship is not an identity, and it is not a stable category. It is an action, and an action that must be repeated over and over again.

I’ve been noticing, however, that “being an ally” has become a way to accrue tremendous social capital. What I mean is that claiming to be an ally to Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), queer and trans folks, the working class, and other marginalized groups, is seen as “cool” and “trendy.” Often this form of allyship comes from feelings of guilt one may have about their privileges. White guilt, straight guilt, and settler guilt can all transform themselves into a sort of “saviour complex” whereby acting out allyship becomes a way to rid oneself of guilt.  

This form of allyship can be considered “performative allyship.” Performative allyship is empty activism driven by the conscious or unconscious desire to gain social capital and to rid oneself of guilt. This diluted form of allyship consists of benefitting from the struggles of marginalized groups’ in order to boost one’s social capital and alleviate feelings of discomfort surrounding one’s privilege.

Performative allyship is an important issue for numerous reasons. The fact that it is confused with actual allyship is concerning. Indeed, this confusion leads people to believe that allyship is all about following trending hashtags related to social movements and wearing pins with “political messages,” while it should be about actively taking part in movements by engaging and listening to marginalized communities, and taking concrete steps to change one’s own internalized beliefs and practices. This problematic phenomenon ties back to the social capital marginalized identities have acquired over the past few years. Indeed, “being into” Black and/or Queer and/or Indigenous culture has become “trendy,,” just like allyship. Having entered the mainstream culture, many cultural and linguistic elements associated with marginalized communities are now perceived as trendy and cool when used by white folks, while marginalized people are still discriminated against for simply following customs which are part of their own culture. There’s this liberal idea that it’s a good thing that marginalized communities’ cultural and linguistic customs are now exposed in mainstream media. However, the process by which these customs are allowed to enter mainstream media is problematic because it is carried out by privileged folk, who benefit from the very same things for which marginalized folks are discriminated against. The rise in the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) in the mainstream media is one of the various examples which demonstrates this problem. Indeed, terms such as “boi,” “on fleek,” “shade,” and many more originate from AAVE. These terms are now considered cool because they’re being used by white people. However, Black folks have been and are still facing discrimination for their usage of AAVE. When Black folks use AAVE it’s often associated with a lack of formal education, an assumption that is never made when white people do so.

To illustrate the way “allyship” and “performative allyship” are complete opposites, imagine the following scenario: there is a person with a microphone. The microphone represents this person’s privilege, the fact that they have a platform with which they can speak and be heard. Next to them is a person without a microphone, a person who is marginalized in this instance, who has no way to speak and be heard. A true practice of allyship would be for the person with the microphone to pass their microphone to the person without one, sharing their resources in order to give them a wider platform to advocate for what they need. However, performative allyship would look like the privileged person using their microphone to speak for the person without one, or using it while speaking to the person without. In this way, the performative ally receives the spotlight and their activism becomes a spectacle, a performance, and they are really the only person who stands to gain from the situation.

Performative allyship isn’t exclusive to white liberal folks. E V E R Y O N E can be a performative ally. Things such as access to education, being cisgender, having easy access to health care, and much more, are all privileges that can be shared by members of marginalized communities, and therefore used as tools of allyship. I’ve decided to focus on the ways performative allyship impacts BIPOC communities, but its harms reach well beyond these bounds.

Decolonization is still not a metaphor

In their article “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang explain what decolonization really entails, and therefore what active allyship with Indigenous communities demands. As the authors explain, decolonization is about the repatriation of Indigenous lands and ways of life. It is not about “decolonizing our ways of thinking” or “decolonizing our schools.” This way of framing decolonization is recurrent and renders the act of decolonization a mere figure of speech, rather than the very real action of giving back land. This is one of the ways in which performative allyship expresses itself. Twisting the act of decolonization into a metaphor enables settlers to escape the real issue: their occupation of Indigenous lands. This can be understood as a “settler move to innocence,” to use Tuck and Yang’s term. A settler move to innocence is a move by which a settler attempts to reconcile their settler guilt. Another example that Tuck and Yang give of such a move to innocence is the insistence of many settlers that they have a great-grandparent who is Indigenous. By claiming some Indigenous heritage, settlers attempt to rid themselves of the guilt that they are settlers. As it can be hard to grasp this issue just by reading about it, let me give you various institutional and individual examples of “settler moves to innocence.”

Let’s first address our dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. As the Prime Minister of this country, Trudeau has the power to instigate a lot of changes in its structure. Even though Trudeau has condemned and expressed shame at Canada’s treatment of Indigenous communities more often than any other Prime minister has, the only thing differentiating him from previous Canadian political leaders is the amount of tears he has shed while denouncing the issues Indigenous communities have been facing and denouncing for years, not to say centuries. The problem here doesn’t lie in Trudeau’s tears but rather in the way he consciously or unconsciously benefits from Indigenous communities’ trauma, gaining social capital and ridding himself of settler guilt. By repeatedly stating that he, or we settlers, are sorry for what has been done in the past Trudeau is building his reputation as a progressive and socially engaged leader. However, these words are not backed up by material actions that Indigenous leaders are demanding from the Canadian government, such as a nation-to-nation relationship. Government apologies are only as important as the concrete measures towards reparations that are being taken alongside them; the same can be said of true allyship.

Montreal also has its share of gestures that fall under performative allyship. From changing the name of a street called “Amherst” because the decorated British general wanted “to extirpate this execrable race [Indigenous communities]” to adding a white pine to the Montreal flag to “highlight First Nations contribution to the foundation of the city,” the city of Montreal’s “decolonial actions” are clearly just symbolic. Clearly these actions actually do little — if anything — to help Indigenous communities, just like all actions arising from performative allyship. They allow settlers to hold on to their microphones, rather than passing them on to Indigenous communities.

Now that we’ve covered the issues, let’s talk about solutions. In the face of rising performative allyship, many Indigenous people have taken it upon themselves to write lists of actions settlers can do in order to concretely help them in their fight towards the repatriation of their lands. Since this article focuses on Indigenous communities in Canada, here are some websites in which Indigenous folks enumerate ways in which Canadian and Montreal settlers can help:

Across Canada

In Montreal

Still not woke

Allyship with Black communities goes beyond putting a #BlackLivesMatter here and there in social medias bios. It also exceeds quoting some lyrics from Kendrick Lamar or Solange Knowles, or quoting excerpts of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” on February 1. Allyship within Black communities means confronting and challenging white supremacy on an ongoing basis. In other words, calling out your racist uncle during the family dinner is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to confronting white supremacy and anti-Black racism (but it is a good start!).

In this particular context, performative allyship is pretty easy to recognize; thousands of articles written by Black individuals defining the practice are circulating online. On a scale of “local woke Becky” to Rachel Dolezal, the range of performative allyship seems deceptively large. While woke Becky may seem like a much better ally than the woman who pretends to be Black in order to gain social capital, the actual difference in their actions is small. Both local woke Becky and Rachel Dolezal gain social capital from their proximity to Black communities, but do nothing to materially combat anti-Blackness. In order to grasp what allyship looks like in this context, analyzing the faux pas is the best thing to do. I analyze five such faux pas.

  1. Your allyship/solidarity with Black folks is driven by the need for validation. As an ally, N O B O D Y is entitled to recognition. Using privilege to give space to marginalized folks isn’t an arduous act, so why should writing #BlackLivesMatter online or sharing a petition against police brutality be met with a “thank you” from members of the Black community? Performative allies also tend to expect favours from the Black community in exchange for their allyship. Indeed, some truly believe (consciously or not) that advocating for Black communities online or in real-world settings entitles them to make insensitive anti-Black jokes or to use the N-word whenever they want. Too often, allyship is performed as  if it’s a favour privileged individuals do for the Black community, when it should be seen as duty.
  2. You do not listen. How can someone be an ally if they consistently speak to issues that do not affect them, and do not listen to those they want to be allies to? This ties back to the scenario of the microphone. Instead of listening and giving the microphone to Black folks to share their experiences, performative allies keep the microphone to themselves and ramble for hours about how racism affects Black folks on a daily basis. It is so clear that this type of allyship is empty because if it were motivated by a true desire to support anti-racist activism, the first step would be to listen: in order to help people, you need to know what help they want.
  3. You take up too much space in places that aren’t meant for you. This ties back to the notion of safe spaces. Way too often I’ve read, seen, and noticed Black exclusive spaces invaded by non-Black individuals claiming to be there as “allies.” Unfortunately, this act is a textbook example of performative allyship. By doing this, performative allies forcefully snatch the microphone out of Black folks’ hands in order to put the spotlight back onto themselves.
  4. You make it all about you (“not all____”). Being an ally isn’t about distancing yourself from your own privilege. Many people claiming to be allies to Black communities spend more time justifying themselves and claiming that they’re not like these Beckys than concretely helping Black people obtain what they’re fighting for. Being an ally is about acknowledging the privilege you have and using it to support Black communities. It is not about distancing yourself from others who share your privilege in order to obtain some kind of pity or recognition from Black folks.
  5. You ignore intersectionality. People who claim to be allies to Black communities often forget that anti-black sentiment and actions play out in many different ways. Indeed, anti-blackness can be perceived in many movements that supposedly advocate for equality, as illustrated by the movement often referred to as “white feminism.” Mainstream movements advocating for equality tend to exclude Black folks from their pursuit, which contributes to the reinforcement of white supremacy. By being passive when Black folks are excluded from conversations concerning equality, performative allies are complicit in the perpetration of anti-black actions and are therefore supporting the white supremacy they’re supposedly against.

From: Racialized students To: Allies

Once you know how performative allyship and true allyship interact in institutional and personal settings, it is interesting to think about how these dynamics work when being considered as a whole. Knowing how institutional powers and individuals use performative allyship is one thing, but knowing how individuals within institutions live out these interactions is even more interesting. As I study at an educational institution, I decided to take this chance to ask students from marginalized groups how they think the dynamic between performative allyship and allyship plays out in a university setting.

What do you think performative allyship looks like? 

Harshita: Performative allyship looks like centring yourself in an issue that not only has nothing to do with you, but is a result of an oppression you contribute to and benefit from. To me, performative allyship looks like the co-opting of activist movements and marginalized labour to enhance your image. This particular iteration of “activism” looks like public behaviours that occupy space while simultaneously silencing those who are actually affected by the issues on hand. Justin Trudeau has got a hot list running. Statements and displays of emotion only serve to enhance his brand, rather than provide meaningful change for the groups he continually speaks for.

Kyra: Performative allyship pisses me off because I think, in liberal circles, people view being “socially aware” as a way to gain popularity or influence. In races for likes and shares, tangible ways to help affected communities are often ignored or left behind. To me, performative allyship is both disappointing and exhausting, as it breeds suspicion in spaces that are supposed to be “safe” and demands the work of marginalized peoples to either make up for empty gestures or actually fix damage done.

Rasha: Performative allyship is the labeling of oneself as an ally after having learned a tiny amount about a marginalized identities and/or an introduction to anti-oppression. Calling themselves “allies” is often done with good intentions, wanting to show a desire to be friendly and open towards people who are different from them. However, how can they know whether they are actually doing anything to change the circumstances of those they want to be an “ally” to? I believe performative allyship is often self-serving; people dub themselves as allies, partake in activist circles or organizing, often without ever meaningfully contributing to social change in pursuit of the social capital of being “woke” or good. Performative allyship is something I have encountered often as a woman of colour. Most notably, I recall how during the debates over the Quebec charter of values (which targeted Muslim women disproportionately), women of colour were put in a precarious position in the feminist organizing against it. The central voices of this organizing were white francophone women who only invited women of colour to these discussions, or listened to their voices, if it were to repeat or validate a predetermined agenda.

Why does performative allyship piss you off? How is performative allyship affecting you as a member of a marginalized group?

Harshita: It puts me in a position of having to having to forgive or reassure the people who benefit from the systems that continually disadvantage people of colour. White people need to learn to process their guilt in a way that doesn’t demand racialized people to turn their focus to them. In many ways, performative allyship is a silencing tactic that invalidates POC anger. Additionally, I’d have to say it really gets to me when white people get credit for simply repeating what racialized activists have been saying for years.

Rasha: In my previous example, I mentioned how the identity of women of colour are often tokenized. I think this highlights how white people receive the biggest platform to disseminate their performative allyship in mainstream media, while marginalized women are given a platform to speak only on the condition that it fits the ideal representation constructed. Not only does this demonstrate how women of colour are invisibilized as a result of performative allyship, but also how the foundational labour, organizing, and activism of women of colour are exploited while they are simultaneously silenced.

What tips would you give to allies? What does actual allyship look like?

Harshita: A simple rule of thumb — would I be doing/saying this if I couldn’t post it on social media? Would I still feel this way if no one were to see? Is my outrage/shock/confusion taking up marginalized space? Am I conscious of the labour I demand?

Kyra: Actual allyship looks like supporting the marginalized people in your life, even at the risk of your reputation or discomfort. What does your “allyship” actually mean if you choose to stay friends with those exhibiting harmful ideals or actions? What does your “allyship” mean when you’re silent around bigotry at the dinner table? In my opinion, complacency in your day-to-day life negates any “allyship” you may perform. I have three tips for true allies:

  1. Be conscious of how you display your solidarity, particularly online. While it’s important to show your support, think about your audience when you share or retweet posts that may serve as constant reminders of trauma and violence for members of the marginalized group it relates to. If the post is graphic or detailed, remember to give warning. Although so many issues deserve more attention, spread awareness the right way; some people are just looking for a simple scroll down their timeline rather than unavoidable, harsh images of their own oppression and endangerment.
  2. Know when to be quiet/stay in your lane! Is your voice too loud – are you speaking too much on issues that you don’t have any lived experience or knowledge of? Are you fighting battles that are distracting, unproductive, or ones that the people affected simply wouldn’t want you to fight? Your silence in the right moments allows more opportunity for others to speak about what they actually need and care about.
  3. Learn (at least the basics) about the issues you’re fighting, or the movements you’re supporting. There are so many free resources around you (Google, for one)! It’s really no marginalized person’s responsibility to give you a crash course on their oppression. And if someone does take the time out of their day to educate you? Please…say thank you.

Rasha: Move away from “I’m an ally” discourse and towards a discourse of demonstrating your solidarity. It is an active stance; not a passive one — it’s constant, ongoing work. There’s no end to the learning process. Anti-oppression is an attitude, an ongoing process, an approach, and something that needs to be actively and consistently worked on. It is not a passive state, and it will never be done. You don’t get to do one “good thing” and then earn your ally badge; even if one person considers you an ally, it doesn’t mean you are to other people. Moreover, privilege shifts based on context. It’s not enough to check your privilege, or even to acknowledge the privilege that you have in a given situation. Just being aware of your privilege isn’t going to change anything. In areas where we experience privilege, it’s our responsibility to actively resist the systems of oppression that we benefit from

Why is allyship important?

Harshita: Unfortunately, marginalization isn’t naturally occurring. Current social hierarchies are the result of people in power holding groups to subordinate positions on the basis of identity. But there’s this belief in activist and leftist spaces that any support is better than no support at all. In reality, bad allyship very much exists. At its best, it’s annoying, and at its worst, it’s dangerous, as the same toxic dynamics are simply repurposed in “leftist language,” making them equally damning, but more insidious and therefore difficult to identify.

Rasha: Working in sexual violence prevention, I stand by the stance that bad support is worse than no support in undertaking the work that I do. The same can definitely be said about bad allyship; it offers no concrete methods of solidarity and can often be toxic, frustrating, or even dangerous. It is therefore important to be conscious of the quality of care we are trying to provide as support for marginalized identities. I believe there is strength in solidarity. Allyship can serve as an important tool of support, from advancing social change alongside groups to providing/sharing resources, allies can play a necessary role in furthering critical dialogue and mobilizing towards dismantling anti-oppressive structures. This, however, cannot be done under the pretense of performative allyship.

Any other thoughts on performative allyship and actual allyship?

Harshita: When in doubt, defer. Statements are great, but so are tangible actions. Learn to separate activism from your image. When you demand credit for doing the barest minimum, what you’re basically saying is that POCs should expect to face blatant violence, and should be grateful (to you specifically) when they don’t. Do your reading. Do not center your ignorance in a way that demands free education from those you’re seeking to support. Your good intentions cannot be used to evade accountability for the ways you fuck up. Be conscious of the space you take up. Avoid labelling people as “good” or “bad,” but rather, recognize the ongoing process of learning, and keep yourself a part of it.

Rasha: I think taking it upon yourself to do the work of learning and un-learning is critical — the time and emotional energy that goes into POCs explaining facets of social justice/anti-oppression work can be taxing. Instead, read texts by those directly affected, attend workshops/panels, have conversations (again, be careful how you do this). Demanding credit for being an ally does not serve to dismantle oppression or support marginalized groups. And most importantly, being an ally is active work, never passive.

Stop performative allyship!

Allyship is an important tool in social justice movements. In every sphere of life, allies using their privilege to support marginalized communities can greatly contribute to obtaining what they’re fighting for. When allyship becomes “performative allyship,” allies do not use their privilege to support marginalized folks but rather to gain social capital. Because performative allyship is pervasive today, it is incredibly important that we refocus by examining the way we are allies and ensuring that allyship retrieves its original purpose. In this article there are many examples of what allyship and performative allyship look like, and more importantly, many solutions and ideas on how to be an ally to marginalized folks in order to help performative allies understand how their allyship is problematic and how to solve it. Now that you have various tools and pieces of information about how to not fall in the trap of performative allyship, the mic is in your hands. All that’s left to see is whether you’ll keep it to yourself or give it up to the people who truly need it.

This article was edited on March 16, 2017 to better reflect the views of one of the students who was interviewed.