Performative allyship is deadly

Words: Holiday Phillips

Coach, consultant and Conduit member Holiday Phillips explains why we can’t allow performative allyship to take centre stage in the quest for equality and shares some ways in which we can all start advocating with our actions.

On the 25th February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, was shot dead in the middle of the day by two white men (a retired policeman and his son). They got in the car, tailed him, and shot him twice at point blank range. He bled out and died in the presence of his murderers. Murderers who for nearly 3 months had no charges weighed against them, until the shooting gained widespread attention on social media and provoked outrage.

On the 7th May 2020, largely attributed to the public outcry, his murderers Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael were arrested and charged with murder.

This has been heralded as a victory for the powers of social media, a place where normal citizens can “use their voice” to demand justice. And use their voice they did. As I scrolled through instagram in the days that the incident “went viral” on social media, I read post after post from white influencers and friends hashtagging for Ahmaud. Professing their outrage and disbelief. Urging us to #sayhisname. These posts were invariably met with comments from their (mostly) white followers thanking them for their “bravery” and praising them for “speaking truth to power”. Instead of feeling bolstered by this act of solidarity, I found myself feeling angry and afraid.

I found myself thinking — you’re here now, but where are you the other 364 days a year when anti-racism isn’t trending. When racism isn’t tucked safely behind the screen in your hand, but in front of your face?

The sometime success of this kind of public allyship, must not be overlooked. Voices were heard and some small version of justice may be served as a result. But we must also not be lulled into a false sense of security that this kind of allyship is enough to dismantle the conditions that made it possible for an innocent black man to be lynched in broad daylight. And we must not let the kind of performative allyship that begins and ends with hashtags take centre stage in the quest for equality.

What is performative allyship?

First, let’s look at what real allyship is. An ally is someone from a non-marginalised group who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalised group. Performative allyship, on the other hand is when those same people profess their support and solidarity with a marginalised group in a way that isn’t helpful or actively harms that group. Performative allyship usually involves the “ally” receiving some kind of reward, in the case of social media the virtual pat on the back you receive for being a good person.

I want to make clear that I do not exempt myself from this kind of behaviour. I myself have spoken online with fervent vigour about the evils of factory farming only to later that day sneak a piece of cheese from my partners plate (if I didn’t order it, I’m still vegan right?).

And again it’s important to acknowledge that in some cases, large scale public outcry can actually lead to action — as we hope is true in the case of Ahmaud Arbery.

But the problem with performative allyship is not that it in itself damages, but that it excuses. It excuses privileged people from making the personal sacrifices necessary, to touch the depth of the systemic issues it claims to address. If you hashtagged #sayhisname, you stand against racism right? You’ve done your bit, right? Wrong.

Looking through the stories of apparent white allies, shouting for justice, my heart broke to see their #justiceforahmaud post immediately followed by a post advertising their latest offering, or talking cheerily about something completely unrelated. This kind of allyship is clearly transient. It’s a passing story. It’s a repost. It’s for the gram. It’s cheap and inauthentic.

How do you spot performative allyship?

Four clues. First — it’s usually simple, a few words, an image or whatever the going hashtag is. Performative allyship invariably refuses to engage with the complexity below the surface or say anything new. Second — it almost always expresses itself as outrage, disbelief or anger “at the injustice”. But sadly your outrage isn’t useful, if anything it’s a marker of your privilege, that to you racism is still surprising. Trust me when I say, this is not so for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) for whom racism is an everyday reality. Third — it refuses to acknowledge any personal responsibility for the systemic issues that provided the context for the relevant tragedy, instead it looks at a villain “out there”, a crooked police-person or a heartless Conservative. It separates me (good) from them (bad). Fourth — and perhaps most noticeable, it’s usually met with praise, approval or admiration for the person expressing it. That is its lifeblood.

If on reading my words you recognise some of this in yourself, know that this doesn’t mean I think you don’t care, or that you’re a bad person or a racist. Just that you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that your activism can begin and end with a hashtag.

But systemic racism doesn’t care about your hashtags and your outrage. People have been hashtagging #blacklivesmatter for 8 years, and young black men are literally being killed in the street for jogging. It’s critical to realise that if your allyship is performative, you are excusing yourself from engaging with the tough and messy conversations necessary to address the root causes. The conversations that will actually bring about change. And you’re easing your guilt with the empty advocacy of keyboard warrior-ing, when what you really need to be doing is advocating with your actions.

So what can you do? Here are my suggestions.

Act with your wallet

This, I believe, is the greatest thing you, as a white person, can do to support BIPOC. If you are disgusted by the centuries of state sponsored theft from Black, Asian and Indigenous people’s lands, then support BIPOC owned businesses. Initiate your own programme of reparations, by actively looking for products and services you use regularly and finding alternatives created by BIPOC. And if you’re heartbroken by the exploitation of people of colour in some of the poorest countries in the world, refuse to buy from the fashion and technology companies, who continue to shamelessly exploit adults and children in their labour practises. There is an entire system exploiting and dehumanising people of colour that hinges off money. Use yours to make it better.

Call out people in real life

It’s easy to call people out when you’re hidden behind a keyboard. You know what’s hard? Calling out your boss when he calls your two Indian colleagues by each others’ names. Facing off with your racist relative when they start talking about “immigrants taking our jobs”. Do you have the courage to speak up? If you don’t yet, that’s ok, but recognise that fact, and commit to doing your work so that one day soon, you can.

Inform yourself

It’s all too easy to look to the people “out there”: the evil ones, the KKK, the Neo-Nazis. But these people are marginal and few in number. Almost every sensible person thinks that these people and their views are deplorable and as a result, in reality they have minimal power and influence over the mechanics of society. What does have mass influence is systemic white apathy and privilege. And I’m sorry to say, that if you’re white, no matter how nice you are, unless you’re doing serious and sustained personal anti-racism work, you are a part of the machine. Ask your BIPOC friends about their experiences of racism and listen. Engage in ways to confront your own biases. Read books on the history of racism in your country (this reading list is a great place to start).

Do something that no-one will ever know

As Lil Wayne said, “real Gs move in silence like lasagne.” This is no more true than in activism. Sometimes activism requires us to step up and shout. But far more often it is in the simple daily acts we do that no one will ever know. If on reflection everything you do is public, likelihood is you’re a performative ally. Challenge yourself to do things that no one will ever know, like changing the things you buy, giving your platform to a BIPOC or quietly educating yourself on the history of racism without telling everyone about how educated you now are. That way you know you’re really down for the cause, and not the cause of looking like a woke person.

Just “saying stuff” is easy. You know what’s hard? Not buying stuff that you want because the supply chain is violent. Turning down a job because the company employs child labour in Africa. Calling out other white people when they say something clearly racist. That shit is hard. But if you want to be a true ally to BIPOC, you have to be willing to do the hard stuff, or at least make a start. Anyone can hashtag on social media. And the fact that that is seen as an act of activism, is deadly.

Ultimately, none of us are exempt from hypocrisy in our morality, a gap between what we say and do. And this isn’t as simple and clear cut as “all hashtags for justice are useless”, as the most recent tragedy demonstrates. But we need to have this conversation, we need to be clear with each-other and ourselves that when our allyship does more for us, than for the people it professes to help, we have a problem.

So this is a call. For all of us. To get honest and real. To look at how much we really care. And if we find we do, to step up and step in. Be an activist who actually acts. It’s too late in the day to be anything but.

This piece was originally published on Medium.

Holiday Phillips is an integral coach, meditation teacher, social justice advocate and founder of Kula Collective, a company that works with leaders, teams and communities to build trust and create conscious cultures.. You can learn more about her via her website.