ally illustration
(Maisie Plew/Emerald)

Performative allyship is the practice of talking a big talk about being an ally, but not backing it up; in other words, allyship that exists as an occasional public “performance” instead of a continuous, well-informed labor. Beyond being ineffective, performative allyship often contributes to the same systems of oppression that it supposedly seeks to dismantle.

A crucial component of good praxis is a critical self-awareness focused on evaluating the actual impact of your actions, rather than your good intentions. You will often fail to live up to your aspirations as an ally — I know that I have. But you cannot do meaningful anti-oppressive work for others until you address your own behaviors. Though that kind of emotional labor is uncomfortable, being an ally with privilege requires you to put yourself into a space of risk that the world was built to protect you from.

So what does that look like for you, personally? Here’s a quick litmus test to help you find out. Be warned that this list might make you feel uneasy; but stick with it. Sitting with your discomfort is the first step towards doing the real work.

Your allyship might need re-examination if...

  • Your allyship acts primarily for your own benefit. This includes religious missions, voluntourism trips, and Teach for America appointments that exploit disadvantaged people of color so white saviors can "grow as people" while gaining resume experience. This also includes academic institutions, activists and companies who peddle anti-oppressive rhetoric but fail to pass the benefits on. And it includes those who need constant validation for their allyship.

  • Your allyship focuses on showing marginalized people that you’re an ally. This is called virtue signaling. Mansplaining and whitesplaining count, too: oppressed people do not need you to explain oppression to them. Instead, explain it to other privileged people. It’s easy to talk abstractly about other people's oppression; it’s much harder to confront the everyday oppression perpetrated by your own family and friends.

  • Your allyship relies on the fetishization of marginalized people. If you think being attracted to POC voids you from racism; or, if you are white and like to brag that you think “God is a black woman”; or, if you believe disabled people are an “inspiration” just for existing — you might have a fetishization problem. Another version is allyship which relies on stereotyping, like arguments that women make better leaders because they are more “naturally” compassionate. This rhetoric serves to exocitize groups, while holding them to an oppressive, unrealistic standard of conduct. As my friend and colleague Julia Taylor once pointed out to me, black and brown women are not here to save us.

  • Your allyship shuts down conversations because you can’t emotionally confront the violence of your privilege. You’ve probably seen a white person shut down a conversation by insisting POC are being racist towards white people; or a wealthy person shut down a conversation by insisting they’re being socially punished for being wealthy; or a man shut down a conversation by insisting women should use kinder language if they want men to listen. When you expect oppressed people to coddle your feelings, you are contributing to their oppression through tone policing. Allies need to fully recognize that prejudice against the privileged comes from constant material experiences of systemic oppression at the hands — whether consciously or not — of the privileged. Marginalized people cannot trust allies who believe in the existence of “reverse” racism and sexism or allies who conceal the existence of privilege by saying things like “I don’t see race.”

  • Your allyship can’t recognize when it contributes to oppression. You support immigrants because you think they’re hard workers who take jobs nobody else wants but don’t realize this reinforces the exploitation of immigrants. You think Muslims need to “modernize” because they are mistreating women but cannot understand that Western feminism also contributes to imperialist white supremacy. Oppression works intersectionally; your allyship should, too.

  • Your allyship lacks a consistent practice of self-education and unlearning. You sit around waiting for someone else to do the labor of teaching you. Instead of being dicey because you don’t know something — is it okay to say Hispanic? — Google it! If you think you already know a lot, have you ensured that you are actively learning more? Does your news consumption include publications run by POC? Are you following disabled communities on Twitter? Do you seriously interrogate your own actions? Why did you cross the street to avoid a homeless person? Why did you slut shame an ex? Why did you shut down when someone criticized your white dreadlocks, or those cute moccasins you bought at Urban Outfitters?

  • Your allyship is missing where it’s needed. You vote “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” You read about police brutality but don’t videotape racially motivated altercations between POC and police. You support your trans* and nonbinary friends, but you think they shouldn’t be so upset by misgendering and deadnaming because people “need time to learn.” You understand that triggers are real, but you don’t think we should have to put content warnings on Facebook posts, class syllabi, etc. You wore a pussy hat during the Women’s March, but you don’t support women’s rights to bodily autonomy. You don’t speak up in class when other students or teachers share hateful ideas because, after all, “free speech.” You avoid talking about politics with your racist family members.

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.