True allyship isn’t always easy. Using one’s privilege to support the rights of a marginalized group can involve “uncomfortable” actions such as acknowledging shortcomings, broadening one’s perspectives, conducting research or continuing education, and working hard (and continuously) to enact meaningful change. It’s far easier (and far too common) for people to play at allyship, especially in the workplace. Company leaders may say or do things that are merely performative or take actions that mean relatively little in the scheme of things.
Performative allyship is like a prop kitchen on the set of a sitcom. At first glance, the set looks like a real kitchen, but if you tried to use it, you’d discover the water doesn’t run, the oven won’t bake, and the refrigerator won’t keep your food cold. All of the cupboards are merely shells, without any actual drawers or shelving. In short, the kitchen—like performative allyship—may look good, but it’s fairly useless in terms of functionality.
Here are seven empty actions of performative allies—things people do (or say) with the intention of appearing to be allies, but which won’t make a meaningful difference in the lives of marginalized people.
1. Making a Symbolic Gesture
Far too often, companies make symbolic (sometimes trendy) gestures that are little more than a charade. They might send out a tweet with the hashtag #BLM or add a rainbow flag to their logo during Pride month. While these gestures might be made with good intentions, they are relatively meaningless unless accompanied by actual, company-wide initiatives to improve the lives of underrepresented workers.
2. Promoting “Color Blindness”
Equality doesn’t mean everyone is the same; it means everyone should be treated equally. Promoting a “color blind” workplace is not helpful, and it can actually make systemic racism worse. Instead of acknowledging the fact that people come to the workplace with different perspectives, experiences, and needs, “color blindness” ignores those differences. The fact is, some people face additional barriers or are more likely to thrive in different work environments. Color blindness erases those experiences and needs.
3. Asking Someone to Represent an Entire Group
When you ask for someone’s opinion or perspective on behalf of an entire demographic, that puts a lot of unfair pressure on that individual. No one should have to speak for all women, BIPOC folks, LGBTQ+ folks, or neurodiverse people (nor can they!). Instead of putting someone on the spot, make an effort to assemble think tanks or task groups with a diverse set of individuals. Or, in some cases, you can tap into research to answer your questions or direct your actions or policies (rather than relying on the perspectives of a single individual).
4. Asking for Information
It’s great to seek information about diverse and/or marginalized groups of people, but don’t count on those people to be your personal educators. It is not their responsibility to teach you certain terminology, provide you with insights and perspectives, or explain their experiences to you. Conduct your own research, read relevant books/articles, attend workshops, hold conversations with diverse people (with the aim of getting to know them, not hounding them for information), and look for other resources on your own.
5. Making a Token Effort
It’s not enough to host a lunch-and-learn or invite a guest speaker from a marginalized background to your workplace. While there’s nothing wrong with those actions, they do little to move the needle on company policies, pervasive attitudes, or systemic bias. True change involves a company-wide effort that is based on research and, if possible, spearheaded by a diverse team.
6. Collecting Advice Without Action
Too often, companies create a “check-the-box” mentality, where people of color and/or members of marginalized groups are asked for their input, but then their advice goes ignored or is put on the back burner. To be a true ally, you have to have the courage and drive to follow through on your allies’ requests.
7. Offering Sympathy Instead of Support
Telling someone “I’m sorry you have to go through this” won’t make much of an impact. It’s much more effective (and appreciated) to take concrete steps to support members of marginalized groups, whether that’s offering mentoring programs, sponsoring events, or creating (and enforcing) anti-discrimination policies.
True allies know better than to rely on empty actions. Making meaningful, ongoing changes for marginalized people in the workplace requires commitment, courage, and hard work. But it is achievable with the right approach (more on this next week—stay tuned!).