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This is how to tell if your allyship is just performative

Being an ally when your hand is forced isn’t true allyship, here’s what is.

This is how to tell if your allyship is just performative
[Source illustration: LuckyTD/iStock]
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In the past year a lot of white people finally woke up to the vast inequities that people of color have lived with for generations. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are a must-have, not a nice-to-have, for every company and employee, and so true allyship has become essential. But it’s clear now that many of the pledges for reform were just performative allyship.

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There is a stark difference between performative allyship and real allyship.

When it’s only for optics

Performative allyship is performing a broad gesture that is symbolic in nature, but does nothing to actually improve the status of marginalized employees. An example of this would be companies and brands changing their Twitter and Instagram avatars to Black squares “in solidarity” during the social justice protests for #BlackoutTuesday, or changing those same avatars to rainbow squares during Pride Month. While this is nice in theory, it is optical allyship. In the case of the black squares, these companies speak out in support of racial justice to score PR points, but continue to not disclose employee diversity numbers in some cases, don’t hire black executives or equally pay Black employees, don’t promote Black employees at the same rate as majority colleagues doing the same work, don’t have Black board members, don’t listen to concerns regarding microaggressions and discrimination, and were completely silent about racism up until now. Being an ally when your hand is forced isn’t true allyship, and changing a social media avatar certainly isn’t a shift in internal company culture, how a company interacts with their users, customers, and suppliers, nor their board governance.

Take the case of the ESPN debacle involving sports anchor Rachel Nichols complaining that she believed she lost an opportunity to a colleague, Maria Taylor, because she was Black. The reaction is the amounts to calling Taylor a “diversity hire.” But Nichols had publicly espoused her support for diversity and Black Lives Matter, as well as women working in sports. So, “diversity,” was only a good thing when it benefited her, and not when seemingly extended to another woman of color. It’s an example of what you do in public being completely incongruent with what you do in private. Last week, Maria Taylor did not renew her contract with ESPN, and while the anchor had other options, having to deal with microaggressions from a seemingly empathetic colleague clearly created a hostile work environment.

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What real allies do

True allyship is intentional proactive action. Don’t talk about it; be about it. Real allies strive for tangible, lasting systemic improvements to company policies, practices, and culture. They acknowledge their privilege and use it for a greater good, not just for their own personal gain. Allies also acknowledge and understand that while it may start with individual actions, they lobby for collective action and cultural shifts. Allyship is the tireless fight for equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships via individual acts, fighting for collective action, and the implementation of public acts of sponsorship and advocacy for those in marginalized communities.

A perfect example of allyship in my own workplace experiences is after Mike Brown died in Ferguson in 2014. A Facebook colleague of mine, Mark Rodgers, noticed that I’d left the open office floor that we worked on after about being at work for two hours. The emotions of the preceding days had gotten to me, by being surrounded by conversations about where people had dined the night before, what they’d watched on TV, and vacation plans. I couldn’t act like the nonchalance of non-acknowledgment of what was happening didn’t bother me, and I couldn’t concentrate. So, I locked myself in an empty conference room just to focus. Mark walked around that entire building peeking in rooms until he found me. When he did, he knocked, I told him to come in, and he simply asked, “Are you okay? I know this is hard. Is there anything I can do for you?” He then proceeded to have those harder conversations with colleagues who were relatively oblivious or simply just didn’t know. That is allyship.

A more recent example of allyship was seen at the ESPY Awards, when Paige Bueckers won for Best Women’s College Athlete, and ceded her platform to discuss the killing of unarmed Black people. The beauty in her speech was that she also did not try to co-opt a movement or a message and make it about her explaining it, but just to champion the cause and the people on the front lines living and fighting for it.

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These are the ingredients for good allyship:

  • Know what you don’t know, and be comfortable with that. – It is impossible to know everything, but it also isn’t the job of marginalized people to educate you when resources abound. Marginalized people want to go to work, do their job, enjoy pleasantries, and go home. They don’t also want a side hustle of teaching you the history and culture of their background and lived experience.
  • Own your privilege . . . and use it. – If a marginalized colleague has great ideas, and they are never in the room where it happens, or are excluded from meetings, or worse, have their ideas stolen, next time just bring them to the meeting.
  • Sponsor, not just mentor, marginalized colleagues. – Mentors give you advice and general guidance. Sponsors will bring you to meetings, advocate for you in rooms you aren’t in, and hype your talents, abilities and achievements whenever new projects, stretch assignments, new roles or promotions are discussed. Mentors are good, but sponsors are better.
  • If you see (or hear) something, say something. – It’s very easy to become an internet activist with the right level and number of outrage posts. It’s a lot harder to call out a colleague for excluding people from meetings, asking questions that are thinly disguised microaggressions, or downplaying someone’s hardships. The only way that some unconscious bias behavior can change is if it is pointed out. Remember, silence is complicity. It isn’t enough to just simply not actively participate in the same behavior.
  • Accept, and seek out, honest feedback with the goal to improve. – Understand the dynamics at play. Asking a woman, or a person of color for feedback where there is a hierarchal system at work can make said person giving the feedback apprehension and even fearful of retaliation if the person receiving feedback doesn’t like what they hear. But in the words of Monica’s lovely song, “Don’t take it personal.” True growth comes from seeking, receiving, reflecting on, and implementing feedback. If you notice a pattern in what you hear, that should be even more telling. Or, as my mom says, “When it’s everybody else, it’s you.”

Slogans, hashtags, and empty pledges without disclosure of metrics for success or any progress made are external signals. Real allyship is often less public. It’s about creating a holistic inclusive environment which invites all voices to the table, listens, and then implements their marginalized employees’ ideas.

Bärí A. Williams is COO at BandWagonFanClub, Inc. and a DEI consultant in tech. She previously served as head of business operations, North America for StubHub, and lead counsel for Facebook and created its Supplier Diversity program. Follow her on Twitter at @BariAWilliams.