Taking White Allyship from Performance to Meaningful Action

The latest research from McKinsey & Company shows that more than 80 percent of white women and men identify as allies committed to using their power or position to support or advocate for coworkers with less power or status. Yet the same study also shows less than half of Black women and only slightly more Latinas feel they have strong allies at work, with very few among their white coworkers. The disconnect speaks to the need for white people to educate themselves about how to engage to truly support colleagues of color — and not expect it to be comfortable or easy. 
 
 
When Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women (MPW) group hosted an online exploration of the intersection of race and business last summer, they sought audience input under the heading “Working While Black.” The concept of performative allyship quickly bubbled up.

“Black employees from across industries told Fortune that they’re keenly familiar with such optical allyship,” wrote Karen Yuan in a follow-up piece for the magazine. “They say their companies speak out in support of racial equality but don’t hire Black executives or equally pay Black employees, don’t listen to their concerns regarding discrimination, or were completely silent about racism up until now.”

Such performative allyship may materialize when white people focus on mastering current terminology, acquainting themselves with trending books or engaging in symbolic acts of support but continue to ignore how they embody white supremacy or benefit from white privilege personally. 
 
Ally is a verb
According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Fundamentally, when we’re working on allyship, we’re talking about a verb and not a noun: we’re talking about actions and behaviors that make an impact, rather than a label or a title that gives someone moral credibility or social capital.”
 
It’s what you do that makes an impact. Effective allies do not remain silent in the presence of racism, passively allow discriminatory systems to continue or expect thanks from those who have been oppressed. They also do not center their own privileged perspective, invalidate the lived experience of those who have been marginalized or expect people of color to take on the labor of teaching them.
 
 A willing sacrifice
Part of what may make effective allyship difficult for white people to navigate is that what matters most goes so far beyond slogans, t-shirts and sign waving to actions that are much more difficult to put into practice.
 
“To rectify hundreds of years of advantage, true equality could mean sacrifice on white people’s part in several key areas,” said Anastia Reesa Tomkin, Direct Service Coordinator for Common Justice, writing in Nonprofit Quarterly. She points to economic sacrifice in terms of who holds and manages wealth and resources, shifting power dynamics in social and professional spaces and the psychological impact of erasing the norm that white people’s comfort is paramount.
 
A similar idea is expressed by Kelsey Smoot writing in The Guardian. “The truth is, genuine allyship is not kindness, it is not a charitable act, nor is it even a personal commitment to hold anti-racist ideals — it is a fall from grace. Real allyship enacted by white Americans, with a clear objective to make equitable the lived experiences of individuals across racial lines, means a willingness to lose things.”
 
True allyship looks less like cheerleading and more like disavowing and relinquishing unearned privilege. Some organizations are beginning to put real substance into their inclusion efforts. Upwork has created educational materials with an ally curriculum called “Do The Work.”  Their choice of title speaks volumes.
During the main stage HR & D&I session at the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference, Arlene Pace Green, Ph.D., emphasized the need for action and broad participation. “We must recognize that transformation and driving organization change is everyone’s responsibility because complex systems have many diverse and dispersed leverage points,” she said. WFF members can watch the entire session here.

Some hallmarks of bona fide allyship include:
  • Listening rather than talking.
  • Following the direction of people of color instead of insisting on leading the change.
  • Centering the perspective of marginalized people.
  • Educating yourself with available resources rather than asking people of color to labor around your racial awakening.
  • Not expecting to be forgiven for racist behavior without facing real consequences.
  • Donating your own money to help close the wealth gap.
  • Sacrificing your own comfort and stability to support people of color.
  • Asking what is needed in the moment and striving to provide it.
  • Engaging in anti-racism as a way of life and not an off-and-on intellectual exercise.
  • Accepting feedback and recognizing it as both a gift and as something that may have added further labor and stress to an underrepresented colleague.  
The road to real equity and inclusion is a long and challenging one where many hands are needed to carry the load. White colleagues may not always know what to do or how to do it, but what is clear is that doing nothing is no longer an alternative. 

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