The term ally or allyship is quickly becoming one of the most popular EDI terms. But what does it really mean to be an ally? In this chapter, we will discuss what allyship is, and explore the role allyship plays in pushing social and systematic changes. What are different forms of allyship and why is it important for equity-deserving groups? What are some of the principles and strategies to practice effective allyship in your everyday life?
By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:
- Explain what allyship is;
- Differentiate between performative allyship and effective allyship;
- Identify ways to improve your allyship skills; and
- Through self-reflection, ensure you are applying an anti-oppression lens to every decision and interaction.
One of the most effective ways to initiate changes towards personal, institutional, and social justice is to get involved, to champion, to promote, to bring awareness and/or to actively work in solidarity with members of equity-deserving groups. When you walk the walk as someone who does not necessarily self-identify as coming from a community, particular group, or tribe, you are acting as an ally. So, what does it mean to being an ally? Is allyship a noun? What are different forms of allyship?
Ally, or allyship, is not a self-claimed term. There are two distinguished characteristics of being an ally: first, allies aim to support social justice, which include promoting the rights of marginalized groups and eliminating social inequities and inequalities; and second, allies support (not lead) non-dominant groups of people through authentic relationship development and establish accountability with whom non-dominant people are seeking to ally themselves (Brown & Ostrove, 2013). Being an ally is a life-long commitment that recognizes systemic oppression and works actively towards social justice. Allyship is an integral part of anti-oppression practice that describes “active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people” (the Anti-Oppression Network, 2021).
Allyship is a verb and an active action to ensure everyone is treated fairly. For example, a woman employee Jean (she/her/hers) in a tech company is a marginalized person because the field of technology is both historically and presently male-dominated. Allyship in this hypothetical situation can include providing mentorship opportunity, amplifying Jean’s voice in board meetings, advocating for her advancement in the workplace, speaking up when witnessing unfair treatment, and sponsoring opportunities for Jean to lead.
Keep in mind that allyship is not about recognition. Everyone makes mistakes in their journey to being a good ally. It is important to embrace feelings of uncomfortableness as we learn and unlearn our prejudices and biased thinking. Being humble, honest, and accountable for our actions is key in this process. You can practice your allyship skills in everyday life. However, it is important to avoid actions that are considered as performative allyship.
To help you remember some key elements of being a good ally, Kayla Reed (2016), Executive Director of Action St. Louis, explains ALLY as an acronym. Please watch this short (2:12) video that outlines these key elements. The narration transcript may be found at the end of this chapter.
Remembering these four actions – Always center the impacted, Listen and Learn from those who live in the oppression, Leverage your privilege, and Yield the floor – will help you to become a good ALLY.
Performative vs. Effective Allyship
Performative allyship can be harmful because it maintains the status quo by excusing privileged people from making a real meaningful contribution to social justice. Here are some examples of what performative allyship could look like:
- Interacting only on social media using simple posts, images, hashtags, and/or retweets, without engaging with the underlying causes and complexities of the issue.
- Only expressing emotions, such as outrage, disbelief, surprise, or anger on social media without speaking up or saying anything new.
- Being oblivious to systemic inequity that is responsible for social issues and/or individualizing social tragedies, such as (focusing on?) a bad police officer rather than systemic racisms.
- Empty approval, admiration, and praise without willingness to follow further education, self-reflection or challenging your own actions.
- Only speaking up when being put on the spot to appear as an ally, and quieting down when conversations get difficult.
- Overexerting yourself or centering the narrative around you.
If you recognize some of these descriptions in your own behaviors, just know that social changes cannot happen with you beginning and ending your activism using a hashtag. As tough and uncomfortable as it might be, you must challenge individual, institutional and systemic oppressions to actively engage in difficult conversations, which are necessary to address the root causes of social inequity. Embracing brave spaces is necessary to committing to do the work.
In addition to these general principles on effective allyship, you can also contribute to social justice through micro allyship, mentorship, and sponsorship.
Microallyship, Mentorship, and Sponsorship
The term microallyship is coined by the GitHub director of engineering Neha Batra that describes daily microtasks that everyone can do to grow and improve as an ally, that include the following areas:
- Amplify by mentioning, repeating, and citing someone’s awesome work.
- Attribute by providing positive feedback to someone and to their supervisors in a team setting.
- Volunteer to take care of “office housework”, such as ordering lunch, taking meeting minutes, sending meeting minutes, cleaning afterwards. It is important to note that women are more likely to be asked and be tasked with low-promotable tasks than men in mixed-sex groups, including office housework, writing a report, event planning, and/or serving on a committee (Babcock et al., 2017). Therefore, it is essential to micro-allies to step up and volunteer for administrative tasks.
- Educate yourself by gathering and learning from a more diverse crowd, such as following someone new on social media (Twitter, GitHub, LinkedIn, Medium,etc).
- Ask how to better support members of equity-deserving groups. You can also ask for feedback on how to be a better ally and on any particular ally action items you are working on.
Mentorship is one specific practice of allyship. A mentor describes someone with knowledge, experience, and wisdom that is beneficial to the growth and advancement of another person, also known as a mentee. Even though mentees directly benefit from the guidance and support from an experienced member of the community or workplace, mentors also benefit from building a trustworthy relationship, making a meaningful impact on another person, and learning from diverse experiences and perspectives that the mentee offers. Mentorship programs, with an EDI lens, can address and reduce individual, institutional, and systemic barriers and help marginalized members to reach their full potential. The reciprocal connection between mentor and mentee can also promote inclusivity and a sense of belonging within the organization.
Sponsorship is another act of being an ally. Contrary to the personal connection between mentor and mentee, sponsors often act as publicists of their protégés and manage others’ views on the sponsored individuals. Sponsorship is very effective at increasing positive visibility, network building and career advancement for protégés. A sponsor is often a senior member who leverages their power and reputation to advocate for their protégés’ success. Sponsors introduce their protégés to new networks and opportunities, champion their promotions, and are actively invested in advancing their career path (Chow, 2021).
Summary and Self-Reflection
Find ways to apply an anti-oppression lens in your daily activities.
Being an ally is a lifelong commitment that requires constant learning and unlearning. Good allyship skills are earned through hard work, continuous education, and self-reflection. Allyship is about action and impact, so you need to ensure that your words go beyond your keyboard to affect the real world. Always question yourself whether your actions are performative, or if you are actively supporting social groups that are being oppressed. Here is a little take home message for you to reflect on:
- Am I only active on social media?
- Have I been reading or self-educating with books, podcasts, or anti-oppression blogs?
- How can I contribute to meaningful initiatives, such as BIPOC-led charities and indigenous artists?
- Have I engaged in hateful speech or unconsciously supported hateful organizations?
- Can I spend some time to mentor or sponsor a young person?
- When was the last time I witnessed discrimination and what could I have done differently?
Keep in mind that being an effective ally does not happen overnight and that we all start somewhere. It is not about getting things perfect; it is about making an active effort to support marginalized groups, leveraging your privilege to make a meaningful impact. It’s about learning from our mistakes and doing better next time. It’s about moving forward without leaving anyone behind. Allyship can start with small actions. But a small action from everyone can be a big step towards social justice and equity. It takes all of us to recognize and act on oppressions that are happening every day.
- Dismantle Collective – White Allyship 101: Resources to Get to Work
- Guide To Allyship – What is an Ally?
- Forbes – Allyship – The Key To Unlocking The Power Of Diversity
- The Anti-Oppression Network – Allyship
Chapter 7 References
Anti-Oppression Network. Allyship. Retrieved November 10, 2021, from https://theantioppressionnetwork.wordpress.com/allyship/.
Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135–150). Sterling, VA: Stylus
Babcock, L., Recalde, M., Vesterlund, L., & Weingart, L. (2017). Gender differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks with Low Promotability. American Economic Review, 107(3), 714-747. Retrieved from: https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/aer.20141734
Brown, K. T., & Ostrove, J. M. (2013). What does it mean to be an ally? The perception of allies from the perspective of people of color: What does it mean to be an ally? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(11), 2211–2222. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12172
Chow. R. (2021). Don’t Just Mentor Women and People of Color. Sponsor Them. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2021/06/dont-just-mentor-women-and-people-of-color-sponsor-them
Cook-Sather, A. (2016). Creating Brave Spaces within and through Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education. Issue 18. Retrieved from: http://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss18/1
Homer. (1919). The Odyssey. London: New York :W. Heinemann; G.P. Putnam’s sons,
Phillips, H. (2020). Performative Allyship Is Deadly (Here’s What to Do Instead). Forge. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://forge.medium.com/performative-allyship-is-deadly-c900645d9f1f
Reed, K. [@iKaylaReed]. (2016, June 13). A- always center the impacted. L- listen & learn from those who live in the oppression. L- leverage your privilege. Y-yield the floor. [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/iKaylaReed/status/742243143030972416
Safe. (2010). In Merriam-Webster’s online Dictionary (11th edition). Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/safe
Chapter 7 Banner: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic
Chapter 7 Divider: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic
Figure 7.1 ALLY Animation: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic
ALLY Video Transcript
Let’s talk about how to be an ALLY.
Always center the impacted. Recognize the difference between intent and impact, and always ask how the impacted community wants to be supported.
Listen & learn from those who live in the oppression. Start the process of unlearning by challenging, reflecting, and acting on your biases and language. Make a conscious effort to educate yourself through workshops, courses, podcasts, books, and articles on social justice issues, and understand that your continuous learning is up to you and no one else.
Leverage your privilege. Actively acknowledge your privilege and make a genuine effort to leverage your position of power to combat systems of oppression. Challenge your privilege in your everyday life and ask how your experiences may differ if your identities change. Share your powers with those who were excluded and be an active bystander to intervene in oppressions.
Yield the floor. Speak less, listen more, and make room for oppressed individuals and social groups to rise and take the lead. Keep in mind that being an ally means that you need to resist the urge to offer your ideologies and opinions. You are working beside or working behind the people offering your support and resources, but you should never stand in front of the people.
Remembering these four actions – Always center the impacted, Listen and Learn, Leverage your privilege, and Yield the floor – will help you to become a good ALLY.