Performative allyship is becoming the main entrée of the day- even while many organizations have professed to support marginalized groups. It has become more of a recurring theme, that many leadership positions lend rhetorical support to diversity and inclusion, primarily in the area of race equality. In the work that DE&I involves, organizations get started on their journey, just to find that they may not be all-in as they thought when the sensationalizing of support has passed its peak.
Far from being supportive of an anti-racist agenda, performative allyship has seemingly begun to take influence, which can stifle the progress of the work, and has the detrimental effect of suppressing the voices of employees, which will not genuinely foster an inclusive workplace environment.
As the dust is beginning to settle, employees of all backgrounds have had the chance to think about the key issues around race equality and or the lack thereof, and the main issue leads to the authenticity of leadership. Performative allyship is becoming the talk of the town as it pertains to the equity discussion, so much so that black, brown, and mixed employees have begun to speak out. The main issue with performative allyship is that it maintains the status quo and in reality blocks the change processes that support structural racism.
What Is It and What It Looks Like
Allyship is an authentic support system, in which someone from outside a marginalized group advocates for those who are victims of discriminatory behavior, whether that is at an individual level, or systemically and process driven. Real allyship requires you to understand how to support a marginalized community. To be blunt, real allyship requires you to do something. Of course, this can result in different levels of action; not everybody has to protest or post on social media. But even less noticeable actions require you to do something because, at its core, allyship demands you to challenge yourself. To get uncomfortable. It requires everyone to take responsibility for our actions as individuals and it requires someone else to benefit other than yourself. It may look like no longer being popular or trending to speak up and standing up for the things that you know to be right.
Performative allyship, by contrast, is based more on self-gratification. It doesn’t look at your responsibility as a leader in your organization. Merely re-posting on social media or highlighting that “you have adopted black or brown children as your own or have black friends”, is not enough. Performative allyship is done to make the person doing it feel better to prove that you are not a racist, to create a perception of yourself for others to be trendy. In many cases, organizational leaders use performance-driven activity, in a way that they believe will protect the company brand from being highlighted negatively. It is often referred to by BIPOC employees and their supporters, as ‘talking the talk, without everyone walking the walk.’
Performative Allyship Damages the Race Equality Agenda
In organizations that have consistently maintained a homogeneous leadership, the power of decision-making and development of policy and processes, has largely been the preserve of white people, with little or no input from those of different hues. When performative allyship is enacted at the top of these organizations, employees of different backgrounds stand little chance of ever breaking through systemic barriers that have been designed by those in power.
There are many people across organizations, who do want to support the cause of racial equality but may find it difficult, due to the fear of speaking out, and the associated, real or imagined, repercussions or push-back from leadership. This leads many, who would otherwise genuinely support racial equality, to maintain a performative stance within the workplace environment. This is an issue because as difficult and uncomfortable as it might be, the only way to truly break the chains of systemic racism is to speak up and engage in genuine allyship to support the change.
If those who embody privilege, are scared of engaging in the equality and equity conversations then they too, are part of the problem. Performative allyship only supports the reinforcement of attitudes and behaviors that maintain discriminatory practices within the workplace.
Performative Allyship In Organizational Culture
When performative allyship embeds itself into organizational culture, particularly at leadership and managerial levels, it sends the signal that it is right to show affinity towards racial equality, but that it is not important enough to do much, if anything about it. If performative allyship then becomes part of the corporate “professional” culture, BIPOC employees are likely to suffer from the effects of operational, structural, and racist micro-aggressive behaviors, which are likely to further marginalize them. This leads to a situation where there becomes an embedded, perpetual cycle of discrimination, which will ostracize genuine allyship, and worsen the workplace experience of BIPOC employees.
I want to be transparent and speak for myself, that as a black employee, I am often met with exhaustion by seeing the continuous cycle of marginalized employees being made to feel ‘less than or their contributions are of no value within the workplace setting and across society. As an HR professional, I have seen and heard it far too often from marginalized groups of employees who have resigned and or were “laid off” from an organization improperly, feeling powerless to subvert the very systems that have been put in place to undermine them and invalidate their experiences.
For leadership, it is simply not enough to be ‘woke’ and make performative statements. It is time to actively listen to the concerns of employees and colleagues, who continue to suffer under systems that are in place to ensure that they remain marginalized- and ask how to support them.
Assuming that performative allyship might win the day, it can also prove to be the one action that destroys individual careers and company brands, at a time when equality and equity is a critical social concern. Real inclusion demands real actions and changed behaviors, not an award-winning performance.