Allyship Requires Action

What even is allyship? And how do you engage with it on a regular basis in a way that avoids (most of the time) being performative?

Clouds obscuring the sun with a swatch of blue sky.
Image Credit: B. Reid Lewis

This has been adapted from a presentation first given June 17, 2022.

Title Slide of a presentation called "Allyship Requires Action: Beginning to build a relationship with allyship that isn't (accidentally) performative."

Hello hello, folks. Welcome to my not-a-TED talk:

Allyship Requires Action: Beginning to build a relationship with allyship that isn’t (accidentally) performative.

A slide with the following text on it and a photo of Reid smiling - they are wearing their glasses, a hat, and a black t-shirt.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Reid, I use they/them pronouns, and I am emphatically not an expert on this subject.

But I can tell you that I care deeply about social justice.

I love learning.

I like to help educate others.

I also make a lot of mistakes.

But I try to learn from those mistakes and do better.

A slide called "A Note on Accessibility" which includes the following text.

Before jumping in, I also wanted to take a quick moment to talk about accessibility for this presentation. Many thanks to Ilde for first including a note like this on her One Topic Talk on consent and inspiring me to do something similar.

Full speaker notes and image descriptions can be found in the pre-shared slide deck.

I’ve tried to follow Smashing Magazine’s Inclusive Design For Accessible Presentations, along with some other references linked in the notes, for additional visual accessibility.

Thank you for your patience as I learn to make presentations more accessible and I’ll continue to work on doing better in the future.


Subtitle slide with the text: "What Even Is Allyship?"

Cool, so… what even is allyship?

The definition of allyship from the Anti-Oppression Network, which is in the following text below.

The way people define and engage with the concept of being an ally and practicing allyship can vary widely. We don’t have time to look at and discuss the variety of interpretations today and why some of them are just straight up bad, so I’ll just share one of my favorite takes on the definition of allyship from The Anti-Oppression Network.

an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group

The visual emphasis of certain words and phrases in this definition is mine, because I want to call out key aspects of it that matter.

In this definition, the requirements are that it be active, consistent, and that the experience will be difficult in unlearning and re-evaluating what you think you know and how you engage with that knowledge.

Additionally, being an ally is about using one’s relative privilege to operate in solidarity with those with relatively less privilege.

I’ll talk more about the idea of relative privilege shortly, but I highly encourage folks to take the time to sit with this definition and consider it and how it compares to how you were (or weren’t) thinking about and defining allyship previously.

The definition of allyship vs. accomplice from Learning for Justice, which is in the following text below.

Something you may have already come across or may come across in the future is the concept of being an accomplice, rather than simply an ally. But what does that mean?

Here is Learning for Justice’s definition of ally vs. accomplice:

An ally will mostly engage in activism by standing with an individual or group in a marginalized community.
An accomplice will focus more on dismantling the structures that oppress that individual or group — and such work will be directed by the stakeholders in the marginalized group.

So it’s another way to look at how many people choose to define what an ally does, and to call out the fact that many people’s allyship practice falls short of meaningful action and solidarity.

And it’s a completely valid perspective on the concept of allyship.

When I talk about allyship personally, I know my definition more closely aligns with that of The Anti-Oppression Network as well as the concept of an accomplice outlined here. In my opinion, true allyship cannot be passive.

Slide with text that says Relative Privilege

So let’s talk about relative privilege.

Slide titled "Recognize areas of relative privilege" with the text: What are your different identities and experiences of life across these dimensions, and how do they shape your experience and interactions with the world? Followed by this list: race, gender, body size, disability / chronic illness, age, economic status, religious beliefs, citizenship status, and more...

I wanted to include something on the idea of privilege and relative privilege, because the social power that people hold is so integral to the concept of allyship.

I tend to talk about privilege in terms of relative privilege because it captures the nuance of different experiences.

A good exercise to start with when trying to develop your own allyship practice is to consider what your own different identities and experiences of life are across multiple dimensions, and how they shape your experience and interactions with the world.

It’s worth considering that we can all be an ally to someone, in some way – and depending on the social context, you probably need an ally in at least one area of your life as well.

Slide titled: Example: some of Reid's identities, with race and citizenship listed under "more social privilege" and gender and disability/chronic illness listed under "less social privilege". There is additional text under gender which can be found below.

Relative privilege isn’t the only factor or barometer in showing up as an ally, but it can be a useful place to start.

I want to emphasize that this is an extremely simplistic example and we could easily have a two hour conversation on this.

But hopefully it will help gets folks thinking about who they can show up for, and who can show up for them, and perhaps kickstart examining some of those more complicated interactions of identity and experience if it isn’t something you’ve thought deeply about.

In my own lived experience, I wanted to highlight a few aspects of my identity that I think about in terms of relative social privilege.

  • I have more social privilege because I am white.
  • I have more social privilege because I’m a US citizen, living in the US, and have voting rights.
  • I have less social privilege when it comes to gender, on the whole.
  • I have less social privilege because I live with chronic illnesses.

On the subject of gender and relative privilege, I also thought it would be useful to dig into the nuance that holds. I consider myself transmasculine, and that itself is a relative privilege in how I experience the world because of the transmisogyny that transfeminine folks face. But I’m non-binary and I’m transgender, and so depending on the context, I have less privilege in that regard in comparison to cis and binary folks. Privilege exists on a spectrum and interacts across identities, so it’s not as simple as someone having more or less privilege on the whole.

If you take one thing away from this idea of relative privilege, I hope that it’s that allyship and marginalization aren’t binary on/off switches, and the context of the situation you are in and the people around you can shift your experience of privilege.

Slide titled Intersectionality with a quote from Kimberle Crenshaw that can be found below.

So let’s talk about intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a concept coined by law professor and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw over 30 years ago, in 1989.

To quote the Columbia Journalism Review (The origin of the term 'intersectionality' - Columbia Journalism Review):

In a paper for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, Crenshaw wrote that traditional feminist ideas and antiracist policies exclude Black women because they face overlapping discrimination unique to them.
"Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated," she wrote in the paper.

I wanted to specifically mention the origin of the term and what was originally written because it was specifically a term to capture Black women’s unique experience in the context of feminism. Often now when intersectionality is brought up, that fact – that is was explicitly to describe Black women’s experience – is left out. And it’s important we don’t forget that.

In a more recent interview on what intersectionality means to Crenshaw today, she had this to say (She Coined the Term 'Intersectionality' Over 30 Years Ago. Here's What It Means to Her Today):

[Intersectionality is] basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.
Slide that says "Performative Allyship"

Now let’s talk about performative allyship.

Slide titled The optics of "allyship" with a four panel webcomic from Poorly Drawn Lines (see below for webcomic description)

I wanted to share this webcomic because it sums up performative allyship so well. In it, two rabbits are talking.

“How can I help?” asks the first rabbit.

The second rabbit responds with, “You can lend a hand. Put in some work.”

The first rabbit then says, “How can I… appear to be helping? Like, in a way that gets me attention.”

Now this webcomic is being really obvious. When someone is being a performative ally, they aren’t necessarily thinking exactly what the first rabbit said here. They might even think what they’re doing is helping. But whether or not someone is thinking about it this way, this is exactly what performative allyship is.

Another way to think of it… performative allyship is typically doing the bare minimum that is visible, causes you the least discomfort, and actually doesn’t change much, if anything.

Image Description: a four panel comic from Poorly Drawn Lines of two white rabbits.

Rabbit A says: “How can I help?”

Rabbit B says: “You can lend a hand. Put in some work.”

Rabbit A says: “How can I… appear to be helping?”

Rabbit A says: “Like, in a way that gets me attention.”

Slide titled Without meaningful action, it isn't allyship with a screenshot of the Washington Post op ed headline "When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs" by Tre Johnson

I wanted to share this article from the summer of 2020 as an example.

“When Black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs”

I know this is something I’ve done in the past, in the face of anti-Black violence, turning to a book on racism to better educate myself and feel like I was doing something. I couldn’t do anything before I knew more, right? And what could I really do, anyway?

Book clubs are easy and safe. Book clubs don’t really challenge you. And book clubs don’t actually change anything for Black folks. But they let you say, “Oh, I’m reading a book on this so I can know more. I’m doing something.”

Image Description: a screenshot of a newspaper headline and byline saying…

Title: When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.

Subtitle: I’m caught in a time loop where my white friends and acquaintances perform the same pieties over and over again.

By Tre Johnson

Tre Johnson is a freelance writer on race and culture based in Philadelphia. His first book, ‘Black Genius: Our Celebrations and Our Destructions’ is forthcoming in summer 2023.

June 11, 2020

Link: When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs - The Washington Post

Slide titled Additional examples of performative allyship, with four examples (see below for examples).

And here are some additional examples of performative allyship, to try to illustrate the connection and disconnection between appearance, comfort, and material impact.

  1. Someone who attends pride parades each year, but continues to spend money with businesses that obviously directly fund anti-LGBTQ+ politicians
  2. Someone claims to support the disabled community, but never questions the accessibility of meetings, spaces, or events
  3. Someone posts a black square and #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on social media in response to racism and anti-Black violence, but does nothing material to challenge anti-Blackness in their own life
  4. Someone puts their pronouns in Slack and their email signature, but does not speak up when people are misgendered by others

There are many, many ways that performative allyship can show up, though, and these are just a small handful of examples.

Slide titled How can you know if your allyship might be performative? with four questions to ask yourself (see below for questions).

So how do you prevent your allyship from being performative? Well, it’s a skill that takes time. And it’s a skill you’ll always be working on – I certainly know I’ll always be working on it, myself.

I like to use these questions to help guide me in recognizing when something I am doing is performative. They aren’t perfect, but they have helped me.

  • What is the underlying goal of what I’m doing?
  • Who benefits from this and how?
  • How does this materially change things fo the people most impacted?
  • Does this challenge my individual comfort?
Slide titled "Models of Allyship"

So let’s take a look at some models of allyship, since they’ll help illustrate what we’ve been talking about.

Slide title is The Linear Model, three sketched arrows point to the right in a line, each one with a word on them (from left to right): awareness, education, action

I’ve often encountered this model of thinking, even if it’s not always made explicit. The idea being that there is a beginning and an end, and you travel along a straight path of allyship. You first become aware of the issues, then maybe you educate yourself (or expect others to educate you) on the issues further. And only then does meaningful action take place. And that’s the end.

Image Description: Three arrows are lined up, with one word on each of them, pointing to the right side of the screen. From left to right the arrows say…

  • Awareness
  • Education
  • Action
The same slide (The Linear Model) as the prior slide, but there is a red circle drawn around the middle arrow that says "education"

But often, when thinking about allyship with this model, people get stuck on the education aspect. Either they think that the people impacted most need to educate them or because they may think they need to know enough or be perfect before they can take action – they can get stuck out of a desire to “not mess up” or find themselves reaching for the easy and safe things to do.

Consequently, they never reach the action step – at least in a meaningful way that isn’t performative. And if they do reach the step of taking action, they may then think that’s it, they were an ally, there isn’t more they need to do.

But allyship isn’t a one-and-done state. Allyship is persistent and continuous, and something that has to be actively practiced.

Image Description: Three arrows are lined up, with one word on each of them, pointing to the right side of the screen. From left to right the arrows say…

  • Awareness
  • Education
  • Action

There is a red circle around the middle arrow that says “Education.”

A slide with the title The Continuous Model, with four arrows pointing at each other in a clockwise circle, each one with a word on it: awareness, education, action, learning

I personally like to think of allyship as more of a continuous cycle, where there is an important step of learning from the action you took, which then leads into greater awareness and continues the cycle. In this model, you know  you won’t be perfect, but you will try and learn and do better the next time. And most importantly, you keep trying. You keep taking meaningful action and learning from that. The work of being an ally is never done, and when you stop completely, you aren’t actually an ally. Because allyship isn’t an identity, it’s demonstrated action over and over again.

Image Description: Four arrows are pointing from one to the next in a continuous circle, with one word on each of them, pointing in a clockwise direction. Beginning with the arrow at the top of the circle and following it clockwise, the arrows say…

  • Awareness
  • Education
  • Action
  • Learning
A slide titled "Principles of Allyship"

After all of that, I thought I’d share some of my own principles of allyship, as they have been hard truths that I’ve had to learn and internalize over the years. But they also have been endlessly helpful to me in guiding my own allyship practice.

A slide titled "Principles of Allyship" with a spiky shape to the side/corner and the text "Webcomic Edition"

And because I love a good webcomic, I’ve found some excellent ones to help illustrate these principles.

Slide with the text: Yes, these issues are systemic problems, but...

Let’s start with the fact that: yes, the issues facing marginalized folks are systemic problems, but…

Four panel comic from The Awkward Yeti of Heart and Brain talking. See below for full text.

Let’s talk about the webcomic first. Heart wants things to change, Brain says let’s figure out what we can change, but Heart didn’t mean the two of them - Heart meant everyone else needs to change things!

And here’s the thing: as individuals, we still interact with and are a part of these problematic systems. I really appreciate that the idea of these problems we face being systemic, not just individual, is getting more attention. It’s a critical aspect of changing and dismantling harmful systems. After all, we cannot individual responsibility our way out of collective issues.

But what I’m not thrilled with is the incidental shrugging off of individual participation in these systems with the excuse of “but these are systemic!”

Yes, this is a hard problem. Yes, we need to solve it together and at the systemic level. And also, yes, we still bear responsibility as individuals for our participation and interaction with these systems. After all, individuals have built and maintained these systems from the beginning.

Which is to say, an issue can be systemic, and individuals still need to take responsibility as well.

Image Description: A four panel webcomic from The Awkward Yeti of Heart and Brain…

Panel 1: A cartoon anatomical heart and brain wearing a pair of glasses talk to each other.

Heart says to Brain (who is reading a book called Quantum Over Thinking), “I really want things to be different.”

Panel 2: Brain says, “So let’s figure out what we can change, and do it.”

Panel 3: Heart says, “I don’t mean us! I mean everyone else!”

Panel 4: Brain says, “Change comes from within.”

Heart says, “Within them!”

Slide with the text You’re going to fuck up, a lot. And that’s OK.

You’re going to fuck up, a lot. And that’s OK.

A four panel webcomic from The Awkward Yeti of Heart and Brain. Full text can be found below.

In this webcomic, Heart recognizes they messed up yesterday and Brain doesn’t understand why heart is happy still. But Heart recognizes that they get to try again today. Brain points out that they messed up today too, but Heart is still happy… because they still get to try again tomorrow.

I love this because you have to be OK with fucking up if you’re going to do something meaningful. Perfect doesn’t exist, and if we let our fear of messing up stop us, we won’t do the hard and often scary things we really need to do. Especially when it comes to allyship.

This is a thing that takes time to learn to accept, and like allyship, you will likely always be working on it. It’s hard, but really important.

Image Description: A four panel webcomic from The Awkward Yeti of Heart and Brain…

Panel 1: A cartoon anatomical heart and brain wearing a pair of glasses talk to each other.

Heart says, “We sure messed up yesterday!”

Brain says, “Why are you so happy then?”

Panel 2: Heart says, “Because today we get to try again!”

Panel 3: Brain says, “We messed up today, too.”

Panel 4: Heart, still enthusiastic, says, “Because tomorrow we get to try again!”

Slide with the text You’re going to be uncomfortable

You’re going to be uncomfortable.

A three panel comic of a racoon talking. Dialogue can be found below.

Racoon says they want to be challenged… but not really. They don’t want to be too challenged and the challenge aspect should be optional.

And I get it, because challenges are inherently uncomfortable. The learning curve is a really hard place to exist, especially for extended periods of time. But it’s also critical to growth and improvement.

The reality is, allyship is uncomfortable. If you’re really pushing yourself to do right by marginalized folks, it’s always going to be uncomfortable. Meaningful allyship means unlearning a lot of harmful ideas you’ve taken as truth your whole life and learning to not center yourself. That’s hard and really uncomfortable!

It’s uncomfortable to speak up. It’s uncomfortable to call people out. It’s uncomfortable to challenge social hierarchy and norms. Fucking up is uncomfortable.

And it’s also so, so important that we are able to do that.

Learn to be OK with being uncomfortable, because if you’re headed in the right direction with your allyship, odds are you are going to be uncomfortable.

Image Description: A three panel webcomic from Poorly Drawn Lines of a racoon…

Panel 1: Racoon says, “I want to feel challenged.”

Panel 2: Racoon says, “But not too challenged.”

Panel 3: Racoon says, “And the challenge aspect should be optional.”

A slide with the text You'll never stop learning

You’ll never stop learning.

A four panel comic of Heart and Brain. See below for full text.

Heart wonders why they don’t ever feel good enough, and Brain points out that it’s because they’re trying to get better all the time and that’s a good thing –  but, of course, ignorance is bliss! Heart desperately wants to be ignorant again because that sounds so much better.

So we know we’re going to fuck things up and we’re going to be uncomfortable. But as part of that, we need to recognize that we will always have more to learn, too. The learning part will never be done.

Often marginalized folks get treated like spokespeople for everyone who shares that one aspect of their life. For example one non-binary person being expected to speak for all non-binary people.

But if you’ve met one non-binary person, you’ve met one non-binary person.

And so, we will always be learning about the experiences and needs of everyone. And sometimes those needs may even clash between different marginalized groups, and we have to learn to navigate those moments, too.

Image Description: A four panel webcomic from The Awkward Yeti of Heart and Brain…

Panel 1: A cartoon anatomical heart and brain wearing a pair of glasses talk to each other. Brain is wearing a hat and scarf and they are walking along a sidewalk.

Heart says, “Why don’t I ever feel good enough?”

Panel 2: Brain says, “Because we’re trying so hard to get better all the time.”

Panel 3: Brain says, “Being aware of room for improvement is a good thing. Otherwise you’re just confidently boasting your incompetence.”

Panel 4: Heart grabs Brain’s scarf and pulls them close, looking right at them.

Brain says, “Ignore is bliss!”

Heart says, “Perfect! Give me back my ignorance!”

A slide with the text You need to treat allyship like a muscle

You need to treat allyship like a muscle.

Two panels from a webcomic featuring college ice hockey players. See below for full description.

In this webcomic, a bunch of college ice hockey players are at a pond. As they skate out, their captain tells them to team up to play a game. In the second panel one of the players asks, “... is he turning this into real practice?” Another player responds with, “Bro. You sound surprised.”

I wanted to share this because I think it’s really helpful if we think about allyship like a muscle. It can be hard and uncomfortable – and you can even hurt yourself if you’re not thoughtful about what you’re doing – but the more you train and practice, the easier it gets, the better you get at navigating it.

But if you stop using that muscle, that strength also fades. And if that happens, can you get back to where you were before? Yes, through more hard work.

There aren’t any shortcuts. You have to keep working at this, continuously. It takes time to build up that strength, but that doesn’t stop you from using that muscle either.

Image Description: The end two panels from a chapter in the webcomic Check, Please! about baking, ice hockey, and college…

Panel 1: A college age blonde haired white boy in hockey gear (without his helmet on) smiles. Another hockey player’s shoulder is in front of him, illustrating he is probably towards the back of a group of players.

Player who’s shoulder we see says, “All right boys! Let’s go, three-on-three. Holster, Ransom, you’re captains.”

Holster/Ransom, both off screen, say, “Sweet!”

Panel 2: As the players skate out on the lake…

Player 1 says, “… Is the turning this into real practice?”

Player 2 says, “Bro. You sound surprised.”

A slide with the text Continuing the path to meaningful allyship

So what’s next, then?

Cover images for the six books recommended in the links below with the text A few books to start with...

As mentioned earlier, a huge part of the problem with how many folks approach allyship is getting stuck on the education side of things. But I wanted to recommend these books to get started with because not only will they help educate folks across several dimensions, but they also give more concrete actions you can take to turn your awareness and knowledge into action.

I have and links to all of these in the speaker notes of the slide deck.

Book / audiobook links:

Read This to Get Smarter: About Race, Class, Gender, Disability, and More by Blair Imani

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Demystifying Disability by Emily Ladau

Trans Allyship Workbook: Building Skills to Support Trans People in Our Lives by Davey Shlasko

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon

Unmasking Autism by Dr. Devon Price

Image Description: The book covers for all six books listed in these notes.

A slide with the title Other great resources... and links and descriptions for four other resources, which are detailed below.

Here are a few other excellent resources focused on allyship and taking action. I’m personally subscribed to both The Anti-Racism Daily and Better Allies 5 Ally Actions newsletters and they have been great resources and calls to action.

The Guide to Allyship is also a really neat resource, and is useful without being overwhelming.

And finally the Approaches to Allyship blog post is actually something I wrote.

The Anti-Racism Daily

  • An educational daily newsletter with actions you can take

Better Allies 5 Ally Actions Newsletter

  • Weekly newsletter with 5 points of education and action to take

The Guide to Allyship

  • Open source guide to become a more thoughtful and effective ally

Approaches to Allyship

  • How to treat allyship like you would any other work you do
A slide with the text Be curious, do some research, educate yourself and a screenshot of the Google logo and empty search bar.

Continue to educate yourself. Be curious and do some research, and also be cautious of your sources of info, because there is a lot of harmful info out there about marginalized folks. Focus on information from people with lived experience and also recognize that one experience and one opinion isn’t the end-all-be-all of what you need to know to be an ally. This is one reason I strongly recommend those books on the previous slide as an excellent starting point to ground yourself.

Image Description: A screenshot of the Google logo with the search bar below it.

A slide with the text Take action, speak up, get engaged and a graphic of letter block words that say If Not Now When?

Don’t get stuck on the education step – you absolutely have to translate what you learn into action. Remember that you’re going to make mistakes, and yes those mistakes might harm people, but you have to try first. Don’t let discomfort and fear stop you from trying.

Image Description: A graphic of what looks like wood block letters, each word stacked on top of each other, that says…

If Not Now When?

Slide with text Keep going, keep growing and a graphic of drawn several potted plants of various types.

And finally, growth is uncomfortable, but it’s also an amazing gift to yourself and others. Keep going and keep learning – especially when you make mistakes – and keep growing from that.

Image Description: A drawing of a collection of potted plants of various types, sizes, and colors.

Slide with the text The End

And that’s the end. As always, thanks for joining me.