What is…Performative Allyship?

In the wake of the wrongful killing of George Floyd by a police officer a few months ago, I’ve increasingly seen the following term online: performative allyship. Given the increased use of that term, I thought I would do a “what is” post on this term, even though it wasn’t in my original plans. It’s another term that may seem like social justice jargon to some but is important to understand.

Performative allyship is, generally speaking, an action or set of actions that do more to show how virtuous someone is than help the cause they say they support. Performative allyship is not a term used as a compliment, but as a criticism of someone’s actions.

But how can you tell that you, or someone else, is engaging in an action of performative allyship?

Based on the reading I have done, it seems like different people have different opinions on the point at which someone’s allyship crosses the line into performative allyship. However, I think there’s probably good agreement that if the action you’re thinking of has a clear benefit for you, but does not have a clear benefit for the cause you say you support (or worse yet, if the action you’re thinking of doing may actually harm the cause), then you may need to reconsider your action (or think through it some more) in order to avoid performative allyship. One thing that I might consider to be an example of performative allyship was when some people were wearing safety pins in the aftermath of Trump’s election to the presidency—while the intention was to show that someone would be a “safe” person on issues ranging from race to LGBTQ+, I recall the pins being widely critiqued for doing more to advertise a person’s self-righteousness than actually address any problems.

Thinking about whether an action of yours might fall into performative allyship is not just important to the cause you support, but also to yourself. After all, if an action you’re thinking of is not actually going to do anything to benefit the cause you say you support, then, in all due honesty, why bother? Why waste your time doing something that does not support the cause you support in some tangible way? First and foremost, it’s important to make sure you actually help the cause you say you support, but you also want to make sure that you make good use of your time—something that would not be the case if you’re using your time with performative allyship.

Ultimately, performative allyship is unhelpful for both you and the cause you support. Instead, try to aim for what I might call supportive allyship—allyship that brings tangible benefits to the cause you support, regardless of whether there are any benefits for you.

What Is…Intersectionality?

Today’s post is the next installment on the “What is _____?” series, where I go over terms used commonly in social justice circles that may sound like jargon to many.

Today’s “What is_____?” post will be on a very big term in social justice circles these days: intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a term to describe how different forms of discrimination overlap, combine, and yes, even intersect, with each other. While the term was originally used by Kimberlé Crenshaw 30 years ago to describe how the discrimination of women of color differed from even that of white women, the definition has since expanded in a way that the term can be used to describe how different forms of discrimination intersect to create a set of interwoven prejudices in daily life.

A few such cases where I’ve seen intersectionality at play include the following:

  • Women with disabilities of various kinds, including my mother (who has fibromyalgia and arthritis), often face ableism from people who don’t believe that they should accommodate for someone else’s aches and pains. At the same time, many of the women I know who have chronic illnesses have said quite openly that the fact that they’re women has, without a doubt, made them less likely to be believed when talking about their disabilities with friends and doctors. In the case of women with disabilities, ableism and sexism often intersect.
  • Transgender women of color face discrimination for being transgender, for being a woman, and for being a person of color. Each of these individual statuses (being transgender, being a woman, or being a person of color) is often enough, in many cases, to be at risk in certain ways, but the combination of these three identities has arguably resulted in transgender women of color being disproportionately represented in murder counts, even in the transgender community.[1]
  • Younger people with disabilities (whether visible or invisible) are often thought to be “faking it” because they look “too young” to have a disability. This attitude, and its results, means that there are a lot of young people with disabilities face discrimination at the intersection of ageism and ableism.

An understanding of intersectionality is important because, quite frankly, intersectionality also allows us to have a basic understanding of how different groups of people, even within a community that faces discrimination, can face other forms of discrimination too (or further discrimination because of another oppressed identity). Such an understanding can result in greater empathy for others on an individual level, but also hopefully better policy on the governmental level.


[1] The majority of transgender people who were killed due to violence in 2018 were transgender women of color: https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019

What Is…Privilege?

If you spend enough time reading social justice-themed content, you will have probably come across the word privilege a ton. You may have read about white privilege, straight privilege, male privilege, and so on. This is a term we hear even more in light of the death of George Floyd and the protests since then, and particularly in the context of white privilege.

But what is privilege?

In the social justice world, people with a certain kind of privilege are people with unearned advantages simply on the basis of their identity. Therefore, when you hear someone talk about “white privilege,” that person is talking about unearned advantages from being white; when someone talks about “straight privilege,” that person is talking about unearned advantages from being heterosexual; when someone talks about “male privilege,” that person is talking about unearned advantages from being male.

The most common misunderstanding I come across about privilege is that, if you’re described as having a particular type of privilege (example: white privilege), it’s an insult. To the contrary, it’s not an insult, but instead a statement that, since you’re white, you’re not as likely to experience certain negative things that many people of color experience, not because you actually did, expected, asked for, or earned anything, but simply because you’re white.

That being said, if you have a certain privilege based on your identity (regardless of what part of your identity involves privilege),[1] there may be times when you may hear a phrase such as “you’re showing your white privilege” or “not everyone has straight privilege.” You may’ve even heard of the phrase “check your privilege.” These sorts of phrases are variations of someone else telling you to, in the words of an Everyday Feminism piece, “reflect on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage – even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it – while their social status might have given them a disadvantage.”[2] While a phrase like “check your privilege” is often viewed as an insult, even by many in the online world, I encourage those who are told to check their privilege (or some variation of that) to learn about how your privilege affects you (or how a lack of privilege for certain groups affects others) instead of getting defensive.

Instead of being an insult (which is how some people view it), privilege is more than anything else a shorthand explanation for how whites (without explanation) face less scrutiny from law enforcement than people of color, for how family rejection is much more likely to happen with gay and lesbian couples than straight couples, for how a man is much less likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman, and so on. Some groups have unearned advantages while others don’t (or have unearned disadvantages); for that reason, understanding privilege and how it affects certain groups of people is important.

This is part of the “what is” series.


[1] It’s worth noting that it’s possible for someone to have one kind of privilege but not another. For example, it’s possible to have straight privilege but not the privilege of being white, or the privilege of being white but not male privilege.

[2] https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-checking-privilege-means/

What Is…Toxic Positivity?

Today’s post is the next installment in the “What is _____?” series, where I go over terms used commonly in social justice circles that may sound like jargon to some.

Today’s “What is_____?” post will focus on a term that I’ve started to hear more about in the mental health and chronic illness communities: toxic positivity. It’s a term that I think is particularly relevant right now during this coronavirus pandemic, hence the reason for publishing this post today, rather than waiting until later during this series.

Toxic positivity is when there is a focus on positive things and positive thinking while, at the same time, rejecting or minimizing emotions that aren’t happy or positive. Examples of toxic positivity can include phrases and sentiments such as “don’t worry so much,” “it’ll be fine” (especially if it’s something chronic or serious that won’t 100% heal), “just think positive,” and “don’t worry, be happy.” Phrases like these, while not ill-intended, can come across as trying to minimize, invalidate, or suppress negative emotions, which is why the positivity is toxic.

It is especially problematic to suppress the negative when you’re living in a time like the coronavirus pandemic. There are times when suppressing the negative is equivalent to suppressing reality. And now is one of those times when to me, at least, suppressing the negative is equivalent to suppressing reality, because reality is that we have suffered great losses in New York City and not even attempts to suppress the negative would take away that reality.

You might be wondering, though, how to avoid this well-intended, yet toxic, positivity. I’ve heard different takes on this, but here’s mine, for the time being: instead of trying to suppress negative thoughts, show empathy. Instead of suppressing the sadness of a friend who just found out about a close relative passing away, try to be sympathetic to what the friend or family member is going through. Instead of trying to tell others not to worry, be a listening ear when they do worry. Instead of telling others to “just think positive,” be willing to talk through the negative emotions if your friend wants to talk through such feelings with you.

In many if not most cases (at least in my experience), people who struggle with toxic positivity genuinely want to help their friend, their family member, or their neighbor. However, there are times when positivity at the expense of minimizing negative emotions is not the best way to go about things, and that empathy is the best course of action, in my assessment. That being said, if any of my readers have alternates to toxic positivity that I didn’t mention here (because there are different takes on toxic positivity and the alternatives to it), or any thoughts on the topic of toxic positivity, I welcome the suggestions and feedback!

Who Is…a Spoonie?

When I first heard anyone refer to themselves as a spoonie, I was, needless to say, confused. I thought of spoons as tools to use for eating a lot of our food, not for something we called ourselves.

I would learn later on that the people who called themselves spoonies were people whose experiences with chronic illness (whether physical or mental) could be described with this thing called spoon theory.

But what is spoon theory?

Spoon theory, a term first coined by Christine Miserandino when describing her experience with lupus, is a shorthand for describing how, because of someone’s illness or disability, they have a very limited amount of physical and/or mental energy to do tasks throughout the day (in other words, a very limited number “spoons”) before they are just unable to do any more tasks.[1] For example, let’s say that you have only twelve spoons for the day based on how you feel and how much energy you have, and driving to and from work is three spoons, cooking for the family is four spoons, and work itself is three spoons. That leaves you with only two spoons, and that’s before we’ve even gotten to hygiene, housecleaning, taking care of any pets, laundry, or any other of the basic day-to-day tasks that many of us may take for granted (before we even get to socializing with friends or anything like that).

This shorthand spoon theory is supposed to help people who don’t have that shared spoonie experience (like me) understand that people with many illnesses have limited energy to do the tasks they need to do, let alone the tasks they’d like to do. Through having that understanding of spoon theory and the experiences of spoonies, some of us, particularly those of us who (like me) don’t have that shared experience of living with a chronic illness or other disability, can become more understanding of our friends and family members who do have a variety of illnesses or disabilities. Learning about spoon theory has certainly helped me become more understanding of friends whose day-to-day experiences with various illnesses or disabilities could be described with spoon theory.

All that being said, I would be interested in hearing from any friends or other readers who have experiences with various chronic illnesses and disabilities. Do you, as well, find it helpful for able-bodied people to have an understanding of spoon theory, particularly as it relates to your illness? If you don’t find it helpful in your case, why not? I know that not all illnesses are the same, so I’m interested in hearing from people who have a variety of illnesses, whether it relates to physical health, mental health, or both.


[1] In this piece, Miserandino also explains how spoon theory works: https://cdn.totalcomputersusa.com/butyoudontlooksick.com/uploads/2010/02/BYDLS-TheSpoonTheory.pdf