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.