I’ve noticed an increase in people claiming that others are engaged in “performative” allyship.
Aside from my frustration about the misunderstanding of what performative means, those claiming to see evidence of performativity, even if I take their definition at face value, apply the term to any/all things an ally could possibly do. I see so many posts that say, “Don’t do XYZ, it is performative” when XYZ is actually a very beneficial thing!
(Due to my frustrations with the incorrect usage of the term, I will use optical allyship when I speak to these behaviors.)
In order to understand whether an ally is engaging in optical allyship, one must take the breadth of their actions into account. If you have seen one action taken by an ally on social media, you have seen just that – one action. You actually have no idea what actions they are taking off-line, what organizations they might volunteer with, how many letters they are writing to their representatives, etc. (And if they mentioned any of those things, then there would be the additional accusation of virtue signaling.)
Additionally, during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, when so much of our daily existence is happening in the virtual realm, (especially high-risk) individuals might be limited in what actions they are able to take off-line. Beyond which, sharing educational information or news articles on social media is beneficial – it is one of the ways for one action to have a large ripple effect, and social media is often the place where people in my age bracket at least get the bulk of their news/information on a daily basis.
Allyship is a range of behaviors – some large, some small, that people engage with on a daily basis. Not to mention that there are developmental models for different stages of growth in the process of fully integrating these behaviors into ones life. Encouraging people to deepen and broaden the types of actions they take in order to support a marginalized group is a worthy goal. But taking entire categories of behavior and labeling them as “performative” and telling allies to NEVER do them, is not.
I will provide some examples from the trans community, since that is a place I have a marginalized status and can speak to what I want from allies. Recently I saw a post saying that labeling a restroom as inclusive is “performative.” I disagree – I *want* your signage to explicitly state that your restroom is inclusive of all genders if that is the case. This is providing tangible support to trans people, who often cannot use public restrooms without fear. A sign with only a toilet does not signal to me that your restroom is inclusive. Beyond which, when you have signage that explicitly states inclusivity, transphobes who frequent that business will also know where you stand, whereas the toilet-only sign might not alert them in the same way (which could actually make situations more dangerous for trans people than just going to a gendered restroom). A business who prioritizes inclusive restrooms may be targeted by TERFs or transphobic individuals, and will likely lose business – how is this by any stretch of the imagination optical allyship?
Another post said that posting on social media during TDOR or TDOV, wearing a pin on your clothing, or DMing a trans person you know to let them know you care about them are likewise “performative.” Again, I *want* the allies in my life to do these things. When I see you share articles, memes, or educational posts, it lets me know that you are thinking about these issues, and willing to publicly show your support of the community, and provides an opportunity for you to educate others so I don’t always have to be doing it. If I see you wearing trans pride colors or an item with some other supportive messaging, that is a sign that I am in a safer space. And it would absolutely make my day if someone reached out to me in DM to say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you, and I just wanted you to know that I care about you” or “It is really wonderful to watch you grow into yourself recently.”
No community is monolithic. There is no action anyone can take as an ally that 100% of the people they are trying to support will agree with. What might frustrate one person might be just the thing that someone else wants or needs in that moment. We should be encouraging allies to do everything they possibly can to be supportive, and using a wide variety of tactics is the best way to have as large an impact as possible on the wider society.
I can understand that some people have been hurt one too many times by someone who claimed to be an ally and either engaged in a pattern of harmful behavior, wouldn’t do a larger action that was requested of them, or centered themselves to gain a large following and take opportunities away from those they were claiming to care about. Sometimes the rhetoric around this issue reminds me of working for the DV Hotline, where a survivor who had left their abuser and was in a new relationship would feel afraid about what counts as a red flag, or if their current partner was being “too nice.” And while it is true that some abusive people will engage in love-bombing at the beginning of a relationship, it is also true that a healthy relationship can feel unsettling when you have experienced abuse. Sometimes someone giving you flowers is just their way to show that they care about you.
Part of the issue with this is that really the only way to know for sure if someone is engaging in optical allyship is to have a relationship with them. And allyship should lead to the development of relationships with those within the marginalized community. Because no community is monolithic, through those relationships, someone can learn which actions are most beneficial to the individuals they are in relationship with, and which to avoid (but only for that particular person).
So yes, if you are in a relationship with someone who keeps bringing you flowers when you have told them you are allergic, that is a red flag. But don’t tell a stranger on the Internet, “Never send anyone flowers, it is performative” because I guarantee you there is someone out there for whom receiving flowers would make their day.
There are no absolutes in this work. We will all make mistakes. All we can do is keep learning, keep trying, and keep moving forward. Allyship is not a checklist of “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” Using I statements when speaking about actions you don’t find supportive from allies might be a more generative way to deal with this issue, and doesn’t prevent others in your community with different needs from having access to what helps them feel heard/seen/validated/supported.