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ACTIVE versus PERFORMATIVE Allyship

Active allies do hard things outside of their comfort zone

Active allyship at home necessitates courage. It’s not enough to read books like this, listen to podcasts, or wait for someone to tell you what to do to show up as an ally. You are the only one that can decide the kind of ally you want to be. That could be a mentor, a friend, a supporter, an advocate, a listener, an inclusive educator or caregiver. Allyship is personal.

DEI starts with “U”

Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, there were a lot of well-intentioned white people that entered the conversation. They self proclaimed to be allies. They showed up at protests and posted pictures on social media. Many of those well-intentioned folks did not stay in the conversation. They returned to their normal lives once it was no longer in the news cycle and popular to post about.

This behavior is extremely harmful to people of color, and those most marginalized in our culture. It feels like people are taking advantage of the situation when it benefits them and are not willing to stay with the work when things get hard. That’s not what allyship is. It’s not a self-proclamation. It is a daily intentional practice. Allyship is helping people different from you. And, sometimes that help hurts the ally. Sometimes it requires some pain, some personal loss, some shifting of privilege.

In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, at the peak of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 social acceptance was 67% percentage of the movement. Fast-forward a year to 2021, and social acceptance declined to 55%. Why the decline? A lot of well-intentioned allies that wanted to be supportive quickly realized this is hard work. Rolling up your sleeves and actively participating in hard conversations can be exhausting when you are not used to it. Unlearning and relearning is hard on our brains. It is easier to keep things the same. As the old saying goes, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

The system is broken.

Active allyship is about addressing systemic change. It addresses the systems we have set up as a society – education, housing, voting, policing, healthcare, advantage the majority group and disadvantage underrepresented groups. Allies use their voice for positive change. They don’t accept excuses like “those people don’t work as hard” or “they don’t want it for themselves.” They address these myths of meritocracy and debunk them in the moment.

Allies are familiar with calling people into conversations. They see problematic situations as opportunities to reshape perceptions and reach a broader understanding as a group. They don’t hide when things get tough. They realize their silence is compliance.

The ladder of inference

One of the tools we love in the inclusive leadership world with our corporate clients is the ladder of inference, first coined by Chris Argyris and Peter Senge in “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.”

The idea is as human beings we make snap decisions very regularly. We like to stay at the top of the ladder. Our brains like comfortable, routine decisions. Our brains like to save our mental capacity for hard decisions. We often make decisions based on our beliefs. Our beliefs are informed by our childhoods, our limited lens of lived experiences, and who we surround ourselves by on a daily basis.

Rarely, do we work our way down the ladder to explore all of the data available to us. Even when we work our way down the full ladder and examine the full reality and facts available, we often select the version of the facts that we like the most. This is called confirmation bias. We actively look for information that supports what we already believe to be true. This results in our interpreted reality of the situation, which informs our assumptions and the convulsions we draw, and then are used to cement our beliefs and justify our actions.

Let’s practice using an example. Say you’re in a difficult conversation about DEI with someone. There’s a conflict. You both have very different perceptions about a text exchange. Both of you point to the same string of text messages as evidence supporting your beliefs and actions. But neither one of you have worked your way down the ladder to all the available information and context that informed those text messages.

No one thought about prior conversations and how they impact this text string? No one thought to ask clarifying questions rather than draw conclusions? No one thought to double-check their assumptions with actual facts and information.

The majority of conflicts about DEI exist because we’re unwilling to work ourselves down the ladder and see the situation objectively. Our emotional brains don’t like to spend that type of mental energy on conflicts. Only through some thinking time, can we actually get to root causes when we work our way down the ladder. Spending an hour having a conversation about the real roots of conflict as friends could save dozens of angry text strings over time.

Instant gratification is real. Protection is real. Instead, flip the script in a conflict situation asking yourself the questions: what’s the other person’s perspective? How might they come up with a different conclusion? What facts do I have available to make a well-informed decision? What if this person had positive intentions? What would that look like?

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.