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How do you distinguish effective allyship from performative allyship?

The following article was written by Penn State Law in University Park alumna Anna Fosberg (J.D. 2020), in collaboration with fellow 2020 alumnae Amber Bynum and Heidi Tripp, based on interviews with 19 Penn State Law students and recent graduates.
Penn State Law alumnae Anna Fosberg, Amber Bynum, and Heidi Tripp

The following article is the first of a four-part series examining how white Americans can be effective allies to marginalized groups, specifically Black, Latinx, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities. It was written by Penn State Law in University Park alumna Anna Fosberg (J.D. 2020), in collaboration with fellow 2020 alumnae Amber Bynum and Heidi Tripp, based on interviews with 19 Penn State Law students and recent graduates. All interviewees were asked the same four questions; each article in this series will revolve around one of those questions.

Note from Anna Fosberg: As America as a whole confronts what systematic racism is and how to stop it,  many white Americans are working to understand what it means to be an effective ally to the Black community. For many, race in America is still a sensitive and taboo issue and, as such, many white allies are left wondering how we can truly be allies to a community that is not our own, and to ensure our support goes beyond impotent performative allyship.

The goals of this project are to have a conversation, to allow people to share their personal perspectives, and to guide other allies in the engagement of genuine actions towards social change. In addition to exploring how to be an ally to the Black community, my coauthors and I broadened the scope of our inquiry to ask how allyship pertains to different marginalized groups. Specifically, we spoke with colleagues from Black, Latinx, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities in order to gain a fuller perspective on meaningful allyship. Although there is no single “right” way to become an ally, my coauthors and I believe that the interviewees’ responses offer guidance for those looking to better understand and provide meaningful, not performative, allyship.

I was inspired to write these articles, in part, by my conversations about race relations and current events with Judge Zuberi Williams of the Maryland District Court. Judge Williams encouraged me to think more critically about the world around me. I hope this article will inspire others to reflect inward about how they can serve as effective allies.

Part One: How do you distinguish effective allyship from performative allyship?



“Authentic allyship is not about amplifying your own voice, but rather listening to
the voices of people within that community and what they are saying. They need to be uplifted.”

– Graham Ball, 2021 J.D. candidate, Penn State Law



Real allyship requires you to understand how to support a marginalized community. To be blunt, real allyship requires you to actually do something. Of course, this can result in different levels of action; not everybody has to protest or post on social media. But even less noticeable actions require you to do something because, at its core, allyship demands you to challenge yourself. To get uncomfortable. 

True allyship requires follow-through. Posting on social media is great insofar as it can help raise awareness to real issues plaguing communities that are not our own and provide perspective to members of our social network that might not otherwise be educated on certain issues. However, posting on social media is not enough. There needs to be a follow-up action. Did you donate to bail relief fund groups? Did you go to a protest? Did you have a tough conversation with a family member? Did you read a book about anti-racist behavior? These actions, whether offline or online, reflect a motivation other than feeling good about yourself or contributing to a trend. 

We should be taking responsibility for our actions as individuals and, subsequently, giving something up. Your actions should benefit someone other than yourself. Real allyship occurs after it is no longer popular or trending to speak up; it is standing up for things knowing that the result will not benefit you.

Performative allyship is based on the idea of self-gratification and does not look at your responsibility within a community; it is disingenuous. For example, merely posting a black square on Instagram is not being an effective ally. You are merely performing with personal gratification in the center of your action. If that’s the case, then you are not actively living as an anti-racist. Performative allyship is done to make yourself feel better, to “prove” you are not a racist, to create a perception of yourself for others, to be trendy.

The consistency of people’s actions speak louder than words. In an age where our lives are projected online, social media is forcing people to become more publicly accountable than ever before. Many people who had never denounced injustice, made donations, or done any tangible work towards social change posted a black square in the name of Black injustice, but many of these same people often failed to demonstrate any follow-up actions. Real allies do more than post a black square; real allies go to protests, or read, or have uncomfortable conversations about race. They demonstrate patterns of actively working towards social change. Their actions are motivated by uplifting someone else, rather than seeking to be seen as part of a movement.

This article is based on interviews with Penn State Law Class of 2019 graduate Melissa Blanco; Class of 2020 graduates Yanna Banks, Kathryn Dutton, Christina Gottfried, Alice Gyamfi, Marcus Hobson, Ava Ibanez, Shamsiddin “Pop” Little, and Vanessa Miller; and 2021 juris doctor candidates Graham Ball, Kaitlin Briggs, Bianca Gutierrez, Rebecca Heisner, Ryan Morrison, Emory Robertson, Kelsi Robinson, Tyla Swinton, and Alexis Thackurdin.

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