The dangers of performative allyship

News
Article
dvm360dvm360 October 2022
Volume 53
Issue 10
Pages: 14

When it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, actions speak louder than words

ClareM / stock.adobe.com

ClareM / stock.adobe.com

To pass the time at an airport, I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed when I suddenly saw a graphic about a veterinary conference. At the top, it featured a Spanish word, but the announcement made no reference to a cultural event. Maybe it was a malapropism, I thought. In fact, it was a tasteless and inappropriate use of the Spanish word for celebration. I asked some trusted colleagues and received unanimous support. They all agreed the post was out of line. I politely messaged the person who had shared it, but he dismissed my concerns, claiming my energy would be better spent tackling “bigger problems” in the world.

I was flabbergasted. Considering that guests of his podcast include people who volunteer and work in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, I expected a certain level of understanding. Should I have? Perhaps he had never considered himself an ally, or did he absolve himself of responsibility because he wasn’t the primary author of the post?

Allyship

To fully understand the dangers of performative allyship, we must first discuss genuine allyship: an active, consistent, and arduous process of unlearning and reevaluating, whereby a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to work in solidarity with a marginalized group.1 The Multicultural Resource Center of the University of California, San Francisco defines the following as acts of allyship: educating oneself and others about equity, encouraging and supporting friends and colleagues from marginalized communities, and taking action to ensure their voices are heard.2

Allies advocate for marginalized groups, especially in the face of discrimination.3 Many individuals self-identify as allies, but allyship cannot be self-proclaimed. Although I have not read Mia McKenzie’s Black Girl Dangerous (It’s on my list, I promise!), Jamie Utt summarized the book’s message in So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All “Allies” Need to Know:

  1. Being an ally is about listening.
  2. Stop thinking of ally as a noun.
  3. “Ally” is not a self-proclaimed identity.
  4. Allies don’t take breaks.
  5. Allies educate themselves constantly.
  6. You can’t be an ally in isolation.
  7. Allies don’t need to be in the spotlight.
  8. Allies focus on those who share their identity.
  9. When criticized or called out, allies listen, apologize, act accountably, and act differently going forward.
  10. Allies never monopolize the emotional energy.4

Performative allyship

Years ago, my husband and I participated in a hackathon. Following the event, participants submitted what was supposed to be anonymous feedback. Not long after, a facilitator emailed my husband (the only white man on our team) to say that “Valerie’s feedback indicated that your team was ‘shocked and disgusted’ by our mentorship and called us ‘hostile event leadership,’ and she would not recommend anyone to do a hackathon, nor would she do it again if we were there.” This is a short excerpt from an email that went on for several paragraphs. For context, I was the only person of color on the team. And I had not written the feedback.

I contacted the instructor who had helped organize the event, a self-proclaimed ally, and explained the situation: The facilitator had gone to the only white man our hackathon group and assigned this “anonymous” feedback to the only BIPOC person in the group. The facilitator was unaware that we were a couple or that we had completed the feedback together. The instructor never followed up with me to address my concerns. I have never forgotten this incident, always thinking back to the damage it could have caused to my reputation and how in a different team, I may never have become aware of the email.

People often ask me how they can help.

I suggest they check out some of these groups and organizations, which are doing the work in our profession, and get involved by donating time and money. Being an ally is more than mere words; it is authenticity in action.

  • Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals
  • BlackDVM Network
  • BLEND
  • Diversity Veterinary Medicine Coalition
  • Latinx Veterinary Medical Association
  • Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association
  • National Association for Black Veterinarians
  • Native American Veterinary Association
  • North Carolina Association of Minority Veterinarians
  • Pride Veterinary Medical Community
  • Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment
  • Vets of All Colors
  • Veterinary Professionals Instilling Black Excellence
  • Wells International Foundation

Performative allyship, a form of superficial activism, takes place when someone pretends to be an ally for personal gain.5,6 On the surface, performative allies appear to support the cause. They may post signs on their lawns, share posts on social media, or use associated hashtags. They don’t, however, engage, educate themselves, act, or acknowledge personal responsibility.3,6 The instructor I approached about the incident at the hackathon continues to share support for different causes on social media, but their lack of action is a perfect example of performative allyship.

Performative allyship ruins relationships. I have never reached out to that instructor again and I never will. At a societal level, performative allyship gives the impression that a company or organization is acting, when, in reality, it reinforces the status quo. Performative allyship is detrimental to equity and belonging efforts because through it, misinformation is spread, tone is policed, messaging is diluted, and systems already in place are reinforced.3,7,8

Allyship in veterinary medicine

Many of us in veterinary medicine consider ourselves allies. I challenge us all to think about allyship through the lens of Utt’s article. Have you ever dismissed people’s concerns about an issue that affects them and their demographic group? Has someone called out a joke or comment you made as sexist or racist? Did you dismiss the feedback? Did you justify or minimize your comments because you consider yourself an ally, support BIPOC communities, or share supportive comments on social media?

On a broader scale, have you made sure that your staff represents the community you serve, that there is no pay gap at your clinic that disproportionately affects women or individuals from marginalized communities, and that you take microaggression concerns seriously?

Allies play a crucial role in the advancement of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in veterinary medicine. The well-being of the whole team—veterinarians, vet technicians, assistants, receptionists, managers, and all support staff— depends on it.

Valerie C. Marcano Gomez, DVM, PhD, ACPV, is the chief executive officer of Pawsibilities Vet Med, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase the veterinary profession’s recruitment and retention of individuals from underrepresented and marginalized communities. Dr Marcano received a BS in animal sciences with distinction from Cornell University in 2012 and a DVM and PhD from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 2017 and 2020, respectively. She is the chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the American Association of Avian Pathologists and a member of the Commission for a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Veterinary Profession of the American Veterinary Medical Association and of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

References

  1. The Anti-Oppression Network. Allyship. Accessed September 1, 2022. https://theantioppressionnetwork.com/allyship/
  2. UCSF Multicultural Resource Center. Allyship. Accessed September 1, 2022. https://mrc.ucsf.edu/allyship
  3. Phillips H. Performative allyship is deadly – here’s what to do instead. Policy Exchange. June 17, 2020. Accessed September 1, 2022. https://policyexchange.org.uk/ performative-allyship-is-deadly-heres-what-to-do-instead
  4. Utt J. So you call yourself an ally: 10 things all “allies” need to know. November 8, 2013. Accessed September 1, 2022. Everyday Feminism. https://everydayfeminism.com/2013/11/things-allies-need-to-know/
  5. Kalina P. Performative allyship. Tech Soc. Sci. 2020;11(1):478-481.doi:10.47577/ tssj.v11i1.1518
  6. Erskine S, Bilimoria D. White allyship of afro-diasporic women in the workplace: a transformative strategy for organizational change. J Leadersh Organ. 2019;26(3):319-338. doi:10.1177/1548051819848
  7. McClanahan A. The Downfalls of Performative White Allyship on Social Media in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. Thesis. West Virginia University; 2021.
  8. Brassel S, Ohm J, Travis DJ. Allyship and curiosity drive inclusion for people of color at work. Catalyst. 2021. Accessed September 1, 2022. https://www. catalyst.org/reports/allyship-curiosity-employees-of-color
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