On Allyship and Performative Wokeness
I need to talk to you about being an ally. As hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have grown into national conversations, so too have a chorus of people who call themselves allies, those folks with societal privilege who say they want to help make positive change in the world, those who don’t want to be “part of the problem.”
Being an ally to a social justice movement that isn’t really your own is to live in something of a paradox. It can be difficult, and yet it’s never as difficult as being the one whose oppression started the whole thing. An ally gives up a certain amount of privilege, but never all of it — and so can feel at once righteous and plagued with guilt, targeted by those who seek to oppress as a politically correct snowflake and often seen by those you’re advocating for as a “weekend warrior,” who could give up the fight tomorrow if you felt like it. And you know what? They’re right … you could.
And so, allies are liable to react to this paradoxical position, in a variety of ways — the most annoying of which is what I call the “performatively woke” stance. To my mind, the performatively woke person is someone whose desire to be seen as on the right side of an issue can get in the way of an ally’s true job. The performatively woke person posts on social media about how annoying white people are, conveniently ignoring their own whiteness. The performatively woke person mansplains feminism to women. The performatively woke person makes a lot of noise, and accomplishes very little.
In response to the performatively woke, and my own annoyance at the increasing frequency of their performances, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own allyship, and I’d like to share some of these ideas with you. If you’re a man who wants to be an ally to women, a straight person who wants to be an ally for the LGBTQ community, a white person who wants to be an ally for people of color, or anyone who wants to be an ally for a group of people less powerful than themselves, I’d like to have a quick conversation about our job.
One of the important jobs an ally can take on is to amplify the voices of the unheard. If a man notices that a woman in a business meeting is continually being interrupted, he could say, “Folks, wait; Maggie’s been trying to make a point for a while.” And then he could shut his mouth and let Maggie talk. It might be that Maggie would never have been able to get a word in edgewise without a man gently nudging everyone to give her room to speak, and she might have something really important to say. An ally will say as little as possible and then cede the floor.
The performatively woke person, on the other hand, will first give the room a detailed lesson on micro-agressions and why sexism is bad, and Maggie will have completely forgotten what she was going to say after sitting through his illuminating lecture. The performatively woke person takes up a lot of space. The ally makes space. It’s a crucial difference.
Of course, amplifying the voices of the unheard can take bigger forms. Assuring that everyone on your big conference panel isn’t white, or male, or straight — especially when the topic at hand requires those voices — is a powerful stance for an ally to take. Advocating for more people of color, women, and LGBTQ people in government, your company’s leadership team, even your local Homeowner’s Association is important.
Something else an ally will do is converse with the people in his/her own privileged group about some of these tough issues. The casually racist sentiment spoken in the presence of an exclusively white audience can’t be taken on by a person of color — and if no one else seems up to the challenge, that’s what an ally does. But the difference between an ally and a performatively woke person is that an ally is primarily concerned with making a difference while the performatively woke are primarily concerned with being right. In this way, the ally’s job is much more difficult. It’s easy to scold everyone present for being covert racists and storming off. It’s also entirely predictable that as soon as that happens, the group will simply mock the “triggered snowflake” in their midst and use their annoyance at his/her superiority and condescension to validate their casual racism. The performatively woke person has now accomplished exactly nothing, and alienated people in the process. But s/he was right, and righteous, and honestly who gives a shit.
The biggest reason that allies speaking with members of their own group works is because there’s no power dynamic there. When an oppressed person takes on his/her oppressor, there’s rarely an even playing field. Of course, allies can’t do all the talking (see the bit above about amplifying others’ voices) — but when they do, they can speak with, rather than speak at. The performatively woke, by contrast, speak down to. It’s annoying. More importantly, it’s not effective.
This brings me to the most important job of an ally, which is to listen. Allies spend a lot more time listening than they do speaking — and when speaking, they try their best not to lecture. That last bit was almost difficult for me to type, as I’ve been known to stand behind an imaginary lectern once or twice in my career.
Allies must listen to everybody. We obviously need to listen to those who are being oppressed by the larger society, be they the police or handsy Hollywood studio executives or gay-bashers or pedophile priests or Nazis in the streets. But we also need to listen to the casual bystanders, to learn what’s stopping them from coming forward. Some allies might even choose to engage with those Nazis and gay-bashers — and by “engage,” I mean speak with but also listen more than talk.
Of course, there will eventually come a time when it’s important for an ally to speak up. But only by listening first can an ally speak with any credibility. An ally will typically begin speaking by asking questions, and an ally will know, when an unarmed black man has been shot by a policeman, that the important question is not, “did the officer feel unsafe,” but rather — “did this citizen deserve to die.” An ally realizes that a conversation about #MeToo needs to center on the lived experience of women who navigate a culture of normalized assault daily, not on ranking the various behaviors of those who do the assaulting or insisting that we spend a moment reflecting on all the good guys who don’t assault women (ahem, Matt Damon: ssssh).
An ally speaks when necessary, and only when s/he truly understands the dynamics under discussion. Allies will first do no harm. The performatively woke, on the other hand, never shut up. That’s their defining characteristic.
The performatively woke claim to be breaking down barriers between people, when in fact they spend most of their time reinforcing an ever more confining bubble, surrounded only by those who aspire to the same levels of advocacy-by-way-of-arrogance.
As I close, allow me to be clear: I’ve been a performatively woke social justice warrior more than a few times in my life, and I wrote this as much for myself as for anyone else. And, although this is perhaps more aspirational than descriptive of my own life, I stand by what I’ve written here. At this particular moment in time, in this particular political climate, we need to hear the voices of the unheard. We need more conversation and less contention. We need to learn to listen, and to disagree, and to keep on listening. We need allies. And while I’ve found myself rolling my eyes at the words and actions of the performatively woke with increasing frequency this past year, I find that I’m still more hopeful than pessimistic, more idealistic than cynical. Because I know we can do better. I believe we must do better.