“Allyship” has recently become a hot topic in the worlds of social justice agitation and movements for greater equality. Movements and campaigns like support for marriage equality and the Black Lives Matter movement, and men’s support for the Women’s March, have highlighted the role allies can play in social movements.
Who are allies?
Allies are people from privileged groups, working together with or on behalf of socially disadvantaged groups, to improve the status and conditions for the latter. Think of White people protesting side by side with Black Lives Matter protestors, men supporting women in demanding equal pay, and straight people joining marches for marriage equality in support of LGBTIQ groups.
Allyship is not a new phenomenon
Researchers have only started discussing allyship in recent years. Yet allies have been around for as long as social movements have. For instance, the suffrage movement in the United States was a movement that was supported by many influential men of the time. Similarly, White politicians were important allies of the African National Congress in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.
What influences people to act as allies?
Social research shows that people generally tend to favour their own groups and communities. We are rewarded for actions that favour our own groups—perhaps through acceptance, recognition for being a valuable group member, receiving favours when in need, etc. On the flip side, if we favour the interests of other groups or communities, we risk criticism, rejection, suspicion, and ostracism.
Given this context, how do advantaged group allies come to create and sustain support for disadvantaged groups outside of their own group? We identify 5 factors.
1. Normalising influences early in life
Allies tend to have had normalising influences while growing up, in the form of positive parental influence, contact with relatives or members of the community who probably belonged to these socially disadvantaged groups (like having a gay uncle, or a Black teacher), and exposure through popular culture and entertainment.
2. Feeling empathy for disadvantaged people
Allies report feeling empathy towards people they knew who may have identified as gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans, or been a racial minority, and saw them struggling with their identity. Studies show this can happen because of greater abilities for perspective-taking. This empathy also comes from the ability to relate the experiences of people from disadvantaged groups, to their own experiences of distress from being slighted, excluded or discriminated against in some way.
3. Feeling angry about unjust systems
Allies report feeling anger or a feeling of resistance towards people or systems found to be oppressing or bullying the people they know. Research suggests that when new experiences and information challenge their internalised worldview, allies start to experience resistance and rejection of those systems.
4. Having had opportunities to help
Allies tend to have had opportunities to reflect and help. Some have had the chance to directly help disadvantaged groups. Others encountered information that lead to self-reflection on topics of systemic oppression. Perhaps such opportunities for activism arose during high school or university life. Early experience tends to be an important primer to later engagement in allyship.
5. Supporting progressive values
Allies tend to have liberal or progressive values and a pluralistic orientation. They are lower on sexual prejudice, and religiosity. Allies typically have a broad orientation towards egalitarianism and fairness, even if they have not had contact with people different from themselves. This orientation is strengthened through exposure to diverse people, new information, and opportunities to help. With time, they are able to integrate or become comfortable with accepting multiple views of the world, and apply that to their understanding of complex concepts of privilege, oppression, and the existence of multiple social identities and realities.
Do you recognise any of these characteristics and themes in your own journey as an ally? Feel free to comment and tell us more. Understanding the nature of allyship is at the heart of my ongoing PhD research.
Humans are social beings. We all belong to social groups - for example family, friends, colleagues, church choir, or even political parties.
When we commit to a group, we act in accordance to the group’s standards for behaviours, and add the group’s identity to our sense of self.
Some groups are more important to us than others, providing meaningful identities and even personal life goals. Religious or faith groups often work like that. Research has found links between religious beliefs and our attitudes towards life or even how we vote for political leaders and choose to support national policies. In general, being part of a religious group or faith is linked to higher well-being.
Life changes can make group memberships toxic
Yet sometimes group memberships can become toxic or undesirable for a person. Faith groups are no exception. For example, one participant in our study was rejected by their local church and congregation after they married their same-sex partner.
More broadly, life events such as migration or marriage, or societal events such as natural disasters or political revolutions, can introduce new environments and motivate changes to attitudes, beliefs and identities. Such changes may mean that our groups no longer ‘fit’ us.
Leaving toxic groups may preserve well-being
We conducted research with Americans who have had different experiences with religions. We asked people aged over 30 about their faith at age 20 and today, and compared people who have left their faith and become non-religious (n = 36) with those who maintained the same faith (n = 96).
Among other things, we were interested in to what extent being rejected by the faith group would affect their well-being today.
Our results show that being rejected at age 20 by people in their faith group was associated with lower well-being in the present (more than 10 years later) for people who continued with their faith. However, for those who left a faith group, the rejection did not do ongoing harm.
Such results affirm one reason why our social identities can be changed or lost. Previous research on identity loss has mostly focused on its harmful effects, such as increased depression and mortality. Here, however, we show that identity loss can sometimes be a buffer to protect our well-being from threats in a toxic group.
When groups become toxic, leaving the group can protect psychological well-being.
On a psychological level, the findings show how losing group membership can be beneficial in certain circumstances, where the benefits of abandoning a particular group membership outweigh the benefits of maintaining it. However, changes in faith have broad and far-reaching consequences. Understanding changes in religious and political affiliation is the topic of my PhD research.
- Gi Chonu
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Chonu, G. K., Louis, W. R., Haslam, S. A., (2017). When groups reject us: Testing buffering effects of identity change and multiple group memberships. Manuscript in preparation.
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