“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.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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