50. Some Empirical Research on Allies

Some Unsurprising Results

If you've been following my blog, you'll have noticed that I post about allies a fair bit. I also post about what constitutes poor ally behaviour (e.g., gaslighting). In fact, I recently wrote about why I'm done with the concept and term "ally." But it's still useful to talk about the term and concept, particularly since it facilitates criticism. This post is about some recently published empirical research on how people (of colour) perceive their allies, and on how allies perceive themselves.

Metamorpho-sis_overheard.pngIn a paper just made available, by Brown and Ostrove, "What does it mean to be an ally? The perception of allies from the perspective of people of color," the authors did some empirical research into how some people of color perceive allies. So what do the authors say about what constitutes an ally?

Brown and Ostrove cite a bunch of mostly theoretical work on what constitutes a good ally. There's some empirical work there, too. Typically we probably think of allies as "dominant group" members: cis, hetero, and white (and probably male). They write, "Across these various settings and identities, allies are generally conceived as dominant group members who work to end predudice in their personal and professional lives, and relinquish social privileges conferred by their group status through their support of nondominant groups." However, other nondominant group members can act as allies: a lesbian can be an ally for a gay man, or a trans* woman, for example.

Allies go beyond merely attempting to minimize their own prejudices towards nondominant group members: "Allies are willing to take action, either interpersonally or in larger social settings, and move beyond self-regulation of prejudice." Brown and Ostrove cite two primary characteristics of allies: actively promoting social justice (for the nondominant group members) and offering support to nondominant group members.

"The first characteristic of promoting social justice involves an intentional choice to promote the rights of nondominant people and eliminate social inequalities from which the ally may benefit…. Special attention is directed at ensuring that the privileges from which allies may benefit are extended to nondominant people."

"The second characteristic of offering support to members of nondominant groups focuses on establishing a meaningful relationship with and ensuring accountability to those with whom individuals are seeking to ally themselves…. Though the support that an ally provides can be interpersonally beneficial to nondominant people, theorists have addressed the need for support to occur both when nondominant people are present and when they are not…."

This last point connects nicely with what I wrote about in this post. OK, so allies ought not only to decrease their prejudices, but they also ought to actively act to support the nondominant group members, including actively working to eliminate social inequities. However, what I want to partly stress here is that allies ought to be accountable to the nondominant group member(s). I think that this aspect too often gets overlooked.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote the following:

"And then the mispronouning started. It was stark. He was saying that "Of course [she] wouldn't have noticed a thing like that, because when [she] gets to talking about epistemology, there's no way [she] would notice anything about [her] surroundings. [She] … blah blah blah." Now replace all of the female pronouns with the wrong, male pronouns. And the way that the story had to go, the focal stress (e.g., "Well, there's no way she would…") was on all of the pronouns. So the mispronouning was very stark. It was harsh. And I have to admit, as soon as he got the first pronoun wrong, I pretty much blanked out: I couldn't believe that he did that, and that he was doing it over, and over, and over…with focal stress on the fuck-ups, no less! So my recounting of the story is from my girlfriend, who was standing next to me at the time. Apparently I was a bit of a deer in headlights: utterly stunned. I was nearly speechless.

When the "humorous" (and, were he to have gotten the pronouns right, it would have been very enjoyable: it was really a compliment) telling ended, still stunned, we four of us stood there in silence. He was waiting for the reciprocation or laughs that come in that situation. But I wasn't laughing, I wasn't smiling. None of us were. (Which signals a recognition of what happened, because, as I noted, it would have been a nice telling if he hadn't fucked up the pronouns.) I had a blank expression, and I looked to the women on either side of me to see if they heard it, and to see if they were going to step up and say something.

They didn't. Given that it was a professional context, even though it was a holiday party, it's understandable that my girlfriend wasn't sure about stepping up and confronting a senior colleague of mine (although I know now she wanted to, and regrets not). She wasn't a member of the department, and she didn't know what the politics of her saying something to my boss would be. But I was also standing next to a more senior colleague of mine — someone with tenure, and someone who's generally really good about equity and gender issues. I was really hoping that she'd step up and confront him. But, of course, she didn't."

My "ally" here wasn't a very good ally. She didn't say anything. Moreover, she hasn't once apologized for not speaking up. In fact, I strongly think that she hasn't and won't take responsibility for failing to do so. I suspect that she thinks that, well, the politics of speaking up are complicated and it was just better for her, on balance, to stay quiet. Well, based on our defining characteristics of allies above, that's failing to be a (good) ally.

OK, but let's set that aside for now. What did Brown and Ostrove find in their studies? Now, the study was about people of colour (not just Black people, too, which is great–one reason is that most people's schema for "person of colour" is a Black man; alternatively, most people's schema for an LGBT person is a gay man) and how they perceived allies of colour and White allies. Brown and Ostrove asked participants to rate people on two axes: "informed action" (was the ally likely to *do* something to help? E.g., "My friend proposes possible actions to address potentially racist situations affecting me.") and "affirmation" (was the ally respectful and concerned about the nondominant group member? E.g., "My friend is interested in what happens to me.").

In both between subjects and within subjects designs, they found that the nondominant group member described their White allies as *lower* on the informed action scale, but equally on the affirmation scale, compared to their allies of colour. One possible explanation for this is that participants suggested that what makes someone a good ally is that they share similar life experiences so that they've also had experience with the relevant forms of discrimination and harassment. Those who've gone through the same (or sufficiently similar) experiences are better equipped for being allies regarding those sorts of experiences.

I think that this is very likely true. While there's a lot of in-fighting in trans* communities, trans* allies best understand what it means to be trans* and are thus well equipped to stand as allies. Of course, also being nondominant group members means that they're often in a position of low social power, which makes it hard to act as a strong ally. But let's set this aside.

Brown and Ostrove also measured how participants rated their allies and how those same allies rated themselves. What they found is that the allies–shocker!–rated themselves more highly than the participants did. This is sometimes categorized as an actor-observer asymmetry: the allies here being the actors, and the participants being the observers. Brown and Ostrove suggest that one reason for this result is that the allies do many ally-like behaviour that the observers never get to see.

For example, it's quite possible that many ally-like behaviours were done behind the scenes about the continued mispronouning that I faced, but since it was "behind the scenes," and no one ever told me that they did anything (at least, no one told me that they went and gave him a stern talking-to), such behaviours won't make their way into how I rate an ally. I can only go with what I've seen or what I've been told. And so, sometimes, when I write about how people didn't stand up for me, they might get angry, thinking that I'm being ungrateful for what they *did* do about the situation. However, they're completely forgetting that I never saw or heard about their doing a damned thing about it. Maybe they did, but I never saw or heard anything. This considerably contributed to my growing sense of betrayal and isolation. I felt like I didn't even have any real allies.

There's a lesson here: when allies do ally-like work out of view of the nondominant person, the allies need to communicate what they did. HOWEVER, when they do this, they can't make it seem at all like cookie-seeking behaviour. It should be in the spirit of solidarity and expressing support–it shouldn't be in the hopes of praise or thanks. This means that the allies have to be especially careful about how they communicate this.

Now, there is of course another potential explanation (and these can be working in concert) for this asymmetry: allies may think of themselves as more willing to engage in ally-like behaviour than they really are. AFter all, it's only human for us to think of ourselves as better than we really are.

But all of this goes back to accountability. This ally completely let me down when the mispronouning actually happened. She proceeded to gaslight me (although she seems to think she didn't) afterwards when I asked her about her thoughts on what happened. When I tried to express my disappointment and feelings of betrayal at what *she*, the "ally," was saying or doing, she got defensive. Now we don't talk. She was so upset about my blogging about what happened–with details largely anonymized–and that I never confronted her in person (as *if* I would have felt comfortable doing that!), that she has completely refused to have a dialogue about what happened between us. So she's refused to be at all accountable for what she did, which just makes the betrayal worse. The irony being that she feels more wronged by me than (she thinks) I feel about her. And that this feeling of being wronged is then justification for refusing dialogue. In fact, the betrayal of this ally–and her refusal to take responsibility–was worse than the mispronouning itself!

Not very ally-like. Not very accountable.

So there are some important lessons in this research. There are some strong limitations, though. I wouldn't quite say that the researchers identified what participants thought were really "allies" (they asked them to think about, and eventually name, someone whom they felt comfortable with). But this is very preliminary research. I'm looking forward to seeing what develops in future research.

Yours truly,