Thinking Out Loud -Maryann Kerr

By Maryann Kerr

Is it possible that not all performative allyship is harmful and that the division we see in Canada and the United States today could be minimized by seeking common ground and celebrating small wins? In the face of extreme inequity, is there a point to celebrating the baby steps? I honestly don’t know.

There’s green-washing, pink-washing and rainbow washing. All terms which describe performative allyship and the commoditisation of causes. To be performative suggests you wave a flag to show your commitment to a cause without real organizational change, activism, donations or other elements of allyship. It can be seen as virtue signalling and a way to increase sales. And when you do it, you may find yourself in hot water.

Sometimes, performative allyship can cause real harm. Like the example of the school board in Durham region that passed an interim policy on antiracism without involving the committee set up by the board to address anti-black racism. The result? An ineffective, white-washed version of a policy centred on ensuring White folk are “comfortable” with the language. Thanks to some brilliant activism by people like @Janelle Benjamin (you should follow her on LinkedIn) the policy is being reviewed.

At the same time there are some actions, which many people will see as performative, that we might rethink. What if we saw the increased number of rainbow flags, coffee cups, t-shirts, and baseball caps as a good thing even if it isn’t backed by a deeper commitment.

What if we didn’t judge others for not being deeply committed enough to the causes that matter to us? What if we saw every public act of support as “stage one” of allyship? What if we agree that everyone is on a journey, and meet folks where they are on theirs?

Now to be clear, I’m not talking about massive missteps like Wal-Mart’s ice cream branded as a celebration of Juneteenth. When a meaningful date is commoditized for the benefit of profit for a massive corporation that has teams of smart people in place who should know better… it is harmful, in poor taste and bad branding.

Anytime a corporation steps into the arena, they need to tread cautiously and most importantly, ensure they involve the community they seek to support, in the discussions on how best to proceed. They need to develop an action plan to address inequity throughout their organization.

That said, lots of small businesses, and individual leaders, the ones who make up the financial backbone of this country, while perhaps not deserving of applause, neither should they be negatively judged for their efforts when they don’t pass the performative threshold.

Consider this. According to the Canadian Encyclopaedia public support for same-sex marriage has decreased from 74 percent in 2017 to 64 percent in 2019. In fact, 15 percent believed gay couples should be limited to civil unions; while 10 percent felt they should not have “any kind of legal recognition.”

That means that 36 of every 100 people that walk into a place of business, would potentially turn around and walk away because the business signals their support of the LGBTQ2s community. That doesn’t mean the business won’t still wave the rainbow flag, but even if they do nothing more than wave that flag and publicly share their support, they risk losing business, that in our current economy, many cannot afford to lose. When we judge the level of commitment a person or business brings to their support of our causes, we fail to see the whole picture and we discourage deeper involvement.

According to Kris Archie, CEO of the Circle on Philanthropy (the Circle), the top three reasons that folks working in the philanthropic sector give for their failure to act on issues related to equity and justice for Indigenous peoples are perfectionism, comprehension and fear of conflict. This information was gathered from two cohorts of participants in the Circle’s Partners in Reciprocity program, a year long fellowship designed to “support philanthropic teams in a reorientation toward equity and justice. ” In other words, folks are afraid to speak up or be active due to perfection, comprehension and a fear of conflict.

Here’s an example on how that might play out. You put out a statement when George Floyd was murdered. You suggest that you are shocked by the shooting. You don’t mention racism or inequity or injustice. Someone might suggest that it is wrong to say George Floyd died when, in fact, he was murdered. Further, someone might ask why you are ‘shocked’ given the number of times a Black person has been shot or killed at the hands of the police.

You have a choice. You can become defensive and offended and choose never to venture out with a statement like this again or, you can listen with humility. You can choose to see the feedback as a learning opportunity.

It might be that someone will ask what else you are doing outside of making statements. For some, making a statement and perhaps signing a petition — may be the limit of their activism. They may be doing unseen things like improving their hiring practices but may not be able to volunteer, donate, or march — for very valid reasons.

Instead of judging, perhaps we can offer tangible, practical ways for small businesses and individuals to make a difference. Perhaps they can update their recruitment, hiring and employee practices to be more equitable. Perhaps they can offer space in their business, if it is location based, for local groups to advertise their events, sell their wares or meet free of charge. All to say, rather than assuming that something is performative or virtue signalling — we might set judgment aside and suggest ways that would-be allies could do better. Perhaps we should celebrate the baby steps.

I posed this idea to an activist friend who said, “Perhaps you need to be clearer about what the baby steps are and why you think people should be happy with mere baby steps in the face of extreme inequity and incidents like the murder of George Floyd.”

Extreme inequity. There is the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people. There is the fact that 52.2 percent of children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, but account for only 7.7 percent of the child population. There is the travesty of the residential school system and the cultural genocide it inflicted. There is extreme inequity.

And then I’m back to square one and wondering how we make progress. It is the age old argument between incremental and transformational change. And why should we accept incremental when we need and deserve transformational? Yup, back to square one. What do you think?

Maryann Kerr is Founder & Principal of The Medalist Group, a boutique organizational development and philanthropy firm. Thinking Out Loud is a monthly personal insights column exploring topics that make us think. Is there something you’re thinking about that you’d like us to consider? Do you have a comment on this one? Send us a note. We’d love to hear from you. She writes this column exclusively for each issue of Foundation Magazine.

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