There is a great disconnect between identity-based social movements and their allies. Researchers from Yale and Stanford believe they’ve identified its cause

Over the course of history, from the 20th century’s feminist movement to 21st-century movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, social movements have gained traction when allies joined the fight. In fact, allyship can be essential to the success of social movements.

Allies are people with a majority identity (across any social identity, like gender, race, culture, and socioeconomic status) who stand up for those with minority identities and seek to address discrimination. For example, allyship could be a man who advocates for the advancement of his female colleagues in the workplace, or it could be an American citizen who attends an immigrants’ rights protest. By virtue of their majority identity, allies often have greater access to political power, financial resources, and social capital than activists.

Despite the positive potential of allyship, allies are often not accepted by a social movement’s key actors. In fact, activists are frequently skeptical about allies who seek to join forces. Our research focused on what drives this skepticism of allies, and how well-meaning allies might do better. To do so, our team from Yale and Stanford studied activists’ opinions of allies working within identity-oriented movements. We found that activists prefer allies who are highly trustworthy, but wield little influence over the movement.

Trust vs. influence

To understand which ally characteristics mattered most to activists, we surveyed 117 activists from a variety of identity-oriented movements. These activists were asked to consider how much allies display characteristics like loyalty, morality, passion, and knowledge, and how much they should ideally display these characteristics. We found that this list of characteristics boiled down into two global categories, each representing a key dimension of allyship.

The first dimension is trustworthiness: Can an ally be trusted to consistently act in accordance with the goals of the movement? The second dimension is influence: Can an ally play a supporting role without overstepping their boundaries? The ideal ally, according to the movement activists we contacted, is someone who is high in trustworthiness, while being low in influence.

In two follow-up experiments, we recruited 1110 women and nonbinary activists in the feminist movement. We asked these activists to evaluate male allies who volunteered with a feminist organization, randomly assigning character traits to the allies. The allies in our experiments differed in their trustworthiness and influence in the movement, which were varied to be low (or high) on one or both dimensions. Indeed, the experiment confirmed our prior evidence: We found that allies were perceived significantly more positively by activists when they were high in trustworthiness and low in influence.

We might expect that activists prefer allies who are highly trustworthy, because everyone (even non-activists) probably prefers more trustworthy allies. However, we contrasted our sample of activists with a sample of liberal non-activists, and what we found was surprising.

While our activists strongly preferred highly trustworthy allies, non-activists didn’t have a preference between higher and lower levels of trustworthiness. Activist experiences within movements may have emphasized the importance of ally trustworthiness.

How allies can best assist activists

Our data suggests that the best allies do not center themselves in movements. There are many examples of unsuccessful allyship. There are also some social movements that have been co-opted by allies who have steered the movement away from its original goals. For example, well-intentioned allies to the LGBTQ movement viewed legalizing same-sex marriage as the ultimate goal of LGBTQ+ advocacy, whereas LGBTQ+ activists were more focused on broader structural change (such as providing gender-affirming healthcare and fighting discrimination in educational spaces). For this reason, activists might prefer allies with lower influence, who listen to activists’ needs rather than centering their own beliefs about the movement’s goals.

Indeed, our data suggest that successful allies engage with social change while deferring to activists and taking a backseat in leadership roles. In many instances throughout history, we have seen this pattern of successful allyship. In the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, the names of the movement’s leaders–Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott–are probably the first to come to mind. However, these women were supported by less well-known men in positions of power, who engaged in acts like speaking out against domestic violence, running schools for young girls, and printing newspapers and pamphlets advocating for women’s rights. These male allies were constant and trustworthy supporters of the movement, while still deferring to the women as the movement’s leaders.

Unfortunately, when we examine the reality of modern-day allyship and the way that activists think about their allies, it’s clear that much progress is required. Our study of feminist activists revealed that many allies are missing the mark: 90% of activists reported allies as falling below ideal levels of trustworthiness, and 33% of activists rated allies as having more influence than would be ideal. In other words, the vast majority of activists were dissatisfied with allies’ involvement, due to their levels of trustworthiness or influence.

The problem with allyship doesn’t usually lie with allies’ intentions–it’s actually exciting to see how many people support social change. For example, 49% of men say that America hasn’t gone far enough in giving women equal rights with men, and the majority of White Americans (60%) support Black Lives Matter. As we look to the future, it’s important to ensure that the actual impact of allies lines up with their good intentions.

At this moment in history, all of us can use this advice to be more engaged and effective as allies in social movements. The dual importance of high trustworthiness and low influence is critical when we consider acting as allies in U.S. social movements. But these movements are also occurring all over the world, from the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights in India to the racial justice movement in France to the fight for women’s rights in Iran. As an ally, you have the power to make a difference. As you use that power, make sure that you are staying true to activists’ wishes for a more just future.

Preeti Vani is a doctoral candidate at Stanford University. Her research focuses on intergroup cooperation, prosocial behavior, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Much of her work is about allyship, both in organizations and in our social world. Preeti received her BA in Psychology from Harvard University and her MA in Economics from Yale University.

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