Allyship Is Never Easy, and That’s the Point
This column first appeared in Nancy Lyons’ monthly newsletter.
Let’s talk about allyship. Whether it’s a corporation or an individual, one needs to be thoughtful about proclaiming a position of allyship because changing your mind or backing away from conflict or tension when it arises (which it will) can be far more problematic than never showing up for a marginalized group at all.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the phrase “being on the right side of history.” What does it mean to be on the right side of history? I know everyone believes they are on the “right” side, but I think it means to align your actions, values, and belief systems with what is morally, ethically, or socially right as society evolves. Because evolution is inevitable—systems and institutions must adapt to the changing needs of society and the people within it. As this inevitability plays out, being on the right side of history means advocating for social, political, or economic reforms that promote positive change and improve the well-being of individuals and society as a whole. If we look back on the story of our country, from inception to present, we have seen the greatest conflict when we have tried to keep people down, and we have shared the greatest celebrations when we have worked together to gain equality.
But oftentimes, promoting reforms means pushing against entrenched systems that are no longer equitable or fair, or that are harming people. That is when allyship can get hard. That’s when being an ally means taking risks and advocating for social change, even when everyone can’t see the benefit of that social change. True allyship requires us to stand up and push back against injustice and oppressive systems to make a better future for everyone, not just ourselves.
This leads me to what happened with Target last week when they decided to move their LGBTQ+ pride merchandise to the back of stores or remove some LGBTQ+ merchandise entirely, especially at stores in the south. There’s so much that could be involved in this dialogue, but to me, it really comes down to allyship: how important it is, yet how hard it can be.
Allies are committed to changing how they show up, not just when it’s easy, not just when people like them, and not just when the majority is clapping.
An ally commits to reducing their own complicity or collusion in the context of oppression of those groups. They’re committed to changing how they show up, not just when it’s easy, not just when people like them, and not just when the majority is clapping.
Allies question systems, institutions, and cultural norms that perpetuate systemic inequities. Allies expect they will be challenged by folks choosing not to be on the right side of history. Those challenges won’t always be easy or comfortable. They may even be scary, but it’s in those moments your allyship is tested. The only way to push back on entrenched ways of thinking is to stand your ground about your decision to promote change for the greater good and look beyond the short-term situation to envision long-term progress.
Allyship is grounded in the belief that we all have a role to play in promoting equality and justice, even if it has nothing to do with us. An ally is a person or an organization that makes an effort to recognize that they have privilege and commits to using that privilege to benefit others. Target is a behemoth. The sheer power involved in the volume of products that they move and the revenue that they generate from the communities they serve is a privilege. And they could use that privilege to work in solidarity with oppressed groups that are struggling for validation, inclusion, or for justice.
Now, I think that Target wanted to be an ally, but they aren’t. What’s happening with Target is uncomfortable for those of us in the LGBTQ+ community because Target is demonstrating what “performative allyship” means. And that can be far more problematic than never showing up for a marginalized group at all.
By removing their LGBTQ+ merchandise, Target sent a message that LGBTQ+ identities and experiences are not important, which contributes to continued marginalization, and non-allies’ hope for the erasure of the LGBTQ+ community. That is literally what some non-allies want: ”Don’t Say Gay” is just the precursor to “don’t be gay.” Don’t like the gays, don’t raise a gay, don’t hang out with the gays. That is erasure. That vocal group of haters is erasing the representation of people—yet we know that a supermajority is in favor of equal rights for LGBTQ+ folks. Target just caved immediately to a very loud and very vocal and violent super minority and by doing so, dehumanized everyone who works for equality.
The experiences, struggles, and humiliation that people in LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities face are real. Performative allyship often lacks understanding of what it’s like to live in a marginalized community. Target’s faux allyship means they’re prioritizing corporate comfort over people’s lives. Not everybody’s going to love Target all the time, whether it’s because of their pricing, merchandising, or products (we’ve all felt those in-house brand face towels…like sandpaper!). It’s unfortunate that there are hot-headed bigots on the other side of this argument who have no trouble threatening the safety of other humans all to get rid of a few seasonal LGBTQ+ items.
It’s times like these, when the minority is most vocal, when we need organizations like Target to use their privilege the most. Target can afford increased security, shifting work hours, or pulling in additional people to keep their stores covered and safe. They can afford those things. What they can’t afford is to be on the wrong side of history by saying, “Yes, bigots, it’s okay to behave in a way that dehumanizes people.”
How could Target have productively shown up in this conversation?
Target could have been crystal clear about their values and why they decided to offer the merchandise in the first place. In situations like this, when there is pushback, articulating your commitment to endorsing the communities you truly support by tying it back to your organizational values is critical. Your values and how they align with your actions are your foundational storyline—it’s often why consumers want to support your business. Standing their ground about their values, their ‘why’, would have allowed them to educate people that probably need it the most. Target had an opportunity to provide context and information about the issues at hand: LGBTQ+ human rights atrocities happening all over the world, the alarmingly high death rate of trans folks, and the challenges faced by their workforce (which likely has a strong LGBTQ+ contingent). These ‘whys’ would have clarified their position and increased understanding.
Rather than hiding behind corporate speak and PR spin, Target could have invited and listened to concerns and feedback from all sides of the argument, but only if it was respectful and open (i.e., no threats). Making people feel heard is an important step to building trust and transparency. Then, they could have engaged in dialogue to understand all the perspectives. They could have spent some money on resources, workshops, or other initiatives to help educate and promote a dialogue in the regions where people are particularly sensitive to seeing merchandise that doesn’t speak directly to them.
Additionally, Target could have rallied support by reaching out to other organizations and communities that share their values and a desire to be allies. Forming alliances and working in numbers makes an impact. They could have counterbalanced the few negative voices with their power and partnerships.
But what did Target do? They bowed their head and slunk out the back door, trying to remain unnoticed and unscathed.
People showing up at Target’s stores threatening Target staff underscores the very reason it’s so important for Target to stand their ground: That level of violence is happening to actual LGBTQ+ people every day. They are being threatened and terrorized by those same tactics used in Target stores.
Performative allyship is more dangerous than doing nothing at all. If the sole reason Target originally offered all this merchandise was just to make money, they shouldn’t have done it. If they did it because they value the LBGTQ+ community, they can’t back away. They can still make it right—as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.” Evolution is inevitable, but how hard we make it for people to come along—that’s a choice we all make.
Also, to all those people who can’t stand a few rainbows on t-shirts: do what I do when I see hunting gear—walk on by. It’s not for you; it’s not about you.