I felt pulled to do a series on where people pleasing intersects with the journey to become better allies and accomplices, especially for people who hold white privilege.
In this post, I’m going to talk about performative allyship, activism as self improvement, and hustling for approval, all of which can get kind of jumbled up and all of which, I believe, people pleasers may have a unique struggle with. I want to talk about what pleasers might be struggling with and how to take some steps to work through it and stay on the path.
Some of this is going to be processing stuff that was “trending” in the public conversation months ago, but that took me some time to process, and I expect will still be relevant to people.
So, for starters, let’s talk about performative allyship. This is essentially presenting a facade of accomplishment in allyship, without taking concrete action or really transforming anything about your life. For example, posting a black square or saying “Black Lives Matter” once on social media, but never really doing anything else. It might be puffing yourself up and bragging about how woke and conscious you are, but not actually changing your media consumption or spending habits, not supporting your BIPOC friends, not donating money, not signing petitions, not sharing posts on social media, not uplifting Black voices. It could be a business that creates a marketing campaign around the company’s diversity even though the company doesn’t have any Diversity, Equity and Inclusion practices implemented.
So again, performative allyship is presenting a facade of accomplishment without taking concrete or transformative action. Honestly, from a psychological perspective, I can understand why a lot of people might unconsciously do this. Everyone wants to feel accepted. Everyone wants to feel like a good person and respected by the people around them.
And for people pleasers, this isn’t just an unconscious desire – it’s a core drive to feel safe. People pleasers tend to be people who were either given inconsistent love as children, lived in inconsistently safe households, or were abused or neglected, and as a result learned that the only way to stay safe was to become highly attuned to the moods, needs, and desires of other people, and to do everything in their power to become whatever was necessary to keep the harmony, or gain approval. People Pleasers are essentially DEFINED by performativity. It’s what we do best. And goddamn, we are GOOD at it.
It is an unconscious drive. And when I say unconscious, I mean that our brains become hypervigilant, constantly scanning the horizon for signals from the outside world that may indicate that we are either safe or unsafe. These signals get sent before our thinking brain can start processing them. This is why we can find ourselves placating and fawning and groveling to someone who has expressed displeasure with us before we even have the time to realize, “Hey this guy’s actually just a jerk and I don’t have to make him happy to be safe!”
So any pleaser who is dedicated to becoming a better person and making the world a better place is going to be struggling with performativity in some areas, and the first thing I want to say is that I don’t think it’s reasonable to hold ourselves to this standard that we are NEVER doing anything in order to feel worthy of approval or acceptance or belonging or confirmation that we’re doing our best. I think, in fact, it would be ableist to expect perfection in this area in the sense of total separation of desire to be accepted and desire to do the hard, uncomfortable work of trying to help liberate marginalized people.
Having said that, this first one is ACTUALLY REALLY EASY TO AVOID or to solve: Take action. I already listed some things you can do above, Google is your friend, and there is work for EVERYONE to do, no matter how limited we might think we are.
But I really just wanted to talk about that to lay the foundation for more subtle forms of performativity. One thing that showed up for me when reading something that Rachel Cargle wrote – Rachel Cargle is a Black writer, lecturer who focuses on the intersection of race and womanhood. She said, “Anti racism work is not a self improvement exercise for white people.” And she told a story about how she’d given a lecture, and afterwards a white woman came up to her, eager to declare her commitment to antiracist work in her field. Cargle was quick to point out though, that she’d already missed an opportunity to do that work in the room she was in, pointing out that the woman’s priority here was actually getting white cookies. For further context, here’s the original post.
So. In a nutshell, this is really just about the same stuff: don’t just declare your support for Black Lives Matter, ACTUALLY SUPPORT BLACK LIVES. Be aware of where you’re eager to impress your teacher or your Black friends or your community, and ask whether you’re actually taking actions to back up your declarations. It’s a really potent and simple ask from people fighting for Black lives and I don’t think it’s a terribly hard request to meet.
At the same time, I know for a fact that for people pleasers, EVERYTHING is an exercise in self improvement. Many of us are going to be struggling with the urge, conscious or unconscious, to present the image that we’re doing our best and doing it well. So if you get caught up in this sometimes, if you catch yourself doing it, I just want to say that I SEE YOU. ME TOO. And IT’S OKAY. You are the only person who needs to forgive you for that. Because it’s something we can keep becoming more aware of and keep readjusting in order to avoid anything egregious that you know, pisses someone off or causes actual harm.
What this all comes down to may seem kind of counterintuitive. Our end goal is to be able to put ourselves ASIDE, recognizing that this whole process of becoming allies and accomplices in order to contribute to a movement to change the world – it’s NOT about us. And what we really want is to be deeply tapped into our empathy for and our curiosity about the experiences and needs of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Melanated, Asian, Trans, Queer, Disabled, and otherwise marginalized and oppressed people.
But in order to do that, we have to start by giving ourselves real love and compassion and acceptance. We have to stop looking to the outside world for approval, and we have to start learning that we are really and truly safe being messy and imperfect. If you are white and you’ve said something well-intentioned that caused harm to a Black person, their anger is not going to kill you. It doesn’t say who you are or what your worth is. And that moment is NOT going to matter in the grand scheme of the movement. The movement is not about that moment. It’s about WHAT YOU DO with that moment. How you grow from it and contribute differently next time.
So just to wrap up, if you’re working on being a better ally or accomplice, and you struggle with really wanting people to know that you’re trying your best, and you’re really wanting to be a good person, but you’re also struggling with not being performative and not seeking out cookies as you share on social media or with your community – I see you. Me too. And it’s okay. It’s a hard line to walk, but the first step is always going to be to work on our own self acceptance.