Skip to main content

What Activists Want from Allies

What does it mean to be a good ally to activists working for social change? In a new study, Yale SOM’s Michael Kraus and PhD graduate Jun Won Park sought to learn what activists themselves are looking for. They found that activists value allies who are trustworthy and willing to defer to activists’ leadership.

A White protester standing behind a Black protester, both with fists raised.

Protesters at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., in June of 2020.

Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images
  • Michael W. Kraus
    Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior
  • Jun Won Park
    Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Public and International Affairs and Department of Psychology, Princeton University

In the summer of 2020, many White Americans got involved in racial justice efforts for the first time. Reading lists and viral social media posts proliferated—many of them focused on how to be a good ally.

Allyship is the involvement of people from historically dominant groups in efforts to improve treatment of disadvantaged groups, such as men in the feminist movement or White activists working on behalf of Black Lives Matter. The involvement of allies can be helpful, but is also fraught: activists who are members of the disadvantaged group often fear, with good reason, that allies will co-opt their movement, or abandon the work when it becomes too challenging.

“There are tons of prescriptions nowadays about how to be an ally,” says Jun Won Park, a graduate of Yale SOM’s doctoral program who is now a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University. But it’s not clear that all that guidance helps make allies more effective. Unless we look at allyship from the perspective of activists directly affected by an issue, we risk delivering well-intentioned but ultimately misguided advice.

In a new paper, Park and Yale SOM’s Michael Kraus seek to understand what activists really want from movement allies. Using data from surveys and experiments, they identify two key traits that drive how favorably activists view allies: trustworthiness and deference. They also find that allies are perceived to be falling short. The research was co-authored by Preeti Vani of Stanford University and Sidney Saint-Hilaire, a recent graduate of Yale’s cognitive science program.

The findings are consistent with a long-held tenet of many social movements: that people directly affected by an issue should be the ones to decide which goals are most important and how to achieve them. “Allies might have their own ideas about what is going to be effective in a movement, and that might not be what beneficiary activists think,” Kraus says.

The researchers started by surveying a group of more than 100 social movement activists representing a variety of causes. They asked the activists to report on a scale from 0 to 100 the ideal levels of influence within the movement and trustworthiness they would like to see allies exhibit, as well as the actual levels of influence and trustworthiness they had observed in their work. Influence was measured by levels of power, centrality, and impact, while trustworthiness was measured by levels of traits including helpfulness, selflessness, and loyalty.

Activists want to see allies demonstrate very high levels of trustworthiness (about 82 on the 100-point scale), the survey results showed. But in practice, activists nearly unanimously agreed allies exhibit much lower levels (about 53). Meanwhile, activists said that ideal allies should exert only a modest amount of control within the movement (around 57); in practice, while allies do exhibit a somewhat lower level of influence on average (50), more than one third of activists reported allies exhibited more influence than is ideal.

“When it comes to influence, [different activists] do have different thresholds, but they really want disadvantaged group activists to be more central, and they show less positive attitudes toward allies who have more influence than is ideal,” Park explains.

In addition to gathering these survey results, the researchers designed experiments that allowed them to see whether trustworthiness and influence had a causal effect on activists’ overall perceptions of allies. For one of the experiments, they recruited a group of activists to complete an online study, and randomly divided them into four groups.

Each group was asked to read a purportedly real blog post by a feminist activist about their experiences with male allies. Depending on the group, the blog post described allies with low trustworthiness and low influence, high trustworthiness and high influence, low trustworthiness and high influence, or high trustworthiness and low influence. Then participants reported how favorably they perceived male allies.

Of all the possible combinations, the researchers’ analysis found, the mixture of low influence and high trustworthiness resulted in the most favorable perceptions of allies. “That combination is the most well received and results in the most positive attitudes,” Park says.

These findings help to bolster activists’ calls for allyship that is consistent and effortful, but does not co-opt the movement, Park says. The evidence from the study “aids their voices in saying, ‘this is what’s important.’”

“There’s a widespread assumption that a movement is only effective if allyship is occurring, but activists who are beneficiaries of these movements don’t always agree.”

Park and Kraus say they hope their research will help other scholars see that it’s possible—and indeed, essential—to involve activists from social movements whose members may be marginalized or feel mistrustful of social science research. “There’s a lot of capacity to invite beneficiary activists to be involved with research but the danger is being extractive rather than helpful,” Kraus says.

By tapping in to their own activist networks and being thoughtful in how they structured their studies—for instance, the researchers made standard demographic questions about race and gender open-ended, rather than forcing participants to select from set categories—they were able to recruit several hundred participants. In fact, Park says, “there was actually a lot of eagerness” among activists to participate.

They also hope the research will be seen as a call to humility for people seeking to be allies. It’s worth considering whether and when allies’ involvement may hurt more than it helps, they say. “There’s a widespread assumption that a movement is only effective if allyship is occurring, but activists who are beneficiaries of these movements don’t always agree,” Kraus points out.

When allies do get involved, they should move beyond symbolic gestures to concrete actions that are consistent with the goals put forward by activists. “It’s really important for allies to be aware,” Park says, “that what matters are their actions, not their positive intentions.”

Department: Research