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How Race Influences Whether or Not We Consider Someone an Ally

In a world of social movements—from Black Lives Matter protests to Pride marches, to social media “slacktivism”—many individuals consider themselves allies. This self-endorsement, however, is not usually enough to convince others that they are, in fact, allies. What behaviors does someone need to engage in for others to consider them an ally?

Michelle Lee and Maureen Craig, both from New York University, set out to address this question. Specifically, they study if people have higher or lower expectations of allyship behavior for White people compared to racial minorities.

An ally is someone who supports equality for a group to which they do not belong, typically a minority group.

On the one hand, White people might be expected to do more because they are already in a position of power; it is easier for them to be an allies and they may therefore need to engage in more behaviors to be taken seriously. On the other hand, people may perceive racial minorities as already having an awareness of racial inequality and working for racial justice, leading them to have lower behavioral expectations for White people .

To answer this question, Lee and Craig gave participants a list of allyship behaviors and asked them to select which behaviors they consider necessary for White, Asian, and Hispanic people to be classified as allies.

Overall, participants thought that White individuals needed to engage in more actions to be considered allies compared to both Asian and Hispanic individuals.

Lee and Craig delved deeper into whether participants expected the different racial groups to engage in different kinds of allyship behavior. They found that participants agreed that White individuals, compared to Asian individuals, needed to engage in more actions that the researchers called “informed actions,” including voting for a political candidate committed to supporting the Black community. They did not find any differences between Asian and White individuals’ obligation to participate in what they termed “affiliative actions,” such as joining a Black activist organization.

In a second study, Lee and Craig found that participants had similar expectations of White and Hispanic individuals to engage in informed and affiliative allyship actions, though they did find other differences. Participants thought that White individuals needed to learn more about racial inequality and needed to see connections between their own and Black peoples’ values to be considered allies, compared to Hispanic individuals.

Lee and Craig suspect that they found differences in expectations of learning (but not informed or affiliative action) for White and Hispanic targets because participants in their second study were college students, who are themselves immersed in a learning environment. Additionally, participants’ racial identities did not seem to affect behavior expectations.


Written by: Barbara Toizer, PhD student at the University of Kansas

Session: “What Makes Someone an Ally? How Race Impacts Ally Categorization,” part of Challenges of Interracial Coalition-Building: Perceptions of Allyship from Multiple Perspectives, held Saturday, February 29th, 2020.

Speaker(s): Michelle M. Lee and Maureen A. Craig, Ph.D., New York University

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