What is Retroactive Allyship Theater, and are you guilty of it?

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Hi everyone, this week a bunch of groups are having PEEP (Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy) gatherings. I’ll have an updated list at the end of the post, so check it out. Also, if you’re in King County, please take some time to fill out the Wages and Benefit Survey and the Employee Engagement Survey; they’ll take a little time to do, but we need good information to ensure people are paid and treated fairly.

My friend and colleague Allison Carney, who coined the immortal term “bizsplaining,” wrote this blog post about how introverts can speak out against racism. It’s made me think about how so many of our strategies for fighting injustice are geared towards extroverts, people who are naturally more comfortable speaking up. For those who are quieter and who need time to reflect, it can be more challenging to push back in the moment when we see or hear problematic things, or when someone needs support.

That being said, people from communities of color and other marginalized communities experience situations all the time where we are left hanging after we say some truth that makes people uncomfortable. Then afterward, colleagues will come up to us and say things like “I totally agreed with you on so-and-so point. You were so brave to have said that!” Well thanks, that’s extremely helpful for you to tell me that right now, when the meeting is over!

Introverts or extroverts, we all need to wrestle with this phenomenon that I am going to call Retroactive Allyship Theater (RAT). This is a type of performative allyship when someone waits until a critical moment has passed and then tries to act like an ally, when the risks are no longer as significant. Here are a few ways it manifests, and often we don’t know we’re doing it:

Expressing support or agreement after the fact: You agreed with something someone said, but you couldn’t say it to the whole group, so afterward you tell the person in private that you agreed with their point. Example, “Hey, thanks for calling out racism in our police system at that tense meeting with the mayor yesterday. I was totally with you!”

Offering condolences or sympathy after the fact: You noticed someone being attacked for saying or doing something, and you didn’t defend them, so you privately offer words of comforts afterward. “I’m sorry you got piled on you when you mentioned gender wage gaps, especially Gary, who said gender gaps don’t even exist! What an A-hole!”

Giving praise after the fact: Telling someone they’re awesome or whatever for having said or did something. “You were so courageous to push back against that funder when he mentioned how they focused on readiness and capacity, not diversity. You were like, ‘readiness’ and ‘capacity’ are often defined by white people with privilege and power! That was amazing. I could never have challenged a funder like that.”

Sharing personal stories afterwards: This is a way to indicate that you understand someone’s struggle. “I really appreciated what you said about how we need to make our events more accessible to wheelchair users. When I was a wee bairn growing up in the highlands of Renton, I had a friend who used a wheelchair…” I’m sure your story is fascinating, but unless it drives the point home and you told it when it counts, maybe ask yourself why you’re telling it.

Providing criticism or feedback afterward, instead of when it would have made a difference: “That meeting was trash! I can’t believe we wasted two whole hours talking about programs helping people experiencing homelessness, when not a single person in that room except you had ever been homeless before, but your opinions kept getting dismissed. They kept talking over you or going completely silent when you said something, then just moving to the next person! I curse them! May their fields be fallow, their homes plagued with cicadas and bad wifi!”    

Indicating regrets for not doing or saying something: “Oh man, at that retreat when we started voting on our priorities, and only two people voted on doing joint board/staff trainings on undoing racism and white supremacy, I really wanted to say something. I know that’s something you care a lot about. I should have voted on it too, instead of putting all my sticky dots on monthly virtual staff yoga classes. So sorry!”

These things are not horrible necessarily. A text telling someone they’re awesome for saying something courageous is usually welcome, and even the occasional collegial trash-talking about how crappy a meeting was run can be cathartic when done right. The above are mainly problematic when they happen as a performative show of allyship AFTER the critical moment when certain words or actions might have made a difference has passed.

All of us are capable of RAT-like behavior, including me. There are instances where I didn’t say something, didn’t back up a colleague, then felt bad about it and approached them afterward and placed the emotional burden on them to make me feel less guilty. All of us are engage in it from time to time. So what do we do about it? Here are a few things:

Be aware of when you’re engaging in this: Try to be cognizant in group settings of your behaviors, especially when serious topics are being brought up. Are you doing some of the heavy lifting in calling out racism, sexism, transphobia, etc., or is another colleague? If it’s another colleague, are you backing them up?

Recognize why you’re not speaking up: Sometimes, you may not be completely informed or up-to-date on a topic. Or you may need more time to reflect on it before speaking. These are valid reasons. But sometimes those reasons get confounded by other facts, such as that you may be fearful of being judged or punished when you speak up, and you were not ready to take that risk.

Take tentative steps to buy time: You may not know why something bothers you, or how to best support someone when they’re taking courageous stands. That’s OK. Practice saying things like, “I am not exactly sure why, but something bothers me about how we’re having this conversation about homeless people.” Or “I can’t pinpoint it, but maybe we’re missing something and shouldn’t make a decision right now.”

Find opportunities to take corrective actions: If you miss an opportunity, you can still act afterward. At the next meeting, or in a message to the group before that, say something. For example, “At the last meeting, Angela brought up a really good point about us needing more trainings around undoing anti-Blackness. I agreed with her, but didn’t say anything. I’ve reflected on it and think it’s critical we prioritize these trainings.”

Reflect on what you would do next time: Go through your mind the steps you would take if you were in similar situation in the future. The important thing is not to get stuck in guilt about what you could have done in the past, that you are not ready to do what needs to be done when a similar critical moment comes around.

Again, all of us engage in Retroactive Allyship Theater from time to time and in various degrees. The important thing is to recognize it so we can mitigate it. And of course, let’s keep in mind that not everyone can speak up all the time without suffering consequences. White colleagues, men, non-disabled, neuro-typical, and others with more privilege have to take on more of the burden when possible. Try to be aware of moments when your words and actions lift up and support racialized and marginalized people and communities, and when they don’t. And if they don’t, try to be aware of whether your follow-up words and actions are helpful or not.


PEEP (Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy) is a time once a year where nonprofit and philanthropy leaders get together to hang out and break down some of the pervasive power dynamics in our sector. It happens around the Summer Solstice (so around June 17th and 18th this year) and is designed to be fun and not taken too seriously. Here are a few that are going on below.

Pittsburgh. Friday, June 18, 2021, 11:30am-1:30pm EST. “A virtual brown bag convo opp for nonprofit and philanthropy leaders to chit chat casually over lunch about equity and power dynamics in our sector.” Register here. Contact: Melissa Ferraro (mferraro@sistersplace.org)

San Jose. June 17th, 11:30am to 1pm PDT, at San Pedro Square Market (outdoors), 87 N. San Pedro Street, San Jose, CA 95110. “Bring/buy your own lunch. Dessert provided by the co-hosts! Co-hosts: Angie Briones, Castellano Family Foundation; Anne Ehresman, Shortino Family Foundation; Anne Im, Silicon Valley Community Foundation; David Onek, SV2; and Maria Garcia and Michele Lew, The Health Trust.” Contact: Michele Lew (mlew@healthtrust.org).

Seattle. June 18th from 3pm to 5pm, picnic at Columbia City Park, right in front of the PCC in Columbia City. Bring your own food and picnic blanket (we tried reserving outdoor spaces at restaurants, but no one wanted that many people!). Co-hosted by Nonprofit AF, Philanthropy Northwest, Progress Alliance, Satterberg Foundation, and United Way of King County. Sign up here and we’ll send you details as we have them. Contact: Vu (vu@nonprofitAF.com)

St. Louis. June 17th, 4:30-6pm CST. “Join us for this year’s event with the theme “2021:Here Comes the Sun” which encompasses the general feelings of summer, the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for the pandemic in our community, and the increased (though belated) focus on justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion across the nonprofit landscape. The event will be emceed by Maryanne Dersch of Courageous Communications and will feature a poem by Grace Ruo, 2021 STL Youth Poet Laureate. Attendees will then have the opportunity to join two breakout rooms on a topic of their choice (both personal and professional topics will be included), and the evening will close with a performance from the Red and Black Brass Band.” Register here. Contact: Rachel (rachel@gladiatorRDS.com)

Vancouver, BC. Friday June 18 at 3pm Pacific. “A PEEP event for Vancouver-area fundraisers, though everyone from outside Vancouver is also welcome! Join us for an informal discussion about the power imbalances and systemic inequities within the non-profit sector. We’ll also begin to imagine together what change could look like!” Register here. Contact: Sarah May (smay@davidsuzuki.org)

Pacific Northwest: “I’d be interested in hosting a later summer event on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday for folks who would value some time connecting in a beautiful spot in nature (my house with a large patio fronting the White River, 8 miles from Mt. Rainier National Park) while enjoying snacks and beverages. (I realize M-F is best but I’m 1.25 hours from Tacoma and 1.5 hours from Seattle.) Pre- or post-event hikes or road/mountain cycling could offer endless choices from casual fun to serious vertical within a couple of miles of my place and an epic, scenic, accessible ride on the Mt. Rainier Gondola at Crystal Mountain Resort is just 17 miles away.” Contact: Keneta Anderson (keneta@kenetaanderson.com)

Greater Philadelphia / Princeton-Area NJ. June 30th, 4pm ET. “Informal gathering & discussion of non-profit, community, and fundraising professionals to network, connect, and share their experiences while forming new relationships.” Email RSVP to Patricia Walker (PWalker@isles.org)

Greater NJ/NY area. Wednesday, June 23rd 2:30pm-4pm ET. “The Rutgers Institute for Ethical Leadership is hosting a PEEP: Coffee Break Mixer for the nonprofits and philanthropists working in the Greater NJ/NY area (along with folx from anywhere else who would like to join)! The virtual mixer will be light on presentations or agendas, and instead will focus on opportunities to get to know fellow guests. Social networking can be challenging online, but we will have plenty of low-pressure ways to help folx connect!” Register here. Contact: Vicki Fernandez (vfernandez@business.rutgers.edu)