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Beware of the ‘alliars’ when it comes to diversity in science

06 Jul 2021
Taken from the July 2021 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

While some people claim to want to support under-represented groups, Anya Lawrence says it can be difficult to determine whether they have the right motives

Illustration of sheep with a wolf's shadow
Seeking solidarity Beware of those whose well-meaning attempts for equality are used solely to enhance their own reputation and careers. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/3d factory)

During my childhood I received abuse on a daily basis, whether it was about my disability, my non-binary dress sense or the colour of my skin. Such discrimination and prejudice prompted me to continue into higher education to study science rather than to go straight into employment. Academia, it seemed, offered shelter from the frightening outside world and looked to be so promisingly full of allies and forward-thinking people.

But I was wrong. The solidarity of some “allies” turned out to be showmanship. While at first they seem to be engaged in helping marginalized people, the main beneficiaries of their actions are all too often themselves. I dub these people “alliars” – those who support well-meaning attempts for equality only to use it to enhance their own reputation and careers. For all the rainbow flags they display for everybody to see on their Twitter profiles or office doors, they show little concern whether, for example, their trans and genderqueer co-workers have access to unisex toilets in the workplace. Or they write articles about the legacy of slavery in academia and the need for decolonization but use this so-called “championing of diversity” not to empower their Black and Asian colleagues but to push ahead of them in the promotional queue instead.

Harmful action

Such alliars should not be confused with those “performative” allies on social media who are all talk and no action. At worst performative allies are reward-seeking and delusional, sharing what “must” be done by others without ever considering what they should change in their own world. Alliars, on the other hand, offer duplicitous talk and harmful action – they know what needs to change but any progress must be on their own terms.

Indeed, alliars may encourage those of us who belong to marginalized groups to “open up” and describe the discriminatory experiences and incidents of prejudice that have shaped our lives, so that they can “share our pain” and “understand how we feel”. Yet they cannot begin to comprehend our lived experiences and nor do they want to. They promise to listen and work together, but there is no togetherness.

Alliars commodify our anguish and take full credit for all the diversity initiatives to carefully craft a favourable public image of themselves. This cultivated image is not simply designed to boost their own careers but also to shield them from scrutiny. How could they possibly be linked to racism, ableism or sexism when they are so selflessly committed to the diversity cause?

Alliars are also quick to forget that improving diversity starts at home. What use is superficially lobbying for change at international level when they cannot even extend small acts of goodwill and compassion to ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ and disabled colleagues in their own faculties or departments? In this way, alliars are no better than the openly prejudiced folks outside academia – unkind and intolerant.

Alliars may once have been well meaning but after years of working in academia, they could gradually have become immune to institutional racism, sexism and ableism. Or perhaps they genuinely believe that they are superior and have more insight into matters of social injustice than its victims. It is possible that they condone and are complicit in discriminatory policies and practices because they fear that an influx of diverse researchers into academia will jeopardize their own careers and positions of power.

By comparison, genuine allyship is like much of the academic research process itself – it is dynamic and involves constant change and adjustment rather than glamour, publicity and self-promotion. Real allies are those who realize that applying a rigid, universal approach to supporting marginalized people does more harm than good. To offer meaningful support and be a true ally requires forming relationships and building trust. It involves tailoring the support to suit the specific needs and struggles of marginalized individuals, rather than viewing them as members of a homogenous club that needs appeasing.

Worse still is repeating impressive rhetoric in public, while in private treating marginalized colleagues as inferior outsiders. Spending the weekend parroting adages on social media like “the system is flawed for minority people” does little to improve their prospects or situation. What does help, however, is using a working hour to write a reference to help a marginalized colleague make a strong job application.

Difficult task

Just like starting to write a new research paper, learning a coding language or figuring out a new piece of scientific equipment, genuine, compassionate allyship is sometimes messy, often difficult and always time-consuming. But an ally using their privilege to empower and change another’s life for the better is a reward that is worth the effort every time. Some unoppressed people, however, find it difficult to admit that they may be wrong and need to do things differently. That is especially the case when it comes to diversity work, where emotions run high, there are many grey areas and personal integrity is at stake. This is why real allies can be so difficult to find for marginalized academics.

It follows that trying to navigate the wonderland of academic science, with its miscellany of allies and alliars, can be disorientating, unnerving and isolating. Someone who identifies as under-represented, in a minority or different in any way, must be cautious. Try not to naïvely believe that alliars are the saviours that they claim to be. Look for people who want to listen to your worthwhile ideas and opinions. Look for people who want to work with you, not instead of you and certainly beware of those who look to work against you. Look for people who match the virtual grinning emoji with an actual, lasting smile. Because friendly public faces are no guarantee of “friends” in the academy.

  • The image for this article was updated on 9 July 2021 as the original image was inappropriate.
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