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Jenny Baker
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TIPTopics: Allyship as a Sustained Practice in Graduate School

Andrew Tenbrink, Mallory Smith, Georgia LaMarre, Laura Pineault, Tyleen Lopez, & Molly Christophersen

"You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time."--Angela Davis

The zeitgeist of 2020 could be characterized by a heightened awareness of the ways that individuals, organizations, and societal structures interact and impact the world around them. Long-standing social inequalities (Acker, 2006) at the intersection of race, gender, and social class have been heavy topics of public discourse in response to police brutality and racial injustice against Black people (SIOP, 2020). The compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income communities underscores the structural disadvantages that still exist in society today (Center for Disease Control, 2020; Kochhar, 2020). This convergence of factors has spurred a “social awakening” (Suyemoto et al., 2020, p. 2) and has activated a sense of urgency to combat all forms of institutionalized discrimination along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other social locations (e.g., Bonilla-Silva, 2017).

In light of this “social awakening,” we have observed numerous examples across industries to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Part of this includes individuals practicing critical allyship—engaging in a cyclic praxis of reflecting on one’s own privilege, seeking resources to learn about systems of power, privilege, and oppression, and acting in solidarity with marginalized individuals (whether they be in one’s in-group or out-group). The important role of allyship in supporting and advocating for specific marginalized groups is well documented in the I-O literature (e.g., Cheng et al., 2018; Creary, 2020; Thoroughgood et al., 2020). In fact, content generated on the topic of allyship has surged in recent months.

Here, we build off those discussions to highlight everyday allyship behaviors that graduate students can engage in and that cut across demographic lines. We acknowledge that this more general approach can erase the unique allyship behaviors that are crucial for specific marginalized groups; however, we aim to establish a foundation for understanding and building allyship in graduate school and beyond. We encourage our readers to continue to educate themselves on the unique challenges that different marginalized individuals face and how to most effectively support and advocate for them.

What Is Allyship?

Early writers such as Evans and Wall (1991) and Ayvazian (1995) defined the word “allies” as people in privileged positions who take action to challenge or undermine the systems of privilege from which they benefit. Modern definitions of allyship echo these core themes. However, some scholars and, even more so, activists have called to phase out self-labelling terminology such as “ally” or “allies,” criticizing their use as mere labels that individuals adopt for themselves without embodying the crux of the definition: taking action (Carlson et al., 2019). That is, there is a push to conceptualize allyship as a verb, not a noun. As Mia McKenzie, editor-in-chief of the activism blog Black Girl Dangerous, writes:

Ally cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you—or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

It is important to note that we are all called to this work. We are not invariably dichotomized as “privileged and powerful” or “marginalized and oppressed,” just as we are not defined by one aspect of our identity. Rather, we are collective beings with multiple identities, some oppressed, some privileged. For example, as graduate students with access to higher education, we have a shared power and privilege that others do not have (Gómez, 2019). In each moment that we find ourselves in a position of power, we are accountable for being proactive and acting in solidarity with those on the other side of the coin (see Nixon, 2019 for more information on the coin model and the intersecting nature of the coins). We advance this thinking here by conceptualizing allyship as an active practice guided by three recursive and iterative steps: self-examination and critical thinking, awareness and education, and action.

Step 1: Self-Examination and Critical Thinking

The first step requires a self-examination of your own identities and privileges, which includes taking inventory of how you benefit from the privileges at the cost of oppressing others. Try this activity to explore your own social identity, and learn more about the history of privilege and oppression in American society here. These exercises may give rise to guilt, discomfort, anger, and shame. Sit with these feelings, and then move through them, as they can be paralyzing and self-indulgent in nature (Carlson et al., 2019, p. 5). During this self-examination, those pursuant of allyship are encouraged to remain mindful and reflective of their intentions, as well as their impact, when supporting and advocating for specific individuals in their lives (Cheng et al., 2019). For example, Edwards (2006) describes the different intentions allies can embody, demonstrating the importance of engaging in allyship for social justice (and not self-interest or altruism):

  • Individuals engaging in allyship for self-interest tend to only confront oppressive behavior when someone they care about is being targeted.
  • Individuals engaging in allyship for altruism normally act out of guilt and place blame on individuals of the majority group rather than recognizing their own participation in the system of oppression. Despite having positive intentions, acting out of altruism often leads individuals to speak for the oppressed as opposed to with them.
  • Individuals engaging in allyship for social justice commit to and work with oppressed communities to advance that community and dismantle systemic oppression. They take purposeful and deliberate action to accept their privilege, work toward liberating the oppressed and themselves, and recognize how interconnected different forms of oppression are and the limitations of only working to address one form of oppression at a time.


Step 2: Awareness and Education

An essential next step in allyship is educating oneself through listening and learning. A recent systematic review of the allyship literature aptly coins this step, “Listen + Shut Up + Learn” (Carlson et al., 2019). You can find publicly available workshops and materials, such as Cornell University’s upcoming Building Allyship Series and the Academy of Management Social Issues in Management Division’s Racial Justice at the Intersection of Business and Society panel series. Another avenue to educate oneself is by seeking out both academic and nonacademic writing and media on this topic, acknowledging that systemic forces can gatekeep minority perspectives from scholarly journals and from academia more generally (Fotaki, 2013; Ray, 2019). Some examples of resources are


Step 3: Action

Along with self-reflection and education, which are crucial aspects of allyship, it is even more important to transfer this awareness and learning into action. Contemporary I-O scholarship categorizes ally behaviors into support and advocacy (e.g., Brown & Ostrove, 2013; Cheng et al., 2019; Gardner et al., 2020):

  • Support: Ally support provides psychological and/or tangible resources for individuals with stigmatized identities. Support behaviors help minoritized persons feel valued and engaged rather than marginalized and psychologically exhausted (see self-verification theory; Swann, 2012). Example behaviors include being present and listening to the unique struggles faced by individuals, participating in ally trainings, attending educational or social events held by marginalized groups, and receiving disclosures of invisible identities, such as sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and disability status, with acceptance and understanding (DiStefano et al., 2000Law et al., 2011).
  • Advocacy: Ally advocacy involves more outward and proactive support, such as directly confronting instances of prejudice or discrimination, educating peers, calling for better organizational policies and resources that support stigmatized groups, and actively engaging in advocacy organizations (e.g., Czopp & Monteith, 2003). One form of daily advocacy is amplifying marginalized voices (Carlson et al., 2019). For example,
    • When a peer offers a great idea in class, highlight it and give them credit. Validate their perspectives in the moment during class or group meetings instead of waiting until afterward to tell them one-on-one.
    • Speak up if you hear or see discriminatory behavior, even if this risks your personal interests. Let a professor know when a reading they have assigned or an assignment prompt is not appropriate or even harmful to a marginalized group. Correct a classmate who makes comments that are discriminatory. It is not always easy to identify discrimination when it happens (see the confronting prejudiced responses model; Ashburn-Nardo et al., 2008), but it is important to bring attention to and to challenge these behaviors when possible.


Unique Opportunities for Advocacy and Support in Our Graduate Student Roles

As graduate students, we dynamically shift from being students to researchers to instructors on a day-to-day basis. In the sections below, we highlight unique opportunities to engage in allyship in each of these roles and, in doing so, acknowledge what we as graduate students can do to promote diversity, inclusion, and equity in academia and beyond (Liu et al., 2020).

As researchers, we can challenge ourselves and each other to be intentional about who we read, who we cite, the language we use in writing, and the populations we study in research. There are opportunities to learn from and to incorporate the brilliant theoretical and empirical work of marginalized scholars at each stage of the research process (Roberts et al., 2020).

  • Literature search. Intentionally seek out and read work by scholars with marginalized identities. Putting this work on your radar increases the likelihood of citing and amplifying these voices, as well as being informed by perspectives that are commonly left out of academic research and discussions.
  • Literature review. Take inventory of the representation of scholars cited in your published and unpublished work. Are they mainly men? White? Western centric? Are you only citing the most “popular,” heavily cited work on a topic, or are you also integrating the perspectives and voices of those who are often gatekept from our top-tier journals (King et al., 2018)? To hold yourself accountable, we encourage you to participate in citation practice challenges and other related efforts (e.g., #CiteASista). Going deeper, take time to understand the history and background of the people we commonly cite. Many of the scholars that we commonly cite or were foundational scholars were racist, were homophobic, supported eugenics, and so on. If we continue to heavily rely on these scholars’ work, it is critical that we also acknowledge the problematic aspects of these individuals (and also how that might inform how we interpret their work). I-O in particular has many things that we can highlight in our history and practices that are problematic (e.g., testing and assessment; see Testing and Assessment With Persons and Communities of Color).
  • Designing and conducting research. Seek out marginalized, minoritized, and underrepresented samples—combatting the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic; Henrich et al., 2010) and white-collar (Diaz & Bergman, 2013) samples dominating I-O psychology. If homogeneity is inherent in your samples, take time to acknowledge the limitations and bias introduced rather than making sweeping, generalized claims about the theoretical and practical implications.
  • Analyzing and writing up results. Intentionally use inclusive, respectful language (see Bergman, 2019) and consider incorporating forms of reflexivity into your quantitative research process (see Ryan & Golden, 2006). We also echo recent calls to test and report the presence or absence of demographic effects, even if noncentral to your research question(s) (see the Avery & Volpone, 2020 chapter,“The Perils of Ignoring Demographic Differences on Micro Organizational Research”).

Central here is that these small, nonperformative, and individual efforts, when taken in the collective, have the potential to resoundingly dismantle pervasive systems and practices of oppression in the academy.

As instructors, we hold positional power that can catalyze allyship effectiveness if yielded appropriately (Cheng et al., 2019). Allyship for educators is unique depending on one’s identity, experience, and familiarity with social justice issues (Brown & Ostrove, 2013). However, there are many actions that educators can take in the classroom to recognize oppression, to support those experiencing oppression, and to ensure that oppression is not perpetuated in their classes. For example, educators may make time to discuss social injustices and to encourage dialogue and understanding among students. Further, educators can allow students to contribute to the conversation with the perspectives of their own identity-group memberships while being cautious not to tokenize minoritized students by asking them to speak for their entire identity group.

Incorporating Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) into your classrooms (e.g., Paris, 2012) is one concrete way to build students’ skills and knowledge for engaging in allyship. For guidance here, we recommend the work of Dr. Django Paris, who has dedicated his career to bringing educational and cultural justice to inquiry and pedagogy through CSP. This type of pedagogy challenges the standard, white-washed American education by incorporating the voices and cultures of other groups (Django & Alim, 2017).

Many instructors are also taking action by diversifying their syllabi, incorporating the great work of marginalized scholars that are often excluded from psychology courses. For inspiration on how to increase representation throughout curricula (Thomas & AshburnNardo, 2020), see Dr. Erica Hsiung Wojcik’s BIPOC-Authored Psychology Papers spreadsheet intended for use by instructors of undergraduate/graduate-level psychology courses to help diversify their syllabi, as well as the syllabus of Dr. Jin Goh’s Seminar on the Social Psychology of Race and Racism. Although the journey to allyship within an academic setting may feel daunting, it is imperative to make these efforts in order to ensure that our students are well-informed and equipped to prevent the further perpetuation of discrimination, harm, and inequity—both inside and outside of the classroom.


Our Limitations and Your Allyship Journey

We acknowledge that our authorship team lacks representation on certain dimensions of diversity (Reyes, 2018). Several systemic forces may have shaped the composition of our team (predominantly White, female, heterosexual, advanced degree holders, etc.), such as systemic discrimination related to opportunities to be an author (King et al., 2018), graduate school admittance (APA, 2020), and tendencies to write with the in-group of known others rather than seeking out underrepresented minoritized students. We disclose our positionality here to fully acknowledge how our authorship team’s composition may have biased and influenced this narrative, as well as to role model the first step to engaging in allyship: critical self-reflection.

See below for additional readings to get you started on or to catalyze your allyship journey:

  1. What’s in a Name? A Synthesis of “Allyship” Elements From Academic and Activist Literature”
  2. Beyond Allyship: Motivations for Advantaged Group Members to Engage in Action for Disadvantaged Groups
  3. Whiteness in Organizations: From White Supremacy to Allyship
  4. Intersecting Viruses: A Clarion Call for a New Direction in Diversity Theorizing

Reflecting on our team’s limitations, we reemphasize that the resources we provided are not exhaustive, especially when it comes to the unique perspectives, challenges, and needs of specific groups. So, please do NOT stop here. Modeling the second step to engaging in allyship behaviors, we are each in the process of building our awareness and education, and this article is limited to our current knowledge and experiences.

We as graduate students—and as the future of academia—have unique opportunities to elicit sustained change that go beyond interpersonal or momentary acts of social activism. Allyship is not new, nor would it be reasonable for it to be treated as a trend spurred on by the events of 2020. The effects of oppressive systems have been in place and have been compounding for generations. Individuals who are most impacted by this oppression are usually the ones who are fighting the hardest for change—often with little to no support. At various points in time, others may join in, spurred by a critical event, but their activism and advocacy are often only momentary. We can no longer accept this as the status quo. Sustained change demands more than momentary social activism. It requires critical reflection, personal ownership, and commitment to change our repeated, daily actions in ways that dismantle, rather than reproduce, systems of social inequity (Sumerau et al., 2020). 

We believe that I-O graduate students are in a unique position to contribute to sustaining the momentum around allyship and activism through our future roles as academics and as organizational change makers. We have the ability and responsibility to strive toward more inclusivity and representation in higher education, research, SIOP, and all workplaces. We are pledging to incorporate this effort in our everyday lives, and we call on you to join us.

We extend our deepest gratitude and thanks to Shannon Cheng, Dr. Jennifer M. Gómez, and Edward Scott for their thoughtful review and invaluable contributions to this article.

Andrew Tenbrink is a 5th-year PhD student in I-O psychology. He received his BS in Psychology from Kansas State University. His research interests include selection, assessment, and performance management, with a specific focus on factors affecting the performance appraisal process. Currently, Andrew has a 1-year assistantship working as a quantitative methods consultant in the Department of Psychology’s Research Design and Analysis Unit at Wayne State University. Andrew is expected to graduate in the summer of 2021. After earning his PhD, he would like to pursue a career in academia. andrewtenbrink@wayne.edu | @AndrewPTenbrink

Mallory Smith completed her Master of Arts in I-O Psychology in the spring of 2020. Prior to graduate school, she earned her BA in Psychology and German from Wayne State University. Her interests include factors influencing employee attitudes, efficacy, and perceptions of justice during organizational change. After graduation, Mallory started a new job in the healthcare industry, leveraging both her I-O skillset and background in information technology to support digital transformation, enhance work processes, and encourage employee adoption of new innovations. smithy@wayne.edu | @mallorycsmith 

Georgia LaMarre is a 4th-year PhD student in I-O psychology. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo before moving over the border to live in Michigan. Georgia is currently working as an organizational development intern at a consulting firm while pursuing research interests in team decision making, workplace identity, and paramilitary organizational culture. After graduate school, she hopes to apply her I-O knowledge to help solve problems in public-sector organizations. georgia.lamarre@wayne.edu

Laura Pineault is a 5th-year PhD candidate in I-O psychology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of leadership and work–life organizational culture, with emphasis on the impact of work–life organizational practices on the leadership success of women. Laura graduated with Distinction from the Honours Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program at the University of Windsor in June 2016. Currently, Laura serves as the primary graduate research assistant for a NSF RAPID grant (Work, Family, and Social Well-Being Among Couples in the Context of COVID-19; NSF #2031726) and is a quantitative methods consultant for the Department of Psychology’s Research Design and Analysis Unit at Wayne State University. Laura is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. laura.pineault@wayne.edu | @LPineault

Tyleen Lopez is a 3rd-year PhD student in I-O psychology. She received her BA in Psychology from St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Her research interests include diversity/inclusion, leadership, and well-being in the workplace. Tyleen is currently a graduate research assistant and lab manager for Dr. Lars U. Johnson’s LeadWell Research lab at Wayne State University. Tyleen is expected to graduate in the spring of 2023. After earning her PhD, she would like to pursue a career in academia. tyleen.lopez@wayne.edu | @tyleenlopez

Molly Christophersen is pursuing a Master of Arts in I-O Psychology. She earned her BA in Sociology from Michigan State University in 2016. Her interests include workforce training and employee development. After graduate school, she has her sights set on an applied career in the private sector—ideally in a role where she can help businesses train and develop their employees, effectively helping individuals to grow within their organization. mollychristophersen@wayne.edu | @molly_kate32


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