Evolving Perspectives on Allyship: An Examination of Ally Definitions, Models, and
Motivations in Contemporary Academic Discourse and Literature

Roberta Campbell-Chudoba

University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Education Thinking, ISSN 2778-777X – Volume 4, Issue 1 – 2024, pp. 91–115. Date of publication: 14 June 2024.

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Cite: Campbell-Chudoba, R. (2024). Evolving perspectives on allyship: An examination of ally definitions, models, and motivations in contemporary academic discourse and literature. Education Thinking, 4(1), 91115.


Declaration of interests: The author declares to have no conflicts of interest.

Authors note: Roberta Campbell-Chudoba, MEd, MA is a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan. Her primary research and teaching passions are community-based development and leadership, student health and well-being, and Indigenous education. (ORCHID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7519-7069

Copyright notice: The author of this article retain all her rights as protected by copyright laws.

Journal’s areas of research addressed by the article: 31-Higher Education; 70-Education & Social Inclusion, Equity, Cohesion


This review traces the evolution and utilization of the concept of allyship from its early emergence to the present day in academic discourse and related literature. I synthesize definitions of ally and allyship, identify various models of allyship, and explore ally motivations. Types of allies, such as White people engaged in anti-racist work supporting Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) groups; heterosexual allies to 2Spirited, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender queer+ (2SLGBTQ+) people; men as allies to women in pursuit of equity; and healthcare professionals engaged in culturally responsive care, are delineated. Critiques of the ally concept with emerging alternative approaches and recommendations for further study conclude the review.


Ally, Allyship, Anti-racist, Critical theory, Decolonization, Social justice, Whiteness.

In 1908, The New York Times reported an incident from London’s House of Commons of about two men in the Strangers’ Gallery who acted “as allies” (p. 1) to women by shouting their support and distributing handbills. The men were advocating for women who had chained themselves to the wall of the Ladies Gallery in protest of being denied the right to vote. Men who supported women’s right to vote, dubbed ‘suffragents,’ played a crucial role in supporting the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, Canada, and England. The suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, part of the first wave of feminism, marked the beginning of the use of the terms ally or allies in academic literature (John & Eustace, 1997), outside of allyship within the diplomatic sphere. Somewhat earlier, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Quakers had a strong presence in abolitionist activism against slavery throughout the British Empire and United States. Although not called so at that time, Quakers are named allies to slaves and Black abolitionists in present-day historical accounts (Wood, 2017).

Later, Whites who spoke out for racial equality during the civil rights era in the United States in the 1960s, including White anti-racist activists, were labelled allies. Heterosexual allies began acting as advocates in the 1980s for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, with gay-straight alliance organizations appearing in high schools and colleges. In the past 35 years, studies on men acting as allies for gender equality, heterosexual people in allyship with 2SLGBTQ+ individuals and groups, White and anti-racist allies, allies in healthcare professions, and non-indigenous allies to Indigenous People have constituted the bulk of scholarly peer-reviewed articles on allyship.

Drawing on theoretical and research studies, this literature review explores the evolving definition of ally and allyship; reviews identity development models, ally motivations, and ally groups and individuals present in institutional, disciplinary, and professional contexts; and concludes with critiques of allyship and suggestions for alternate terminology and actions. This review addresses the definition and conceptualization of allyship since its emergence to the present day in academic literature. To begin with, the Oxford English Dictionary (2023) defines an ‘ally’ as a person or entity that supports the rights of a marginalised or minority group without itself belonging to that group, while ‘allyship’ is the active advocacy of the rights of such groups.


The literature review was conducted primarily using the University Library’s discovery layer and Google Scholar. Academic, peer-reviewed, and published scholarly sources defining, describing, conceptualizing, and researching allyship were identified. The main search term used was ally. Variations of this term were combined with the Boolean operator AND with other terms such as Feminist, Men, or various other terms to include the 2SLGBTQ+ populations. Other terms, such as critical/anti-racist pedagogy, decolonization, social justice, Whiteness, OR non-indigenous, were also combined using the Boolean operator AND with Allies.

The inclusion criteria were as follows: the article had to have ally, allies, or allyship in the title and one of these keywords had to appear at least three times in the text. The included articles were examined in greater detail to identify other relevant literature on the topic. The search also gathered theses, dissertations, and grey literature, including books, activist blogs, and websites, totaling 277 items published from 1908 to 2023, with the majority published between 1993 and 2023. At this point, saturation was reached. Although online writing/blogging by social justice activists is informative for trends, and ally impact on the evolution of social, political, and legal rights is significant, the review was limited to articles published in peer-reviewed journals and four book chapters. A final pool of 115 articles was used to present a comprehensive review of scholarly discourse on allies and allyships, primarily from North American scholars and researchers. The disciplines and professions with the most prolific allyship exploration are student affairs, teacher education, social psychology, gender, Whiteness, and anti-racist studies. Allyship research is also prevalent among educational researchers, healthcare, and human resources professions.

Defining Ally and Allyship

In scholarly literature, the concept of allyship is rooted in critical theory, which aims to examine and critique societal forms of inequality and oppression, thus promoting more egalitarian social conditions by identifying and challenging power imbalances within human interactions (Cottrell, 2023). Critical theory studies the dynamics within socially constructed identities, such as race, gender, and class, which allocate privilege and power to some groups while marginalizing others. In addition to documenting and analyzing existing inequities, critical theory aims to generate tools to help people comprehend the world and effect change by establishing fairer social, economic, and political structures (Cottrell, 2023).

Originating in Germany in the 1930s, critical theory was widely adopted in the academy in the post-war period, influencing new disciplines and theories, such as feminism and feminist studies, cultural and ethnic studies, African American studies, and media studies. Over time, we have also seen the rise of additional theories, such as critical race theory, tribal critical race theory, post-modernism, post-structuralism, and queer theory (Cottrell, 2023). These disciplines and theoretical innovations have identified an important role for allies in confronting and eliminating structural oppressions generated by class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other markers of difference and intersectional considerations. Much theoretical development reflected changes within universities as student populations diversified, and the children of class and racial groups who were historically excluded from post-secondary education increased their presence, at social and political levels, and within academia. New disciplinary and theoretical approaches continue to develop, analyse, and propose solutions to issues of oppression generated by racialization, sexism, classism, gender normativity, colonialism, and intersectionality considerations. As a contribution to efforts to eliminate structural inequities, each form of allyship owes debt to theoretical innovation.

Early definitions of allyship in the literature include the commonly cited, “a person who is a member of the ‘dominant’ or ‘majority’ group who works to end oppression in his or her professional life through his or her support of, and as an advocate with and for, the oppressed population” (Washington & Evans, 1991, p. 313). Bishop (1994) saw allies as those who act and think differently within inequitable contexts, while those who maintain the status-quo dynamics are part of the problem. For Broido (2000), an ally works “to end the system of oppression that gives them greater privilege and power based on their social group membership” (p. 3). Being a ‘true’ ally requires not only a commitment to overcome oppression, but an internal transformation by examining one’s own personal values, beliefs, perceptions, and actions that are likely to perpetuate inequity (Ayvazian, 1995; Fabiano et al., 2003; Reason et al., 2005a). Bishop (2002) later added that the transformation and enlightening of a privileged individual must involve healing. Anicha et al. (2018) and Patton and Bondi (2015), added that an ally’s role is one firmly entrenched in relationship-building to pursue shared social justice goals.

These earlier definitions were criticized for defining allies only as those who were in positions of privilege. Some participants in the DeTurk (2011) study pointed out that African Americans can act as allies to Whites when calling out anti-White racism. DeTurk updated her initial definition by framing ally identity and power categories as contextual, multiple, and fluid. Brooks and Edwards (2009) revised their previous utilization of Washington and Evans’s (1991) definition and extended it to encompass LGBTQ+ individuals who serve as allies to others within their own group, even though they themselves belong to an oppressed community.

Ashburn-Nardo (2018) proffered that allies understand how to address inequality in systems, espouse egalitarian philosophies, and support the needs of disadvantaged group members by speaking against discriminatory language and behaviour. Louis et al. (2019) disputed this description, arguing it idealized allies who are often more concerned with the benefits to themselves and their advantaged group, an attitude reminiscent of interest convergence theory. Critical race theorist Derrick Bell suggested that dominant groups will support change and minority rights only when majority and minority interests converge (Brown & Jackson, 2013). Kutlaca et al. (2020) also countered advantaged-group definitions, and instead proposed allyship be considered from both allies’ and the disadvantaged groups’ points of view. Scholars are beginning to recognize the perspectives of those who are marginalized in allyship definitions, coeval with increases in antiracist, transgender, and gender-nonconforming rights activism.

Identity Models, Development, and Motivations

Multiple conceptual models of ally development appeared during the 1990s and the 2000s. Washington and Evans (1991) proposed a model of sequential development that delineates the stages of awareness, education, knowledge, and then action. The model was derived from research conducted with heterosexual allies of LGBT individuals. Then the Gelberg and Chojnacki’s (1995) six-stage model drew parallels between heterosexual counsellor ally development and gay, lesbian, and bisexual identity development.

Other researchers constructed frameworks based on the characteristics and recommended behaviours of allies who work with various types of disadvantaged groups. In her foundational book Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression, Bishop (1994) described six steps for the privileged to fight oppression, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. One must understand oppression, understand different types of oppression, be open to consciousness and healing, work on one’s own liberation, become an ally, and maintain hope. Bishop (2002) later included exercises and discussion questions for adult educators using these guidelines. Broido (2000) created a model for college student development as social justice allies based on a study of White heterosexual students who moved from gathering information, making meaning through reflection, then consolidating knowledge to act against injustice. Edwards (2006) delineated three types of aspirational allies: self-interest, altruism, or social justice. Reason et al. (2005b), drawing on critical pedagogy and the emerging concept of Whiteness, created an ally development model for higher education students to explore their sense of Whiteness and racial justice activism. Jordan (2012) reworked Edwards’ (2006) model and built a framework for heterosexual student ally identity development. Case (2015) then proposed a “privilege awareness pedagogical model” specifically for White clinical therapist trainees, which addresses White privilege alongside the various types of oppressions that White people may commit. Each of these models encourages allies to identify their privileges, challenge oppressive systems, and strive to eliminate inequities in personal and/or professional contexts.

Much of the ally development research is conducted in higher education with students, faculty, or leaders (Patton & Bondi, 2015; Reason et al., 2005a; Waters, 2010), and is conducted almost exclusively with or centred on White people. An exception is Suyemoto and Tree’s (2006) training done with BIPOC K-12 educators to create allies among racial minority groups. Their cautions for facilitating intra-minority conflict, learning more about different communication styles between cultural groups, and negotiating issues between groups is a refreshingly honest reflection on working across differences to achieve social action goals. Later, in a case study, Suyemoto et al. (2020) advanced the conversation about how social justice allies are developed, addressing the “messy, often painful, relational processes foundational to ally and accomplice development, as well as the related rewards and challenges for personal transformation and potentials for contributing to social justice change” (p. 3). Forming authentic relationships across differences and engaging in ongoing personal growth and transformation, argued Suyemoto et al. (2020), is essential to maintaining ally commitment to racial justice.

Just as multiple developmental models and processes have emerged, scholars have also identified diverse motivations for those who engage in allyship. Chu and Ashburn-Nardo (2022) found their Black participants perceived some White allies who confront prejudice, as being compelled by personal values (intrinsic motivation), and others by concerns about their image (extrinsic concerns). Erskine and Bilimoria (2019) named similar motives for White allies: the desire to benefit others and to appear likable, dedicated, and competent, and they added a motivator of “social justice orientation” (p. 329). Similarly aligned results were obtained from a 17-year study with 127 heterosexual activists for LGBT rights by Russell (2011), aligning ally motivations with two overarching categories: first, a desire to act based on fundamental principles and values, and second, activism based on personal or professional roles, relationships, or experiences with family and community. In their in-depth interviews with 25 people in workplace leadership roles, Warren and Warren (2021) discovered that participants drew on common virtues such as compassion, humility, moral courage, honesty, perseverance, and/or patience in their allyship journeys. Roades and Mio (2000) concluded that motivations for allies are varied and complex, and that allies are essential to the difficult work of resistance against inequity. Each of the studies contributed substantively to the conceptualization of identity models and/or ally motivations. Only Warren and Warren (2021) investigated how “exemplary allies” (p. 801) sustain their commitment to allyship action. Research on how those who exemplify positive contributions as allies maintain dedication over time and impact long-term system changes could be instructive and address a gap in the literature.

Allies to 2SLGBTQ+ People

Much of the existing literature on 2SLGBTQ+ ally identity focuses on schools and higher education and instructs individuals on how and why they should be allies. Earlier work focused on LGBT advocacy, with the acronym expanding over time to include 2S and Q+ to encompass Two Spirited, Queer or Questioning and additional sexual orientations and gender identities. The groundwork laid by Washington and Evans (1991) for college students explained heterosexual privilege, gave possible ally motivations and actions to undertake, and listed four levels of becoming an ally, with accompanying cautions and benefits. Although somewhat formulaic, their work laid a foundation for scholars and researchers who followed for the next three decades, basing studies and advice on its levels. Studies to follow included ally student training and/or preferred ally attitudes (Ji et al., 2009; Jordan, 2012; Stotzer, 2009) in the field of education; ally identity development for staff and faculty (Blumer & Tatum, 1999; Broido, 2000; DiStefano et al., 2000; Draughn et al., 2002; Lucozzi, 1998; Marx et al., 2017; Ryan et al., 2013); support for teacher-education students (Clark, 2010); and training for students in counselling programs (Dillon et al., 2004; LaMantia et al., 2015; Rivers & Swank, 2017). The growing recognition of 2SLGBTQ+ students’ need for allies in schools and campuses is reflected in academic literature, with an emphasis on safer, equitable, and just spaces for all.

Brooks and Edwards (2009) and Duhigg et al. (2010) studied intentional workplace allyship of LGBT people, as did McNulty et al. (2018) with employee-resource groups, and Fletcher and Marvell (2022) with human resources personnel. Research on LGBT ally activism in the community ranges from processes or factors leading heterosexuals into allyship (Fingerhut, 2011), to ways privileged allies can transform current inequities by listening to the voices of the marginalized and exercising political agency to change laws and policies. (Montgomery & Stewart, 2012; Pickett & Tucker, 2020). Scaramuzzo et al. (2021) conceptualized allyship as ‘bidirectional’ through their work with Black heterosexual women and White gay men. In some of the finest and sometimes poetic writings about allyship to date, Reynolds (2013) cautioned readers to be wary of the limitations, imperfections, and contextual boundaries of allyship, as “not a badge of honour but a sign of privilege” (p. 16). Reynolds (2013) also argued that becoming an ally is not developmental, but instead, fluid, as she is always “becoming an ally” (p. 16) depending on how the disadvantage/oppressed group views her. The idea that one must earn an ally status is seen across the categories and decades of allyship literature.

Most of the literature on 2SLGBTQ+ allies, while addressing the possible pitfalls of allyship, embraces the spirit and actions of allies and activists, such as Rostosky et al. ’s(2015) study of 292 self-identified allies which concluded LGBT allyship is beneficial to both the ally and the community involved. These claims contradict the work of McKinnon (2017) and Russell (2011), who sounded warning bells about heterosexual allies who inadvertently or intentionally reproduce inequity by using their privilege. McKinnon’s (2017) treatise is particularly cutting, as it is based on a transgender person’s view of the behaviour of a mediocre ally; it describes the ‘gaslighting’ committed by supposed allies as ‘epistemic injustice’ (p. 167). Critiques of the ally concept are growing in the academic literature.

Men as Allies

Research on men’s ally activism for gender equity and against gender-based domestic and sexual violence indicates an important shift from individual ally uptake with 2SLGBTQ+ people to an impetus for allyship across an entire gender. Third-wave feminism has opened the way for study. Like other types, male ally identity development supported through training is an important part of meeting goals, such as guiding men to end violence against women (Anicha et al., 2018; Casey, 2010; Davis & Wagner, 2005; Fabiano et al., 2003). Vital to trends in attracting more female students and faculty to STEM programs (Johnson & Pietri, 2022; Nash et al., 2021), and male participation in feminist movements (Kahn & Ferguson, 2010; Linder & Johnson, 2015; McGeorge & Bilen-Green, 2021), are men learning new ways of understanding their own identities in relation to women. Patton and Bondi (2015) examined experiences of White male faculty and administrators engaged in allyship who reported they found the work complex, aspirational, low risk, with great rewards for appearing to be “good people”, a phenomenon also seen by Drury and Kaiser (2014). In a first-of-its-kind study, De Souza and Schmader (2022) examined how misperceptions of other males’ beliefs about gender bias (believing that most men do not care) can impact men’s allyship behaviour. Studies on male faculty involvement in social justice allyship have revealed how men can help develop a more inclusive environment for female colleagues and marginalized groups (Davis & Wagner, 2005; Veer et al., 2021). Similarly, the ways men can improve the workplace’s gender equality through allyship is the subject of studies such as Wagner et al. (2012), who look at the development of workplace culture and training.

From a synthesis of 40 academic and activist sources to discover how males understand allyship, Carlson et al. (2020) recommended that male allies who fight sexism need to work alongside women, or risk acting in paternalistic and invasive ways, thereby recreating the very inequalities they seek to redress. Cheng et al. (2019) looked at women’s positive perception of male allies with good morals as effective, whereas those having a “savior” or superiority complex were seen as highly ineffective. Similar results have been reported by Estevan-Reina et al. (2021). In the author’s opinion, urgency to tackle systemic sexism and misogyny, driven by movements such as #MeToo, may fuel positive action by male allies and further studies on men as allies.

Healthcare Professions

The ‘caring’ professions seem a natural fit for the presence of allies, as do any advocacy occupations, such as law and policing. However, there is a dearth of research in the latter areas. In the healthcare field, research on ally training and behaviours exists for nurses, physicians, social workers, and professional counsellors, signaling a shift from individual or gendered allyship to one across professions. Theorizing began with Gelberg and Chojnacki’s (1995) model of development for professional heterosexual counsellors who become lesbian-gay-bisexual-affirmative. Studies in the counselling psychology field include common experiences in heterosexual ally development and roles ally counsellors play to support both peers and clients (Asta & Vacha-Haase, 2013; Mio & Roades, 2003); challenges for White racial justice ally counsellors to enact deep structural rather than superficial change (Case, 2015; Spanierman & Smith, 2017); the ally’s role in social activism for counselling psychologists (Mizock & Page, 2016); and a treatment approach for therapists designed by Vasquez and Magraw (2005) who assist the socially oppressed to heal.

Recent allyship literature for and by physicians and nurses identifies solidarity for gender equity and inclusion in medicine for better health outcomes for patients (Ayyala & Coley, 2022; Bilal et al., 2021). Feaster and McMichael (2021) spoke of the need for allyship to help diversify the dermatology profession and to defend the practice of allyship against detractors. Advice for practicing allyship or what not to do was offered to nurses (Byrne et al., 2017; Smith, 2021; Thorne, 2022) and physicians (Ellis, 2021; Mensah, 2020; Peck et al., 2021; Rojas, 2022). Themes common to these fields and allyship advice in general are recognizing privileges, building relationships, taking responsibility, realizing personal bias, and speaking up and out. The voices of those who are victims of prejudice in the medical field are much rarer, and it is even more important to hear them. Mensah (2020), a Black physician, called for antiracist allyship in medical professions, prompted by performative allyship by White colleagues and patients, who seemed more concerned about not appearing racist “than with actual racism” (p.1) after the police killing of George Floyd. Mensah and his colleagues of colour were responding to feeling ‘overtaxed’ with current events and performative allyship, as they had to “both fulfill our clinical duties and help non-Black colleagues process anti-Black racism”. Zhuo et al. (2020) surfaced personal experiences of 15 surgeons who confront bias regularly in their profession. Zhuo et al. (2020) recommended both bias awareness and bias response training for allies and emphasized the importance of support from allies who are not typically impacted by bias. Healthcare professions comprise the most strongly represented field outside academia in allyship literature, which begs the question of the absence of research across other occupations.

White Allies and Anti-Racist Allies

Innovation in critical theory, in the form of critical Whiteness studies and anti-racist pedagogy, centres on the analysis of Whiteness as a social category that produces White privilege and the ‘othering’ of minority groups (Kolchin, 2002). McIntosh’s 1989 study White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack represents a foundational contribution which delineated White as a colour and a “race,” and identified Whiteness as an invisible system that gives group members a dominant position. Research on allies of racial and ethnic groups addresses the development, responsibilities, and complexities for and with White allies or anti-racist allies. This work reaches across gender and professions, into the intersectionality of identities, and recognizes the need for ally empathy and compassion to animate systemic change.

Higher education institutions are positioned to leverage racial diversity in campuses and educate students to enact social change. Intergroup dialogue is one strategy to support White racial ally development among college students and is also a way to counter motivations for adopting an ally’s identity for its social desirability (Alimo, 2012). Overburdened faculty members say that heavy labour is required to establish anti-racist allies inside teacher preparation programs, the students of which are usually White middle-class teacher candidates (Aveling, 2004; Tittone, 1998). This phenomenon is also noted by Black faculty (Boutte & Jackson, 2014; Coleman-King et al., 2021) who wish to trouble the normalcy of White dominance and privilege and encourage White allies to focus efforts on their linguistically and culturally diverse students and colleagues. Because of the vital role of faculty allies in transforming their institutions into more inclusive and equitable spaces, Hanasono et al. (2022) urged widespread training to help faculty to “translate their understanding of allyship into communicative action that stops discrimination at interpersonal and institutional levels” (p. 1). LeMaire et al. (2020) insisted that allyship action by all in the academy is obligatory and they provided a guide with practical suggestions for behaviours and actions, synthesized from literature across teaching, research, mentorship, and administration. Finally, the role of student affairs professionals as social justice allies is identified as vital in supporting students, both through the modeling of attitudes and behaviours, and through their work in managing student crises and needs on campus. (Reason & Broido, 2005).

A White ally should, according to Ford and Orlandella (2015), intentionally commit to being an agent of change with (not for) people of colour and to challenge White privilege, racial inequities, and racism through purposeful engagement. According to Fingerhut and Hardy (2020), social support and a sense of community may be what motivates and maintains the commitment of White ally activists over time. While advice to White allies on community engagement is important, some theorists and researchers counsel a path of personal transformation. White allyship begins with a strategic and reflexive process of looking at one’s personal resources, assessing the environment that White people have created, and evaluating the anti-racist actions to be taken (Erskine & Bilimoria, 2019; Smith, 2021). Further, Erskine and Bilimoria (2019) suggest the following:

Centralizing the role of intersectionality in organizational systems to include Whiteness, [allows for] a nuanced understanding of organizational identities, practices, processes, structures, and positions as racialized—or, structured by relations of race in order to generate or work toward antiracist forms of Whiteness and antiracist allyship. (p. 321)

As an analytical framework, intersectionality considers how the intertwining of social identities, such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and social orientation, forms our unique experiences, opportunities, and barriers. Various types of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, and classism, are linked to larger structures of power and privilege, merge, or overlap, and lead to multiple layers of inequities for a person or group (Crenshaw, 1989). Intersectionality encourages a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of experiences of oppression, shaped by the interplay of various social identities and sometimes multiple marginalized positions. Understanding intersectionality, as explained by Erskine and Bilimoria (2019), is crucial for effective allyship through recognising the complexity of peoples’ experiences and advocating for their dignity and rights across their intersecting identities. Erskine and Bilimoria (2019) presented a unique conceptualization of how White allies in organizations can use their own privilege and power to help foster the careers and leadership of Afro-Diasporic women colleagues. Additionally, their conceptual model laying out “White allyship’s sociopolitical antecedents, antiracist, feminist White allyship behaviors, the situational forces that activate and strengthen or detract from allyship, and the outcomes of White allyship” (p. 321-322) is highly detailed and instructive on anti-racist, feminist White allyship awareness and action. Their emphasis on critical self-reflexivity is in step with more recent recommendations across allyship research on personal work that should come first for aspiring allies, such as examining and confronting implicit biases and exploring why they wish to commit to the work.

Challenges to and for White Allies

Whites may claim an ally identity yet still behave oppressively, not fully comprehending “true allyship” (Ford & Orlandella, 2015, p. 290) which requires moving beyond a claimed identity to action. White privilege (McIntosh, 1989) may prevent potential White allies from realizing racial disparities. ‘White fragility’, the term coined by DiAngelo (2011), namely “a state in which even a minimal amount of racial stress becomes intolerable”, may also obscure recognition of racism and manifest various defensive moves such as expressing fear, guilt, anger, argumentativeness, silence, and leaving a given situation.

Being an ally is not easy because it requires sacrifice; therefore, motivation is equally difficult to maintain (Reason & Broido, 2005). An ally’s role is to “live in precarious spaces” (Bourke, 2020, p.190) and to put “emphasis on how our everyday lives are lived, instead of our personal (or others’) identification as an ally” (Waters, 2010, p. 2). Ostrove and Brown (2018, p. 202) have pointed out the challenges: “low levels of prejudice, internal motivation to respond without prejudice, awareness of privilege, and activism are critical and potentially distinctive characteristics of White allies who are committed to the well-being and liberation of people of color”. Matthew et al. (2021) focused on the voices of educators of colour, “overtaxed” from working with self-declared White racial justice allies who appropriated racial justice language, but were unwilling to make tangible sacrifices required for change. The Matthew et al. (2021) study found allies “may even cause pain” (p. 1) adopting an ally identity without a consciousness to take risks, be vulnerable, and make sacrifices. White allies also risk developing a White saviour complex and behaving paternalistically toward people of colour, viewing them as needing to be saved and thereby dehumanizing those with whom they wish to ally, instead of working to transform the systems of White power dominance (Cammarota, 2011; Edwards, 2006; Patton & Bondi, 2015; Spanierman & Smith, 2017). In addition, while goodwill may be in place, an ally’s sense of superiority can cause harm and reinscribe White dominance (Bourke, 2020; Spanierman & Smith, 2017).

Allyship enacted by Whites through blogs, articles, and tweets “whether described as performative allyship, optical allyship, or clicktivism” (Levine-Rasky & Ghaffar-Siddiqui, 2020, p. 80) has little impact, except to relieve ally consciences and assuage guilt. Going beyond performative allyship requires “ongoing emotional labor, self-reflection, continuous education, courage, commitment, and exchange of power inherent in true allyship” (Erskine & Bilimoria, 2019, p. 329).

Instead, allies need to abdicate their status, share their power, and give space for people of colour to emerge and lead (Cammarota, 2011). “Members of the dominant culture cannot and should not speak for the oppressed because their voices will silence them, which in turn maintains their status and privilege in ways that support racial hierarchies” (Cammarota, 2011, p. 256). Genuine White allyship means dismantling White supremacy (Levine-Rasky & Ghaffar-Siddiqui, 2020) and redistributing power, leadership, and resources, in other words, “transforming systems of White dominance to be equitable, fair, and just” (Spanierman & Smith, 2017, p. 610). In education systems, Cammarota (2011) suggested that White allies engage in solidarity work, supporting the leadership of people of colour and advocating for changes in pedagogy and curriculum that empower BIPOC students and educators and thereby “[cultivate] their leadership with addressing racial oppression” (p. 257). At the same time, advantaged group allies need to “resist the urge to increase their own feelings of inclusion by co-opting relevant marginalized social identities” (Droogendyk et al., 2006, p. 2) and instead pay attention to how their privileged status may detract from the disadvantaged group’s action against oppression (Droogendyk et al., 2016). Tensions also emerge when White allies assume that any of their experiences are comparable to the oppression faced by people of colour (Spanierman & Smith, 2017).

However, negotiating away from one’s power is complicated (Lawrence & Tatum, 2004), and White allies’ interactions with others will continue to be influenced by their position of racial dominance and desire, whether conscious or unconscious, to maintain dominance. There is a paradox in wanting to help others by using one’s power and privilege and finding self-gratification and status in one’s intentions, while little action or real change occurs for those who are oppressed (Bourke, 2020). And, as Bishop (2002), pointed out,

If a person attempts ally education who does not thoroughly grasp the concepts or demonstrate being an ally in their own action … oppressive attitudes can be solidified and confirmed, or backlash triggered. Those who suffer the most from this backfiring of good intentions are those who are most vulnerable … because they are targets of oppression.” (p. 128)

Hooks (1997) warned about White people who appear kind and helpful, while sacrificing nothing, “If the mask of Whiteness, the pretense, represents it as always benign, benevolent, then what this representation obscures is the representation of danger, the sense of threat” (p. 345). According to Gebhard et al. (2022), the danger of White benevolence masked behind allyship, especially in the ‘helping professions’ such as education, health, social work, and justice, is that it allows continued violence toward and vilification of the ‘Other’ within colonial institutions and maintains White settler power. Even when progressive motives are established, allies may encounter resistance from members of the groups they would like to support (Erskine & Bilimoria, 2019).

Crucial challenges to allies then, might lie, as Reason et al. (2005b) suggested, in “(1) understanding racism, power, and privilege both intellectually and affectively; (2) developing a new [W]hite consciousness; and (3) encouraging racial justice action” (p. 56). The first challenge includes the ongoing acknowledgement of implicit bias, potential for falling into interest convergence, and forcing oneself to recognize privileged identities (Bourke, 2020). Further, as Patton and Bondi (2015) concluded in their study on White male faculty engaging in ally work, allies must situate themselves beyond the individual level and “attend to multiple forms of oppression, institutionally and systemically” (p. 512), thereby moving beyond being ‘nice White men’ to social justice allies. A common thread in the literature is a demand for White allies to move from maintaining their status quo of dominance to impacting at system levels, where loss of power, position, and property is a possible result.

Non-Indigenous Allies in Colonial and Neocolonial Contexts

Although allies and alliances have emerged from encounters between Indigenous Peoples, Nations, and colonists for centuries, scholars of post-colonial and settler studies over the past three decades have theorized allyship between non-indigenous and Indigenous Peoples as counter-narratives and remedies to neocolonialism. Globally, White supremacy is deeply engrained in colonialism, the historical period in which one nation or group establishes control over another region, typically for economic, political, or territorial reasons. In neocolonial contexts, historically, European powers, driven by beliefs of White superiority, maintain ongoing dominance over less developed or previously colonized areas. Post-colonial and settler studies scholars examine and critique the historical processes of colonization, the experiences of colonized Indigenous Peoples, and the ongoing impacts of colonialism on societies and cultures. Often, post-colonial and settler studies scholars prioritize the voices and perspectives of Indigenous peoples, seeking to understand their experiences, struggles, and resilience in the face of colonialism. Positioning by non-Indigenous people in this space is described by some as being a ‘settler-ally’ and in its ideal form, starts with the personal work of unlearning colonial paradigms, beginning to understand Indigenous ways of knowing and then doing the significantly challenging work of political and social transformation (Barker, 2010; Regan, 2010; Sullivan-Clarke, 2020).

A great deal of literature centres on the necessity for non-Indigenous individuals to learn the history of the places they occupy, act against colonial power structures, form meaningful relationships with Indigenous People, and understand allyship as a journey (Barker, 2010; Burm & Burleigh, 2022; Morcom & Freeman, 2018; Mullen, 2022; Regan, 2010). While Morcom and Freeman (2018), who work in teacher education, expressed hope that ally action is potentially reconciliatory, it must be “guided by Indigenous teachings and done in love … the only thing that will result in systemic reconciliation” (p. 830). Settler educator, Mullen (2022), who is also invested in educational transformation through pedagogy, encouraged fellow anticolonial educators to “connect their Indigenous teaching, research, and activism to the vision and goals of decolonization” (p. 495). Transforming education through decolonization requires ally educators to pay attention to genuine relationship building with Indigenous People, and activism for the return of land, dismantling racist policies, and Indigenous self-determination (Mullen, 2022). Fitzmaurice (2010) made some similar recommendations to allies. Lifelong engagement with Indigenous Peoples, knowledges and spirituality that help Whites “transcend the powerful binaries of colonizer and colonized … this process of ‘Indigenizing [Whiteness]’” (p. 364) gives the best chance for meaningful contributions by allies to Indigenous communities. Christian and Freeman (2010), a non-Indigenous and Indigenous woman, respectively, in a 20-year friendship, dialogued about “power relations of the colonizer/colonized dichotomy that accentuate cultural, racial, economic, and class differences” (p. 379). Christian’s allyship was bolstered when they acknowledged that their love as friends surmounted any power dynamic. An emphasis on genuine relationship building by allies with Indigenous People is the common thread running through the advice of these scholars.

Non-Indigenous researchers who want to ally with Indigenous communities must build and maintain respectful relationships by decolonizing themselves. They need to practise “bridge-building, listening deeply as people speak from different world views and enabling Indigenous voices to be heard” (Brophy & Raptis, 2016, p. 249). To conduct anti-colonial research, Max (2005), a White researcher, emphasized that non-Indigenous people should undertake collaborative research projects with communities only after critically reflecting on their privilege and power. Anti-colonial research must be “initiated, directed and controlled” (Max, 2005, p. 79) by Indigenous People and must be of benefit to their community. Indigenous researcher McGuire-Adams (2021) extended the argument, saying settler Indigenous health researchers and educators, must be willing to be “unsettled, uncomfortable and recognized by Indigenous researchers and academics as anti-racist settler allies” (p. 769) to be accepted into community. Yomantas (2020) agreed with the premise set out by McGuire-Adams (2021) and insisted that allyship must be critical, i.e., extending beyond offering help; a critical ally must be “relationally connected, an accomplice in the struggle for justice” (p. 312), leveraging his or her power and position to decolonize structures.

Addressed less frequently in the literature, but not less significantly, are challenges and opportunities for allyship by those not neatly fitting into the non-Indigenous (mostly White) settler group. For example, the barriers to allyship between Black community members and Indigenous Peoples in Canada are highly complex, despite, and perhaps because of, common histories of oppression, dispossession, and genocide by settler colonizers. Relationships are non-existent, fraught, or tightly bound by philosophies and realities of competition for opportunities, internalized colonialism, and/or connections to the land. To move Black and Indigenous allyship forward, Amadahy and Lawrence (2009) recommend using beliefs aligned with family responsibilities to draw communities together across differences, including the acknowledgement that Blacks are “stolen people on stolen land” (p. 125). Tension also exists between Indigenous and refugee communities. Nobe-Ghelani and Lumor (2022) discussed ways to both work with those tensions and decolonize the refugee assistance sector, especially through refocusing relations between the refugee assistance sector and Indigenous communities on Indigenous epistemology and ontology that considers the land

not as a source of resources or as private property but as ‘a system of reciprocal social relations and ethical practices’ (Wildcat, McDonald, Irlbacher-Fox, & Coulthard, 2014, p. ii) … where learnings and knowledge are produced through the interaction with and observation of the natural world (Twance, 2019).

Critiques of Allyship in the Literature

Burgeoning research on allyship by advantaged individuals and groups is being counterbalanced by scrutiny of the ally concept and critiques of the ‘ally-industrial complex.’ Sumerau et al. (2021) disparaged the concept of allyship after 70 in-depth interviews with college student allies, and concluded participants maintained and justified their privilege by blaming minorities for social inequalities and “[suggested] individualized rather than structural remedies for combatting unequal systems” (p. 358). The lack of desire to disrupt oppressive systems and “start any trouble” (p. 369) by ally participants, and their construction of allyship as an identity, undermines effective advocacy work. According to Bourke (2020), “the term ally has been rendered ineffective and meaningless … [as] action is not required for one to apply the ally label as a component of their identity” (p. 179). Bourke (2020) also declared that “the allyship is sinking” (p. 185), and provided multiple critiques of the ally label. Criticisms centre on how individuals may choose how they form an identity and enact allyship. One may adopt an ally identity and “shape that identity of their own volition” (p. 185) without a sense of agency or responsibility toward dismantling oppressive systems. In addition, allies can wear an ally badge, hoping to “deflect attention away from their privilege, especially when interacting with members of underrepresented groups” (Bourke, 2020, p. 180) and then compartmentalize their allyship, using it only in the context when it serves them or when it is easy (Reason & Broido, 2005).

An alternative stance for White academics to move racial justice forward is to be accomplices in the cause, which means being accountable for one’s actions and exploring “ways they can work in solidarity” (Powell & Kelly, 2017, p. 60) in community organizing, engaging in mutual trust and consent. While aligning oneself publicly with social justice movements or oppressed groups is at risk, these acts can “send powerful messages to members of the target group. It demonstrates allies’ willingness to take risks beyond personal interest and their willingness to leverage their privilege and associated social capital towards justice” (Bourke, 2020, p. 190). As a result, the action of an accomplice entails greater risk and potential impact than the more passive attitude of an ally.

Other scholars maintain that the word “ally” must be decolonized (Kluttz et al., 2020; Sullivan-Clarke, 2020) with White settlers unlearning colonized mind sets, then learning how to act in decolonizing solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. Similarly, Louis et al. (2019) stated that allies should act in solidarity by making changes through advocacy with the bisexual population. Squire (2019) took matters one step further, calling for “eradication of the ally industrial complex … a thriving illness” (p. 186) present in higher education, perpetrated by those wanting to appear good “rather than do good” (p. 186). McKinnon (2017) also argued for abandoning ally concepts in favour of using ‘active bystander”; however, “a fully-fleshed-out argument” (p. 9) for why a different term would be better was not provided, leaving one to doubt the strength of author’s argument.

The recurring theme in critiques directed at individuals or collectives employing the designations ‘ally,’ ‘allied,’ or ‘allyship’ lies in their use as nominal labels or identities, often devoid of substantive action or discernible influence within institutional or systemic contexts. Allies may assert an identity without genuine sacrifice, subsequently setting it aside when convenience or discomfort arises, rendering the concept of allyship, at best, inconsequential, and at worst, a blatant falsehood.

Research Gaps and Future Directions

Several critical gaps persist within the scholarly discourse on allyships. First, research on how allies’ behaviours from advantaged groups may affect “motivations, identities and resolve” (Droogendyk et al., 2016, p. 24) of target groups remains underexplored. Second, although the concept of allyship has gained prominence, empirical investigations into the specific actions and strategies employed by effective allies are scarce. Third, scholarship dedicated to the impact of individual allies on groups and social movements remains limited. Although Selvanathan et al. (2019) highlight this gap, further nuanced examinations of allyship within distinct contexts (such as race, gender, or sexual orientation) are necessary to inform targeted interventions. Fourth, practical recommendations for programming aligned with ally’s identity models are lacking. Developing evidence-based guidelines for ally development programs can enhance their efficacy and impact. Fifth, understanding how allies contribute to transformative change and challenge systemic inequities requires a rigorous investigation. Finally, the significance of intersectionality requires further attention. Currently, research predominantly focuses on singular identity groups, overlooking the complex interplay between multiple axes of privilege and oppression. Addressing these gaps will enrich our understanding of allyship and facilitate more effective advocacy of social justice.


This literature review set out to explore how the terms “ally” and “allyship” have been defined and conceptualized in academic literature since their inception to present day. Multiple theoretical models for ally identity development have been created with most beginning with social positioning, privilege identification, and the objectives of working against oppressive systems to eradicate inequities. Clearly, the concept of allyship has been extremely influential and productive in informing a wide variety of scholarships across diverse disciplines and professions, with genuinely transformative implications. The absence of allyship research in certain disciplines is noteworthy. However, the ontological and ideological implications of this are beyond the scope of this review. Critiques of allyship stem from doubts about the intentions, motivations, or feasibility of advantaged group members remedying inequities. To enhance the efficacy of both scholarly discourse and potential ally development initiatives, further investigation into pragmatic strategies for ally action and their impact on material change against social injustice is warranted.


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