Performative Activism - Colleen Chang

Illustration by: Colleen Chang

 

It has been a year since the world rightfully erupted into chaos and anger following the murder of George Floyd. For centuries, Black people have been mistreated and let down time and time again by governments and other people—namely white people. What is ridiculous is that the extreme hatred and intolerance towards people of colour, especially Black people, has not ceased. For years the world remained quiet while Black people were wronged. While there were many who protested alongside the Black community to genuinely raise more awareness and stand in solidarity, there were also many instances in which people—and companies—seemed to only be putting on an act. This “act” is commonly referred to as “performative activism” where individuals will use activism as a method of gaining social capital—otherwise known as “clout”—instead of actually supporting the cause, movement, or issue.

Police brutality is not anything new. In fact, it “has been a documented aspect of Black life for 100 years, since the Lexow Committee generated 10,000 pages of testimony in 1894” [1]. While the increase of attention towards this issue today is great and certainly helps push for positive change and reform, a number of people also expressed the concern that many of the actions taken are more performative than genuine. This raises the question, how can one actually differentiate between performative activism and sincere progress?

Answering this question can be done by looking at #BlackoutTuesday last year. Examining this event raised many concerns about whether or not posting the black square was a valid form of activism. On yaledailynews.com Professor Pamela Hovland says, “I think that [#BlackoutTuesday] was more powerful in the end because of the critique that resulted from it… If you were someone that gave over to that quickly … and then heard about that critique afterwards, it caused you to think: What am I doing in addition to this? Am I donating to the cause? Am I speaking to other people about this offline?”[2].

These questions will allow for one to figure out if their form of activism is performative or genuine. If someone had answered yes to the last two questions, then most likely their form of activism is genuine allyship, whereas if someone answered no to those questions, or did not even consider any of the questions, then it is likely that this activism is more performative. According to medium.com, some more examples of performative activism include selective choices on which issues to support, and not recognising privilege.

So then what is genuine allyship? It is defined as “a form of activism that does not direct attention to the activist, but rather seeks to support and uplift all social justice movements, issues or causes”[3]. People who are genuinely allies will try their best to raise awareness and constantly uplift marginalized communities, and will fight for change while also not seeking attention for their actions. In addition to this, genuine allies will have constructive and even difficult conversations, whether these conversations are addressing the problematic and/or racist behaviours that others have, or accepting and realizing issues that the affected people have pointed out in themselves[3]. Taking, analyzing and accepting faults, and then working towards bettering oneself and more strongly supporting a cause is one of the most important aspects of genuine allyship. Addressing one’s own implicit biases is very difficult but ultimately allows one to become better educated upon issues in the world. It also helps in gaining clarity on the misinformation which one has been fed, which then allows one to more effectively impart one’s knowledge and address these same issues in other people. 

While some may argue that performative activism still allows people to become educated on certain movements and causes, and does ultimately show that an issue has reached a large audience, there are a number of dangers which arise with this act. One is when companies and celebrities start using important movements like Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, and fighting climate change as marketing strategies, taking away from the severity of these issues. For example, last year, “One local business boldly announced they were ‘taking a knee to increase awareness of police brutality’. Their action: Closing for the 4th of July so their staff could take the day off. Such a revolutionary action, closing on a national holiday. A step apparently worthy of our applause”[1]. These actions end up damaging these causes not only because they are meaningless and oftentimes unhelpful, but also because these displays often result in correcting, denouncing and shaming individuals [1].

Shaming other people also tends to be a problematic aspect of performative activism and can deter real change. “The many manifestations of shame have been known for centuries to shut down dialogue and destroy discourse. Shaming a person for a good-faith effort sabotages their ability to attempt self-improvement. Rather, they will avoid the situation in the future, holding fast to their current beliefs and actions, supporting the status quo”[1]. In addition to this, it also tends to cover up or take the focus away from the problematic issues and attitudes of the one who is shaming someone and paints them as someone more angelic. This thus becomes a way of ignoring the things that one needs to work on and affirms the thought process of “at least I’m not as bad as them.”

While activism is most definitely needed, it is important to check oneself on whether or not an action is genuine or performative. Individuals should always constantly self-evaluate, check whether they are fully informed upon an issue, whether what they’re posting online and what they’re saying in real life is consistent, whether they’re doing anything to actually support the cause, and if they’re actually listening to criticism and making an effort to address and change their own biases and actions [4]. 

It is most important to remember that these movements are not trends, they have a profound effect on the lives of others. Everyone should make a genuine effort to participate in the most sincere way possible. Becoming more educated and raising awareness on political, social justice, and environmental issues is needed in order for real change and the betterment of society. 

References:

[1]https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/7/20/the-problem-of-performative-activism 

[2]https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2020/11/12/the-blurred-lines-between-genuine-allyship-and-performative-activism/ 

[3]https://medium.com/illumination/the-difference-between-performative-activism-and-genuine-allyship-c1071133d0e0 

[4]https://www.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2019/03/27/discourse-and-debate-is-performative-activism-inherently-bad/