The Problem with Performative Activism

Featured Image: University Press

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On June 2, many awoke to black squares partnered with #BlackoutTuesday flooding their Instagram feeds. These posts came at the heels of George Floyd’s death, one of the many Black individuals to die at the hands of police brutality. The trend was created by two music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang in “observance of the long-standing racism and inequality that exists from the boardroom to the Boulevard”, according to their initiative’s, #TheShowMustBePaused, website.

Essentially, the day was meant to intentionally disrupt the work week and urge people to reflect and converse with one another about the steps needed to be taken to support the Black community. With over 28.9 million posts tagged with #BlackoutTuesday, celebrities, community leaders, companies, corporations, and many others participated in uploading a black square to take a stand with the Black Lives Matter movement.  

However, as rapidly as posts were appearing, so was criticism for the hashtag, specifically regarding the ineffectiveness of the trend and it feeding into performative activism. Not only did users point out that #BlackoutTuesday posts clog the Black Lives Matter hashtag for those looking for petitions, donation links, and learning resources, but many #BlackoutTuesday posts didn’t offer any resources at all.  

Similar to this are the Instagram story chains in which users tag 10 people who support the Black Lives Matter movement and urge those ten to repost the image and tag 10 more people who “won’t break the train.” Upon first glance, this trend seems like any other chain where people tag their friends to share their favorite memories or music albums, yet it begs the question, in what ways does tagging 10 friends in a fleeting social media trend help the Black community? 

One can argue that by publicly declaring that Black Lives Matter, you are bringing attention to the issue and letting your followers know that you are associating yourself with the movement, but then what? It’s not a mystery that the Black community faces systemic racism and large racial disparities in 2020 America. Our country is at the point where we should be doing more than addressing the issue, we need to be seeking solutions and actively working towards a goal. Posting a black square is not enough.  

Therefore, many #BlackoutTuesday posts and Instagram chains and reposts fall into performative activism. Essentially, performative activism is done to increase one’s social capital rather than one’s genuine devotion to a cause — it is surface-level activism. This pejorative term is also used with “performative wokeness” or “performative allyship.” While the term performative activism isn’t new, it has certainly seen an increase of popularity on social media following George Floyd’s death  

Performative action comes in many forms. Perhaps the most popular and easiest method is currently through social media. Celebrities and general users alike are criticized for posting only for “woke points” or to “gain clout.” After posting a black square on Twitter, the professional football team, Washington Redskins, faced backlash for supposedly taking a stand against systemic racism while continuing to sport a racist depiction of a Native American as their mascot and their name in general. “Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name,” New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted at the team.  

Singer-songwriter Lorde also called attention to the toxicity of performative action in an email to her fans. After explaining how she attended a peaceful protest to support the Black Lives Matter movement in Auckland, New Zealand, the artist wrote, “One of the things I find most frustrating about social media is performative activism by white celebrities (like me). It’s hard to strike a balance between self-serving media displays and true action. But part of being an ally is knowing when to listen, and I know that white silence right now is more damaging than someone’s wack protest selfie.” 

Even comedian and television host Hasan Minhaj called out the trend in the most recent episode of his Netflix series, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. “Fine, Hasan, what do you want us to do?” he acts out. “How do you want us to support Black America? I did the little black Instagram square. I had a tough conversation with my family. Fuck that. This fake woke shit we do on IG dies in a week.” 

It is easy for one to fall victim to performative activism; after all, it is way easier to hit “post to story” rather than write to your local congressperson demanding legislation that reflects change (although, this is becoming much easier with template emails and easily accessible contact information). And sometimes, users aren’t aware of the ineffectiveness or hypocrisy of their actions. So, what can we do? 

Like Minhaj stresses in his episode on George Floyd’s death, “we can’t just knock out racism. We have to help win this thing on the cards. We have to donate our money and time to Black organizations. 

Sign petitions, organize peaceful protests, actively work in educating yourself and unlearning unconscious biases, donate to fundraisers, and support Black-owned businesses. There are endless ways one can help and support the Black Lives Matter movement that is productive and more than just a post of solidarity.  

The bare minimum is not enough to fight racism. The year is 2020 and as citizens of the globe, it is our duty to use our individual platforms and privileges to give our all.

If you find yourself sharing resources with your followers, make sure you are actively using them as well. And what’s more, hold your friends and family accountable when you see performative activism. Activism is not an aesthetic, Black Lives Matter is not a trend, and the energy behind this movement cannot end when hashtags stop trending.  

Donate, sign, organize, and learn how you can help and get involved.