What Is Performative Activism (and Why Does It Do More Harm Than Good)?
It’s 2020 and you just posted your support for the George Floyd protests with a black square on your Instagram. You pat yourself on the back and close the app for the day, only to discover that your decision (which was also made by many others, including celebrities) has become a topic of controversy. But why?
As social media (and the Internet as a whole) has become a part of our daily lives, the way we address issues has stirred a big debate. Are we using these tools to fight a cause or just show others we are on the same wavelength when it comes to social justice? That’s where performative activism comes in. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is performative activism?
Performative activism (also known as performative wokeness or allyship) is supporting a cause or issue to garner attention, support or monetization from others rather than actually caring about making a difference in the cause. This behavior often aligns with the good samaritan ideal or, for some, the “white savior complex.” These actions also show little to no effort is being made to learn or take action. It’s more about showing friends and family, “Hey, I’m woke! I’m hip to the latest issues. Please praise me on my latest social issue post of the week.”
What are some examples of performative activism?
Unfortunately, performative activism has been around for decades, but it’s become more obvious since the George Floyd protests. While we can do a whole piece on examples of performative activism (because trust us, there’s a lot), here are a few big ones that will make you sigh (or cringe).
- “Blackout Tuesday”: In June 2020, many Instagram users posted a black square to show their support of the George Floyd protests. It was a way to raise awareness of the violence and discrimination against the Black community. However, it caused more confusion (especially since the movement was specifically for the music industry) and backlash for flooding feeds that held important information on these issues.
- The “Black Lives Matter” Street Murals: Cities like Washington D.C., New York and Portland began painting “Black Lives Matter” on the streets to show support. But a bold, yellow phrase on the ground doesn’t bring back the lives we've lost (like Breonna Taylor), or the discrimination and biases that are still present in society. Critics of the murals noted that the spectacle seemed like a way for Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser to get a rise out of Donald Trump, rather than addressing her stance on her law enforcement practices that are actually doing more damage to the Black community.
- Brands showing LGBTQ+ support only in June. When Pride Month rolls around, companies are quick to add rainbow flags to their social media accounts and flood their stores with themed merchandise. When LGBTQ+ support from a business seems more like a marketing move, it’s known as “rainbow-washing.” How many of these brands actually give back to LGBTQ+ organizations? Is a mug really stopping the violence and discrimination of this community?
- The “Powerpoint activism” era. Vox writer Terry Nguyen coined this term to define the aesthetically-pleasing graphics that have become popular for organizations and business to post about a variety of issues on Instagram. An example of this is @so.informed (formerly known as @soyouwantotalkabout). While many enjoyed reposting its content, the creator of the account faced criticism for oversimplifying issues, not attributing information to BIPOC activists and experts and profiting off the idea by developing a book on the backs of uncredited activists and experts.
- Celebrities singing “Imagine.” Behold, the cringiest moment of 2020. The pandemic continues to bring more hardships around the world. The last thing we wanted? Rich celebrities telling us it was going to be OK through song. It didn’t bring people together, it only left us more confused and angry. This took away from the realities of this virus. We didn’t need singing, we needed answers.
Why is performative activism so dangerous?
Performative activism can take the attention away from critically important issues and causes. It shines a light on the “activist” instead of the communities affected. Instead of spreading a message, the focus shifts to who can get crowned the social justice king of the day. (“How many likes and comments can I get?” “How does this make me look more ‘connected?’”)
Performative activism is also dangerous because it discourages others from doing more. It’s that mentality of, “Well, this person is doing the work, so why do I need to exert more energy in this subject too?” Performative activism is so appealing because it only takes a second to share a list of Asian-owned businesses on Twitter, display a BLM sign on your porch or wear rainbow-covered merch all June long to feel like you’re “down” with the cause. There’s no reason to commit fully to changing the long history of laws, discrimination and underrepresentation.
These actions might seem hypocritical and, when done for the wrong reasons, can backfire. Case in point? The National Football League (NFL) painted “End Racism” on their football fields, when just four years ago, they were denouncing Colin Kaepernick’s actions (and denying him a spot in the NFL) for taking a knee in support of the same movement.
Another concern? Fighting quietly (or even privately) for a cause might be seen as “less than,” because it isn’t as loud and flashy as performative activism. If there’s no proof of you donating, protesting or supporting an issue, does it still hold true? (Spoiler alert: Yes, yes it does.) Journalist Yomi Adegoke said it best: “I refer to it as a ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ approach to grief; if you don’t tweet about it, you don't care about it. If you don’t document something online, it didn’t happen.” We have been so programmed to share everything online. We’ve blurred the lines between personal and private lives. Rather than posting about where you stand on the issue, find out what needs to be done to fix the issue.
Can we talk more about the role of social media?
The biggest driver of performative activism is social media. Also known as “slacktivism” (and “clicktivism” or “hashtag activism”), it’s the notion that changing your profile picture, liking a post or using a hashtag is enough to show people that you care about what’s going on. It’s become popular or trendy to “show support” without doing it in real life. But, ask yourself, what is actually being done? Is this creating a difference in the bigger issue or is it just another viral moment?
It’s important to note that social media makes a huge impact in how we learn about these issues. It gives us the ability to raise awareness, spark conversations and influence others to take action. Social media, after all, transformed Black Lives Matter into a nationwide movement. But social media is not the solution to everything. It’s not going to fix all the problems in the world because you tweeted a hashtag.
Some critics of performative activism fear that social media has even diminished the real-life activism that we’ve learned in our history classes. They believe that the Internet has made it easier to take action on a computer screen rather than taking to the streets (like when these influencers went to a protest for a photo-op and videos).
OK, how can I be a better ally?
Have you dabbled in performative activism? Really think about it. If the answer is “yes,” bravo for owning up to it. It can be tough to learn you may be part of the problem and it’s OK. As long as you begin to educate yourself on how to be a better ally, you can take steps to begin helping others. So, how can you be a better ally?
- Listen. Listen to what that specific community is telling you. As an ally, you should spend time amplifying these voices and putting them at the forefront of the conversation. This can mean taking a closer look at the privilege you hold in society. Is your stance taking away from the individuals fighting for this cause?
- Research, research, research. Before hitting the share button, take the time to research a cause or organization. Ask yourself, is this worth a retweet or more? Why am I raising awareness? Why is this so important to post this on social media? We’re so quick to put in a hashtag or share information without taking into account how much we really know about the subject.
- Don’t feel obligated to share how you’re helping on social media. It’s OK to move silently. A big issue with performative activism is that people want to avoid backlash or criticism from their peers if they don’t speak up online. It’s not the time to show your feed that you’re reading White Fragility. So, how are you going to show up outside of your Internet persona? When it’s no longer the “cool thing to do” or not displayed constantly across your screens, are you still going to be fighting for it?
- Take action. It’s fine to let people know where you stand on an issue, but what else are you doing? Are you influencing others to vote, donate and march? If you’re really passionate about a topic, make the effort to be more involved.
- Don’t only be an ally when it’s convenient. Don’t only showcase your allyship when Black History Month, Pride Month or Latinx Heritage Month rolls around. Show your support all year round, not just when you feel social pressure to do it.
It can be hard to distinguish the difference between performative activism and true allyship. But there are steps you can take to avoid it in your own life. So, the next time you see a movement stirring up online, take a step back and do your research before posting.