How to Combat Performative Activism
an opinion by Billy Agustin
Dear Asian Youth,
The good thing about social media is how quickly everything spreads: information is spread across the world in the blink of an eye, resources find their way to people, and educational material is at your fingertips.
The bad thing about social media is how quickly everything spreads: are in and out of circulation continuously to the point where it can be exhausting to open your feed. This degree of connectivity is a powerful tool, but it is also something that facilitates misinformation and disposable trends. Everything moves quickly in the digital world, and by that, I’m referring to how much internet culture shifts and adapts.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has gained a lot of public attention after the murder of George Floyd, and sadly, such acts of police brutality are not new. The tragedy was a catalyst to a greater public discussion about systemic racism and an unfortunate reminder that tragedy seems to expedite a desire for reform. Through social media, we are able to find resources that can implement change, such as petitions and donation links, and educational content concerning how to go about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no doubt that social media has an endless amount of resources for people to use in order to be good and socially-conscious activists.
But as BLM permeates the digital consciousness of U.S. citizens, there comes a connotation with the vehicle by which the movement is primarily spread. That vehicle, of course, is social media, and social media is a conglomerate of normal citizens. If it is any kind of vehicle, one can look at it like a bandwagon: it’s a medium that facilitates peer pressure and trendiness. In the case of the BLM movement, many folks are diverging from the main road of actually uplifting Black voices and dismantling racist infrastructures.
Performative activism is exactly what it sounds like: A disingenuous facade that reduces activism to some kind of aesthetic. I recall the circulation of the #blackouttuesday tag on Instagram. Essentially, a social media response to exhibit solidarity towards the Black community in which participants would simply post a black photo captioned with the tag itself.
The issue with this is simple: It is not a call to reform, it is not a way of spreading resources, and it isn’t a display of taking action.
It is a trend.
This is one instance of many, and it is not something exclusively restricted to the BLM movement. Performative allyship can be seen in many other facets of society and social media: Resharing tag chains, posts like “Repost if you are against sexual assault!” or even solely posting videos of traumatic content are all instances of disingenuous activism. Corporations prey off of the trendiness of social justice, like the cases of Reformation and the NFL. Both released statements that expressed their support of BLM only after the recent rise of the movement. Reformation received backlash as a former employee, Leslieann Elle Santiago, spoke out about her mistreatment as a POC working under them. The NFL was under fire after many pointed out that they had still not signed on Colin Kapernick, who was terminated after his peaceful protest in 2016, despite their claims that they “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people.” Beyond these instances, performative activism from companies take shape in ways that are ultimately unproductive. And that fact isn’t restricted to corporations- the individual, as displayed by the #blackouttuesday tag, is very capable of performative actions, no matter how earnest they may be. So today, I’d like to share with you how exactly to recognize performative activism, how to move past it, and how to be a good ally.
1. Evaluate your content.
What exactly is accomplished through the content you are sharing? Is it educational material, spreading ways to help, etc.? Tag chains ultimately don’t accomplish anything- sure, you display your support but the same thing could be known if you shared content that made an impact on the movement itself. Things like phone numbers and emails to government offices, petitions, donation campaigns. Solidarity can be expressed by means other than flat out saying, “Hey, I am in support of this!” and by genuinely taking action. Furthermore, it’s way more impactful.
The case of showing videos that display traumatic content is a tricky one. I want to mention that you should proceed with trigger warnings when reposting things like that, as there is an undeniable privilege in sharing a video without thinking about how it can hurt someone. Not only an air of privilege, but also ignorance. It doesn’t cost anything to be aware of other people. In an instance where you are prompted to share such a video, evaluate your intentions. Many use posting videos that feature hard-to-swallow content as a way to bolster awareness, oftentimes due to the fact that it seems to hammer in how bad things actually are. But, if posting these videos are the only things that you do to aid the movement, perhaps you should consider what other actions you’re taking to further it. You can’t rely on anger alone to make a change, change must be carried out with the effort. It’s called ACTivism for a reason.
The idea to evaluate your intentions goes beyond that. Look at why you care about a movement. Are you doing this because it’s the right thing to do, or are you doing this because everyone else is? Think: If social justice wasn’t super in and actually looked down upon by the majority of the population, would you still express your beliefs so fervently?
2. Integrate activism not just online, but offline.
Work to educate the people around you. Participate in reform that will impact your own community. Learn to recognize and speak out against injustice in your everyday life. I find, as an Asian-American, that discussing certain movements can often be taboo in Asian households. There’s an underlying sentiment of being a model minority that affects certain perspectives, like it isn’t in our place to care about things like BLM. We have to work to reteach those family members that indulge in being perceived as a model minority, and furthermore, dismantle the very idea of a model minority. Having these discussions might be uncomfortable, but they are completely necessary. In the case of BLM, the more we acknowledge underlying racist sentiments, the more taboo such things become.
You can seek to encourage reform by participating in protests, signing petitions, and educating yourself through books or documentaries. In the hellscape that is the USA’s 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, being present and active in your community can be extremely difficult. Make sure to take the necessary precautions if you intend to be at a rally. But change can be found through many different facets if you look hard enough. Many people put out “watch-to-donate” videos so that people can give monetary contributions to a cause, even if they don’t necessarily have the funds to provide money. Just make sure to do your research when looking at such things and try to find solid evidence that can definitively point to them being legit (A closing date for the fundraiser, a defined charity/organization that funds will go to, a donation amount goal/cap). Outside of that, petitions are always free. So is making the effort to educate yourself and keep your privilege in check. Those things will do more good than posting a black screen or joining a tag chain- and some of them even take less time.
Stay attentive to the world around you and utilize your voice. Be a person who can facilitate constructive discussions in your community and raise awareness about important issues. Acknowledging activism and social justice as more than a trend means making the effort to integrate it into your lifestyle.
3. Don’t lose focus.
Let’s look at BLM again. Don’t forget that as an ally, you are not there to speak on behalf of Black Americans. You are there to uplift and support their voices- and most of all, to listen to them. As a movement meant for their sake, they have the jurisdiction to lead it. Those who are the subjects of tragedy, oppression, and injustice across the world are the ones who have never had a voice. A movement is their form of a soapbox that they have the freedom to speak from, and for good reform to be possible, it needs to be conducted by them.
Furthermore, concern yourself with the big picture. A memorial to Breonna Taylor is appreciated ...but it does not hold her murderers accountable. It’s like applying a bandaid to a bullet wound. Make an effort for genuine reform that will contribute to dismantling a greater oppressive institution.
4. Don’t be discouraged, and don’t bring down others.
Activism can be exhausting. With the influx of information provided by social media circulation, there are a lot of expectations in the current day to keep up with every single event that happens, which can leave many activists feeling burnt out. The overwhelming pressure to do good things should and be socially aware shouldn’t have to be a burden to bear. If you’ve done any form of performative activism, do not lose faith in yourself. Hold yourself accountable. Do better. But do not give up. It is good to recognize how you can improve in your allyship, and act accordingly.
In a similar vein, be concise and respectful in pointing out performative activism. By decrying others for their own mistakes, you are applying a pressure that discourages rather than encourages. Educating others around you is extremely important, including the way you go about doing it.
So, all in all, allyship is a super important tool for furthering a movement. Social media greatly facilitates it, and one must go about using it in the best way possible in order to use such a platform to its fullest.