Amid unprecedented protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, several proponents of police reform and accountability utilized social media as the means to voice their support for the movement. However, amid the nation’s reckoning with its villainous past and its current push for justice exists another conflict: how to be an activist whose actions are not just performative, but go further than social media to aid in spreading helpful information.
Performative activism is when an individual uses a trending cause — often social justice related — to ensure their family, friends, colleagues, and other followers know they care. Their actions become self-serving as the focus of their actions moves inward rather than towards causes worth advocating for.
The most notable and recent instances were social media efforts following the murder of George Floyd. According to the Pew Research Center, the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #DefundThePolice were used roughly 47.8 million times. At this time, observers began taking note of the ostentatious engagement and their concerns became elevated with #BlackoutTuesday, an effort to protest racism and police brutality by posting a black square on Instagram. The effort quickly turned sour when the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter muted information relevant to the cause, including donation links and petitions.
The consequences of performative activism are vast, but perhaps the most cruel impact is that performative activism is fleeting. The phenomenon also goes hand in hand with the “white savior complex”: the need to “fix” problems of struggling cultures without understanding their history or their needs. When the two intersect, it creates a disingenuous and weak activism who neglects the long-term needs and support of many social justice movements and people.
At the same time, it is important to note that many actions that appear as performative are done with good intentions, but are confused for genuine activism. Of course, there is seldom a simple solution for an issue so steeped in nuances and intersections, but it is worth critically examining what we can do to be an effective ally.
First, we must examine the intention behind an action. What is it that makes you passionate about the issue? Next, identify the voices that should be amplified and ensure that your actions amplify those voices. Take further action, like donating to organizations that align with the movement in question and relevant mutual aid funds. It is worth emphasizing that sometimes a one-time donation is not enough because the issue persists and the need goes beyond a single donation or social media post. Finally, it is critical to educate yourself, but also friends, family and others on the history behind social justice issue: It prompts questions, curiosities and ignites a desire to know more.
Performative activism also fails to acknowledge that genuine activism is hard. To connect yourself to a movement, dedicate yourself to its successes and to remain steadfast in its failures is a lot of work. Still, the intent is rooted in with compassion for others and their efforts, as well as the understanding that things can and should be better, it becomes a worthwhile endeavor that helps everyone.