performative activism: how to ensure your work is genuine

June 6, 2020
By Bella Perreira

The realm of activism during the last few weeks has been turbulent, to say the least. As an organization that promotes involvement in social justice, the leaders of Youth for Border Aid have been excited to see new faces join numerous battles for equality. But when so many of these conversations take place over social media, it can be difficult to ensure that a movement doesn’t lose interest once it stops trending. Furthermore, opinions and actions can easily come off as insincere when using certain language or narratives. So, how do you make sure your activism is genuine- especially when choosing not to attend protests?

via Los Angeles Daily News

The term ‘performative activism’ is used to categorize statements with no substance. I choose to exclude actions from this definition because even if ‘true dedication’ is absent, a donation or signature can still be a meaningful and ultimately productive contribution to a movement (although ‘slacktivism’ is a different take on this concept, and I encourage you to research it). Examples of recent performance activism include large corporations, such as Spotify, expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement without donating any money; statements like this are a thinly veiled attempt at making users feel better about spending their money while contributing nothing substantial to protecting black lives. Another was the Instagram 'blackout’ that occurred last Tuesday, where users posted a black square in “solidarity.” While the goal was to bring awareness to the issue or stop talking about less serious topics for a day, the posts ended up pushing down actual information and black voices- completely negating the alleged intention of the trend. Many saw this, as well as a chain of tagging other users on Instagram Stories, as a way for people to pat themselves on the back for doing virtually nothing.

If you’re white or a non-black person of color (NBPOC), it can be difficult to speak on issues like Black Lives Matter without overstepping. This doesn’t mean that you should remain silent; refraining from using your privilege to amplify and support black voices is detrimental to progressing the movement. A trend started by TikTok user ‘definitelynotalinelson,’ for example, drew criticism for utilizing harmful stereotypes against marginalized communities in order to “highlight their struggles” (examples can be seen here, here, and here). While she claimed her intentions were to raise awareness, all her videos really did was perpetuate bigoted generalizations and put the spotlight on a white creator. Despite complaints from many members of the communities these videos mentioned (including LGBTQ+, black, Hispanic, Muslim, etc), users did not take accountability and continued to defend themselves.

This is a small and seemingly insignificant example of the ‘white savior complex,’ but it can be used to evaluate our own intentions and actions. When tweeting about the abolition of police and ICE, what is your intention? Do you feel guilty for talking about anything else, and just post this out of obligation while it trends? Do you want others to see you as an advocate for these ideas before you actually aid them? Are you just regurgitating ideas you’ve already seen because everyone else is doing it? While neither of these feelings are inherently bad, they may not be a great foundation for continued involvement in activism. If these ideas interest, excite, or even confuse you, research! By educating ourselves, we are able to fully understand concepts like the abolition of prisons, offer new dialogue into the conversation, and further promote a more accurate depiction of the idea. Thinking about why we feel inclined to share or post about a movement is the first step to becoming an activist on your own terms; being surrounded by similar discussions is a great entrance into critical thought, but using it as the sole reason for your involvement is unlikely to foster true passion.

We find ourselves in an unprecedented era of change, in which activists must choose between protecting their health in a global pandemic and joining protests against systemic racism. ‘If not now, then when?’ has become an all too familiar mantra throughout history, but it’s particularly relevant as of late. If you choose to attend protests, we implore you to be wary of social distancing and do your best to avoid prolonging this virus; this choice arguably holds more gravity than past demonstrations, and we hope that you can understand both sides regardless of your own decision.

What can we do from home without acting performatively? It can be hard to feel involved when you’re not out in the crowds, but there are plenty of ways to keep yourself safe while making meaningful contributions to any movement. Due to recent events, we will be focusing mainly on Black Lives Matter, but these tips apply to immigration activism and other social justice issues that you can and should participate in.

Sign petitions: By showing your support for a specific cause outlined in a petition, you can help bring it to the attention of policymakers and spark conversations about achieving that change. It’s probably the quickest way to make an impact and costs you nothing. Here’s a list of petitions that still need signatures.

Donate: Any amount helps! Times are tough and many of us are young, but sparing even a couple dollars can make a difference. Here are some organizations you can contribute to.

Learn: By educating yourself about black history, movements, and concepts, you’ll be well equipped to teach others and begin working within your community. Here’s a large directory of media you might find helpful.

Support black owned businesses: Rather than spending money on hypocritical corporations (whose products are often subpar anyways), buy from a black-owned business! This is a great way to provide support during a difficult time for black people everywhere, especially if you’ve been meaning to go shopping anyways.

Advocate for the black community: Existing in a country founded on racism under a system that facilitates violence is scary and exhausting. Students at UCSD, for example, are asking their administrations to consider this hardship on black students as they are expected to take finals. You can support your community and fellow students by writing to administration and asking for their consideration; you can also pressure your administration to make donations, cut ties to local police, or revise their campus police policy. If you’re not a student, call policymakers and advocate for the prosecution of police officers that got away with murder, or for a legal response to police brutality. Above all, do not allow those around you to get away with casual racism or making light of this situation. Stand up for the black community, defend them, and don’t be a bystander.

The Youth for Border Aid team continues to commend our peers and fellow youth. As we keep educating ourselves and working to become better activists, our battle for the rights of the marginalized will only grow stronger. Keep fighting!

Edited by Bella Perreira