Do You Want to Promote Actual Positive Change? Start by Stopping Performative Activism

Illustration by Baz Pugmire, Michigan State University

A couple of weeks ago, the Black Lives Matter protests were front and center on social media and the news, but now, since many people don’t find the protests as “trendy” as they once were, the social media presence has died out. But the momentum of these protests still continues in numerous cities nationally, although it may not be captured on social media and news outlets.

And we’ve all seen the black screens for the Black Lives Matter Movement posted all over Instagram and other social media sites a couple of weeks ago. Albeit the intentions of the people who’ve posted these black screens may be innocuous, they’re a part of a greater issue– performative activism. Social media is an incredibly valuable source of information and is impactful but performative activism makes it a lot less efficient. By posting black screens without links to resources, the people posting them are essentially blocking out important resources that other people could have been able to access otherwise. Again, this may be purely inadvertent, but in doing so they’re not promoting actual positive change. 

Performative activism arises from attempts to follow the current trends rather than genuine intentions to promote positive change through a belief in the causes people are fighting for. It’s one thing to show solidarity for BLM by posting and providing links to resources like petitions, places to donate, and information, but if you’re simply posting a black screen with an emoji or participating in Instagram story chains or going to a protest for a photo op, ask yourself– is this actually helping the cause or do I simply want to go with the trends? 

If it is the latter, educating yourself is the first step to overcoming performative activism. It’s pertinent to remember that it is not the job of Black folx to educate us. We have the resources and capabilities to do so ourselves because of our privilege. This goes for not just people participating in performative activism but also to allies. As allies, we have to continuously educate ourselves as well. Acknowledging your privilege is absolutely essential too. The fact that you’re able to just tune in and out of these protests for marginalized lives is incredibly privileged. 

In addition to educating ourselves, we have to speak out. Speak out on social media by not just using an emoji or hashtag but rather by providing links or information shining a light on the discrepancies that Black folx face in this country. Have those uncomfortable conversations with friends and family members.   

Also, unfortunately, performative activism isn’t just applicable to people but also to institutions. Universities releasing statements in solidarity with the BLM but failing to actually make the voices of Black students heard or producing changes to make a just and equitable environment for Black folx. Similarly, fashion companies who’ve taken advantage of the moment to put out BLM clothing. There are some fashion companies who’ve donated some profits to BLM funds but many have not. Being aware of these institutions and keeping them accountable is also incredibly important as activists and allies. 

Use your platforms and privileges to shine light on the unjust treatment of Black people but make sure to do so with genuine and helpful intentions. We have to fight together against police brutality and performative activism has no place in this fight. 

Here are some resources to educate ourselves with:

This article provides great access to resources: https://generalintelligences.org/2020/06/02/avoiding-performative-activism-how-to-support-and-educate-yourself-blacklivesmatter/

A reading list:

https://www.booktable.net/black-lives-matter-reading-list

This carrd is a good starting point:

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/#educate

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