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Second Take: Performative activism fails to prompt meaningful long-term systemic change

(Andrea Grigsby/Daily Bruin)

By Olivia Mazzucato

June 10, 2020 6:33 p.m.

Activism isn’t about perfection or performance – it’s about education and endurance.

Following the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, supporters and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racial injustice. The central issues are not new – they are the foundation upon which this country was built, and the realities Black Americans have lived with for centuries.

The underpinnings of systemic racism has been perpetuated through structures including modern policing, mass incarceration and disenfranchisement. As these protests sweep across the country – and the world – they’ve been met with an outpouring of activism as many white and non-Black people of color are confronting the realities of racism that they’ve ignored or minimized.

For those new to advocacy, it may be easy to slip into performative activism – activism rooted in optics, perception and projecting an image of support – but such half measures are not enough. Empty words and photos of black boxes and borders on Facebook profile pictures are not enough. Silence is not an option and neither is an empty display of pseudo-solidarity. In order to move toward lasting justice and meaningful systemic changes, activism must be more than performative.

[Related: Editorial: UCLA’s deafening silence on Black Lives Matter movement sanctions complicity, hurts Bruins]

Activism is fundamentally multifaceted, particularly in a global pandemic – those unable to join physical protests can still take worthwhile action. There are multiple avenues for activism, including utilizing social media visibility to call for action, donating, fundraising, signing petitions, contacting lawmakers and politicians to enact legal change, having difficult conversations with loved ones and educating yourself. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to activism – exemplified best by K-pop fans who flooded police surveillance apps and racist hashtags with fancams of their favorite artists.

Many methods of activism have been centered on social media, which can be a massively democratizing force when used as a tool for advocacy. Social media has been used to disseminate vital information about the protests that is often left out of mainstream media, as well as educational resources and links to fundraising efforts. However, social media can also be a safety blanket – a way for people to do the bare minimum in a highly visible way that assuages their feeling of guilt, making them look like they’re on the right side of history without taking any concrete actions.

The infamous black box on #BlackoutTuesday perfectly highlights the dynamics of performative activism and offers a framework for discussion. The origins of the hashtag began with Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, two Black women in the music industry who started an Instagram account and hashtag using the words #TheShowMustBePaused. The original intent was to propose a blackout for the music industry specifically, urging people in the industry to “pause” promotion and business as usual to refocus and reflect on actions to support the protests and the Black community.

From there, the idea of a blackout Tuesday took on a life of its own and became a trend – posting black squares and logging out of social media. This ultimately flooded and replaced the vital information shared with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

Though the idea began with constructive aims, the distilled version that went viral quickly became an empty gesture. The numbers tell a disheartening story, even if it’s difficult to quantify activism. While the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag has 28 million posts on Instagram, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on the same platform has only 21 million posts, and none of the petitions calling for justice have anywhere near that number of signatures.

That’s not to say that people who posted a black box are bad people, or even bad activists. Instead, it demonstrates the limits of social media activism – the visibility that makes it a powerful tool also lends itself to performative virtue and compassion. These black boxes fall short in creating lasting change or understanding, rather demonstrating the necessity that social media activism be accompanied by action.

[Related: An effective ally must keep their ears open, remember to be silent is to condone]

Celebrities and corporations were also quick to jump onto the black box bandwagon, and have worked to leverage their social media platforms for the cause with varying levels of success. Some were able to make meaningful statements, like Ben & Jerry’s full-throated call to dismantle white supremacy that put the watered-down language of other corporate statements to shame.

Other individuals and companies weren’t quite as successful – it’s difficult to take the NFL’s statement of solidarity seriously given the fact that they failed to mention Colin Kaepernick, who was effectively silenced and barred from the league for his peaceful protest as he knelt during the national anthem almost four years ago. On the public stage afforded to celebrities and corporations, efforts at activism must be substantive, and cognizant of their own history and complacency on the issues.

No matter how good the intention, the Washington Redskins are not in a position to comment on racism in America.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know whose activism is performative or authentic in the moment. The true test will come in the months and years that follow, as people demonstrate whether the phrase “Black lives matter” is one of their core beliefs or whether it was just a trending hashtag and a post to be shared in the moment, only to be archived or deleted when the pressure lifts.

But worrying about how activism will be perceived in the moment is ineffective and unsustainable. It unnecessarily centers the individual rather than the cause and takes up valuable space in the conversation. Some people will get things wrong, but the aim is not to be “right” – it’s about having the humility to learn, grow and hold yourself accountable. Racist ideology is something deeply ingrained in the fabric of our culture, and the process of decolonizing our society is a constant process of active anti-racism.

Education may feel uncomfortable at times, but the discomfort is necessary.

Activism is a process of individual growth and constant conversation – a commitment to a lifetime of action and attention that cannot stop until justice and equality are achieved.

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Olivia Mazzucato
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