We have seen the black squares. The hashtags. The reposts. Anyone alive this past summer to witness the extraordinary rise of the BLM movement has seen “performative activism” in action. It’s a pejorative term, expressing disapproval for social activism done solely to increase “clout” or social capital. It is surface level, minimal-effort, and ineffective. In other words, performative activism is done when we try to be informed and knowledgeable on the internet, while not putting in the long-term work it takes to be better allies.
In the summer of 2020, a “black out” was started on social media. It was meant to highlight the issues at hand. Instead, thousands upon thousands of black squares were posted to Instagram and Facebook. Many more jumped on the bandwagon. Perhaps they felt that without posting a black square, they were failing to support Black Lives Matter at all. They wanted to show support. The “black out” lost its initial purpose, and instead clogged up social media feeds, making it hard to find the more relevant and important information shared among protesters, activists, and organizers.
A black square, perhaps now the best example of performative activism, seems powerful on its surface. The void-like emptiness and silence can seem to hold considerable weight. It’s simple. Punchy. Posting one takes so little effort, that even those who quietly turned a blind eye to the BLM movement and its calls for justice can participate.
As the trend spread like wildfire, the “blackout”’s message became increasingly weaker, losing its true meaning. Does one black square among millions really spread awareness? What is it educating people on? What tangible effect does it have?
The Black Lives Matter movement this past year is unique for many reasons, a primary one being that it had a massive social media presence. Social media is an extremely valuable tool in spreading awareness and demanding progress or justice. However, as activism becomes easier with the use of online platforms, performative activism grows more affluent. Particularly when it comes to racial issues, social media risks the weakening of important political and social messages.
Does a black square, without serious reflection on one’s own biases and understandings about race, mean anything at all? Does sharing a violent, traumatic “trauma-porn” video, without thinking about how fatiguing and triggering it can be for some, actually convey concern and compassion? Or is it turning Black pain and suffering into a spectacle? Is ranting about our own, non-Black experiences online, supporting the movement? Or is it falsely, wrongly, centering the narrative around ourselves?
There are ways to avoid performative activism. We can post resources and informative writing pieces, sign and share links to petitions demanding justice, and educate yourself when speaking out. When we stop to think about how our rapid reposting and online actions actually affect others, we grow more self aware in our activism. Consequently, we become more informed. We begin to approach social justice with a more thoughtful, empathetic lens. We really start to spotlight and listen to the right voices, and use our privilege. It’s also important to remember that allyship and social justice go far beyond our social media activity. Being a good ally is a lifelong effort and journey. It takes dedication and conscious, constant effort to dismantle what our society has told us to believe. It’s the least we can do.