Jessica Carvalho explores the silent growth of performative activism amidst people and brands alike, and its detrimental impact on the fight for change.
A year has passed since we all witnessed a police officer kneel on the neck of a man. The clip, short in all forms but its impact, sparked worldwide outrage and shone a light on the desperate change that needs to happen. The murder of George Floyd was a tipping point for race relations in the United States, spilling to every other nation in a matter of days and raising awareness to the second pandemic we are all living through: police brutality.
Protests ensued in the wake of the tragedy, and quickly, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was at the forefront of social commentary. Voices chanted tirelessly for a world that would simply let us breathe. Given the current and then state of the world, support for the grieving community of Minneapolis poured in physically, and digitally, too – something that was bound to occur in a society that was slowed to a halt and confined to their homes. Greatness came from the flood of activist media, too, all the way from the screens to the streets – but it was a double-edged sword. The demand for change was a catalyst to its very own inhibition, giving rise to a tidal wave of performative activism. The phrase, seemingly innocent in appearance, is a phenomenon riding on the coattails of genuine ally ship to BLM and other vital movements, referring to shallow activism hoping to capitalise for clout rather than showing authentic support. The toughest part of performative activism? One of your friends has probably already done it.
The 2nd of June 2020 was a culmination of this detrimental activism, Instagram being the platform of choice for a multitude of vague, honestly dystopian, black squares. #BlackOutTuesday began as an inoffensive initiative to raise awareness to the BLM movement and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, with over 28 million squares posted on the social media site. However, it proved harmful to the movement altogether. The influx of caption-less squares (save the very uninformative hashtag) drowned out vital posts raising awareness, promoting petitions and donation points – all of which actually contribute to the progression of the BLM movement towards lasting change. The infuriation only increases with the introduction of statistics; the hashtag contained almost 15 million more posts than the signatures in the Justice for George Floyd petition at the time.It is initially hard to judge anyone who took part in the initiative – its intentions were somewhat positive, but looking at the grand scheme of things gets you halfway there. When the most fervent response to a Black man being murdered by police on video is a black square with a three-word hashtag -whilst there are a multitude of critical conversations to have, fights to fight, and cages to rattle – the impact of performative ally ship is truly seen.
It leaves you wondering, too, how the most humane response – the only response some people can muster to someone losing their life before their eyes – is a black square. Sure, theintention was there, and deeperresearch into the trend would haveprovided you with some form ofinformation, but that was the problem:it was seen as just a trend. A simple post to show that one acknowledges and stands for the right thing (genuinely or not), and they can go about their day. But George Floyd cannot go about his day. Breonna Taylor can’t shut her phone off and rest in her own home. Ahmaud Arbery can’t close the appand go for a run.
The most common response I have received when the topic of #BlackOutTuesday comes up within my social circles is its potential for detachability and forgettability, two factors that do no favours for such a delicate movement. But, in someone’s eyes it gets the job done, and any guilt they may have been brought to feel by the hard-hitting truth is curbed; and technically, there isn’t anything inherently political about the post. However, there is no way to tiptoe around politics with race relations as they have been so intertwined throughout history, and to be able to bask in the glory of activism without putting in any effort is a privilege.
To be able to avoid politics – when they impact almost every aspect of our lives– is a privilege. As a Black woman, performative activism has also made it difficult to weed out those who sincerely care about these causes, and those who would rather pretend to care and not beheld accountable, rather than simply educating themselves.
Interestingly, brands tend to mirror human behaviour, with an array of black squares also bleeding into the business sector alongside somewhat believable captions stating the need for change. Some were true to their word; Nike shone a light on the strife of the States at the time and introduced Black people to spaces they’d never been included in. But most fell short on their promise, the black squares nothing but a momentary blip in their Instagram feeds a year on (if they’re still there).
Consumerism becomes trickier with politics, as it takes some digging to figure out which brands are worth it and the ones that are not, and with there birth of ‘90s and Y2K fashion – both of which are heavily influenced by Black culture and trends of the time –there is an added sting to performative activism, as these brands do care just enough to appropriate our culture, but not for our lives.
The roadmap away from performative activism isn’t as blatant as it may look; partaking in peaceful protests is great, and just as important, but educating oneself is the best way forward. Readthe tough stories and accounts, have thedifficult conversations and step awayfrom the corporations that simply donot care. Ultimately, don’t forget that the simplest and most effective form of ally ship is lending an ear to Black voices and being there to support us when things get overwhelming. So, get in -let’s go and try to change the world.
You can find more of Jessica’s work on her Instagram page @whatjesstypes