Performative activism: How to become a better ally
Bridie Adams speaks about the potential dangers of social media activism and offers advice on how to avoid being labelled a superficial ally
You may have heard the term “performative activism”. If you haven’t, it can be defined as a form of activism which serves primarily to create an illusion of support rather than actively making changes and steps to achieve the goals of a movement. It is superficial activism. “Performative wokeness” and “performative allyship” are linked to the notion of performative activism, as they all refer to surface-level, generally inadequate, support of a movement, which often takes place on social media.
Something that is both positive and negative about social media is that it promotes activism. The relationship between social media platforms and activism when it comes to movements like Black Lives Matter is complex and multi-faceted. It has been argued that social media takes the passion and authenticity away from activism. Activism should extend beyond posts on social media and into ‘real life’. Performative activism can be transformed into genuine activism and, in turn, performative allyship can be transformed into genuine allyship by transferring the knowledge we’ve gained online into our day-to-day lives. It’s important to have motives for supporting a movement besides just trying to look woke to your followers and friends.
Everything on social media is performative – everything online is posed and perfected, especially on Instagram. Apps like Facetune can have our selfies looking their absolute best, there are millions of tricks to make yourself and your photos look exactly the way you want them, and nearly everyone tries to present themselves in a flawless or ‘airbrushed’ light. This is no different when it comes to speaking out online about issues like racism and homophobia. Many people want to show that they’re doing and thinking the ‘right’ things, so will try to demonstrate this by sharing posts and taking part in challenges like blackout Tuesday.
However, performative activism is not entirely lacking in substance. It is accessible in a way that some activism may not be. It spreads very quickly, and it does raise awareness. As long as activism is not simply limited to social media and does take place ‘in real life’ as well, sometimes performative activism can help to shed light on issues on a large scale.
A lot of people engage in performative activism only to gain popularity online as opposed to for actual moral reasons. Instead of just retweeting a white celebrity’s tweet about BLM, try to listen to Black voices – read more books by Black authors and support more Black owned businesses, for example. By making actual changes in your life, you can take your activism a step further than simply being performative. Use what you see on social media to start conversations, to challenge ideas that might be problematic to a movement. A lot of people have been sharing resources about how to challenge racist comments – if you have seen or shared a post like this, make sure you apply it in your everyday life as well as sharing it with your friends online.
Performative activism raises the question: are people’s mindsets actually changing or are they just following a trend?
In short, it’s important to make sure that your activism is not fleeting or based around clout. If it’s performative to some extent, that’s okay, as long as you’re making more real changes as well as publicising BLM on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms. Contribute to resolving important issues in a more authentic way than sharing an illustration of George Floyd surrounded by flowers on your Instagram story. Performative activism raises the question: are people’s mindsets actually changing or are they just following a trend?
Even if you think you’re speaking out, you need to contribute to movements like BLM in everyday life as well as online. Show true solidarity. Be empathetic and passionate. Don’t see it as a trend or a social media challenge. Black lives always matter and are always relevant, even if your Instagram feed isn’t full of black squares anymore.