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Performative allyship defeats purpose of social activism

By Keirah Chen and Michelle Qiao Oct. 7, 2020

Rachel Kim Art

Instagram feeds were flooded with black squares on June 2 to express solidarity with victims of police brutality. Captioned #BlackOutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter, these posts were intended to illuminate structural racism, an issue that has garnered international recognition after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Deon Kay and George Floyd. In a year of cultural reckoning for racial justice, politicians like Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez have lended their voices to the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for immediate reforms of the police. Others have organized large protests to demand justice for the victims of racist policies.

Those who support the movements but were not able to protest in person have expressed solidarity through social media platforms. Two Black women in the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyeman, originally started the Blackout Tuesday initiative to bring attention to the music industry’s history of unjustly profiting off Black artists. As record labels and artists began to post with the hashtag, it quickly gained traction. Individuals and influencers alike pledged to take a day off from self-promotion and post a black square expressing commitment in using privilege to combat racial injustice.

However, the initiative was criticized to be performative and counterproductive. Activists were quick to lambaste the movement, explaining that if people genuinely wanted to support the Black Lives Matter movement, they were obligated to instead attend protests, make donations and share educational content. Critics called for posts with the hashtag to be deleted. They swiftly informed allies of performative allyship’s harmful effect: by overwhelming and burying posts from activists that informed users on ways to donate and protest, Blackout Tuesday made valuable information harder to access.

“I appreciate the sentiment of Blackout Tuesday. However, the majority of participants posted without taking serious measures to educate themselves or provide tangible support to the Black Lives Matter movement. If people take action in all aspects of their life to fight for this movement, initiatives like Blackout Tuesday could be helpful additions of solidarity,” Senior Ranjana Raghavan said.

Although their messages were largely seen to be genuine, critics rebuked the public for performative activism—in particular, virtue signaling, or the practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to improve one's reputation rather than contributing to the cause itself. In this way, people exploit serious movements without understanding the context or gravity of the motivations behind the movement or its intended goals.

In addition to Blackout Tuesday, performative activism has continued to proliferate on social media following public outrage at the death of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician who was shot and killed in her sleep by Louisville Metro police officers serving a no-knock search warrant. Some social media users have used her story in captions to establish political correctness, while others have made her into a meme. Over the past months, Instagram users have also participated in story chains and quickly shared posts, often without fact-checking the legitimacy of the information they share.

“People should only stand up for what they genuinely believe in. If someone is joining a cause only because people around them are part of it, they should be educating themselves first before joining,” Sophomore Vanessa Qu said.

Slacktivism, a term coined by social scientist Henrik Serup Christensen, refers to easily performed and low impact actions. Instead of catapulting the movement forward through protests, donations and educated content, slacktivism gives participants a sense of personal fulfillment through virtue-signaling with performative activism on social media. If, instead, all Blackout Tuesday participants had signed the petition calling for justice for George Floyd, the petition would have over 10 million more signatures.

For users eager to paint themselves in a positive light, virtue-signaling serves as a shortcut to demonstrate moral correctness on social media. However, in addition to using social media as a tool, effective activism involves protesting, educating, supporting local organizations and engaging elected officials. Although performative activism helps spread awareness, it often does not contribute to significant and sustainable solutions.


About the Contributors

Keirah Chen

Staff Writer

Keirah Chen is a sophomore at Leland high school and is a staff writer. She likes going places with friends and watching horror movies.

Michelle Qiao

Staff Writer

Michelle Qiao is a sophomore at Leland High School and a staff writer. She loves to play volleyball and spends her free time reading, drinking coffee and watching Pixar movies.

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