The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many other Black Americans reignited momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Along with the resurfacing of the movement came an outpouring of support across many communities. This support took the form of television advertisements, dedicated pages on corporate websites, financial contributions to organizations and black squares on Instagram.
Many participated in these acts of social change. Celebrities and corporations who had never before made efforts toward social justice were now vocal on the topic.
In a society where Instagram posts are credited for ending inequality, I can only assume that much of this support was performative activism.
As explained in a Voxarticle, performative activism is defined as activism practiced to gain positive engagement or avoid backlash. These acts are performed for personal gain rather than actual concern for the issue at hand.
Days after the killing of George Floyd, an Instagram event labeled Blackout Tuesday was scheduled, in which users paused their typical posts and instead posted black squares to drive social media’s attention to the social justice movement taking place.
According to Vox, Blackout Tuesday was created by Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, two Black females in the music industry. The movement was created with good intentions, but soon became an easy out for people to appear socially aware without actually having to fight for change or take physical action.
One major problem with Blackout Tuesday was that most people were tagging the blank black squares with the Black Lives Matter hashtag. This pushed these black square posts to the top of the list of search results. A click on the hashtag no longer revealed informative posts on how to actually contribute to social change. Instead, these educational posts were hidden beneath millions of blank posts containing little useful information other than the hashtag itself. Vital information was buried and lost.
This is one of many examples detailing how performative activism does more harm than good. Instagram users put no thought into these actions and what would happen if they flooded the hashtag. They only cared to be recognized as social justice heroes.
Corporations are also common culprits of performative activism.
In June 2020, Target CEO Brian Cornell wrote an open letter announcing that the company would commit $10 million for the advancement of social justice.
“Target stands with Black families, communities and team members,” Cornell wrote. “As we face an inflection point in Minneapolis and across the country, we’re listening to our team, guests and communities, committed to using our size, scale and resources to help heal and create lasting change.”
At first glance, this commitment seemed like an amazing effort from a socially conscious corporation. Unfortunately, Cornell’s letter was a very strategic public relations move.
According to an article from The Guardian, Target and many other large corporations have been secretly funding police departments for years. This is harmful and contradicts Target’s statement on racially motivated social injustice.
As revealed in the article, the Public Accountability Initiative uncovered Target’s donations to private police foundations. Donors are able to have some input on how their donations are spent.
Corporations, through their financial contributions, should not have any control over public safety. The idea that Target or any other business could possibly have input on how police enforce laws is unethical and concerning.
Target’s $10 million dollar promise is just performative activism at the corporate level.
Good activism begins with action. You do not have to attend every social justice protest to practice genuine activism. You do not have to dedicate all social media accounts to the Black Lives Matter movement. Genuine activism is achieved when you integrate it into your life.
Analyze your thought process. Look at how you treat the communities you are supposedly fighting for. Compare your actions with your words. We cannot allow activism to be reduced to a trend during a time when social change is so crucial.