On June 2, millions of people turned to Instagram for the social media initiative Blackout Tuesday to post an image of a black square as a symbol of support and solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. As heartfelt as the message was, the flood of black squares crowded out vital and resourceful information, such as protest locations and times and donation links. Because of this, many activist voices were drowned out.
Blackout Tuesday was a clear-cut example of performative activism — the superficial and inauthentic act of supporting a movement because of its “trendiness” and ability to gain clout.
If racism could be defeated by posting millions of black squares to Instagram, the United States would be the most equitable country in the world. That’s the exact problem with this type of fake allyship; it’s useless. Performative activism is often surface level, requires little to no effort and does nothing to help advance a movement or a cause.
Don’t get me wrong, sharing resources related to Black Lives Matter and anti-racism on social media is important and informative, but activism cannot stop there. This is lifelong work of donating, signing petitions, voting, protesting, emailing legislators and calling out racist comments said by the people closest to you.
It’s too easy to fall into a “slacktivist” mindset of posting one black square to your Instagram with three red heart emojis and never addressing the cause again. I know because I’ve been that person before. It takes conscious effort to be an activist, and for a lot of white people it means getting uncomfortable. It means acknowledging we have contributed to a racist society, as well as putting in the effort to help dismantle it.
Even worse is the lackluster effort by corporations who have used their platforms to address racism in completely disappointing ways. Starbucks, a multinational corporation with over 18 million Instagram followers, made a statement on social media expressing their support for the black community, and then afterward, prohibited their employees from wearing Black Lives Matter apparel. After receiving backlash from the public, Starbucks reversed their decision and announced they would be making their own Black Lives Matter shirts for employees to wear. It is fool's gold efforts like this that look like justice on the outside but are disingenuous and futile when taking a closer look. Starbucks is like any corporation that puts on a show for profit; it will lip sync anti-racism efforts to the public for the sole purpose of maintaining its image. In this case, designing t-shirts is the best Starbucks can do. Luckily, everyday people don’t have to follow in the footsteps of corporations.
Many of us have engaged in self-serving, performative behaviors on social media (myself included) for a very long time, and seriously, it is okay we admit that. More importantly, being a “slacktivist” is one of the first steps to being a real activist. Long term and non-optical allyship can take many forms: signing up for recurring donations through a subscription, transitioning the conversation away from yourself and onto the experiences of black people and always calling out racism when you see it.
I’ve recently started compiling a document of resources which include phone numbers to legislators’ offices, articles about anti-racism, links to charities which uplift black communities and more. Most importantly, these are all things I can go back to even after the movement stops “trending” on social media. Making a document like this is an easy way to keep up with your activism and, better yet, there’s very few excuses to not do it.
It might feel necessary to prove your devotion to a cause by posting a picture of yourself at a protest on Instagram, or making a long, detailed post about how “terrible” and “sad” racism is, but no one is really asking for this.
We are all guilty of being performative to some degree, and in knowing this, we can call ourselves out when our “wokeness” isn’t really all that woke. Most importantly, we can start being real activists.