A few days ago I saw streets lined with protesters in my small town. They held signs that listed the names of people who had been murdered by the police or that called for changes to policing and American society.
It was like any other protest that’s been happening in big cities and across the nation. It was a shining example of American democracy.
But I knew that it was those same people who would go back to their 95% white school, in their 99% white town and probably not think about Black lives mattering until the next video causes it to trend and they feel compelled to post another infographic or spend another hour in front of Panera with glittery signs.
They’ll go back to using the n-word carelessly, complaining about affirmative action, refusing to recognize their white privilege and feeling comfortable and unbothered once again.
And it’s not just on the streets; my friend’s Instagram post the other day read, “Change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re just getting started.”
But, are we really just getting started?
Police brutality, violence against black people and institutional racism existed 400 years before my friend Amanda saw a video of George Floyd. The people who have spent their entire lives, even lost their lives fighting against these things are certainly not just getting started now.
When someone posts #BlackLivesMatter or a touching video of a policeman kneeling with protesters on her Snapchat story or a black square on Instagram it doesn’t do anything for the movement. No one should be off the hook because they followed a trend and posted a hashtag. Certainly not if they themselves are a product of white supremacy.
That’s called performative activism. And although the Black Lives Matter movement has put this type of activism on the main stage, it’s been happening for a while.
The CEO of Apple stood strong against bakeries that refused to serve gay couples wedding cakes. On Twitter, in 2019, Jeff Bezos asked other companies to raise their minimum wages and in response, the CEO of Walmart, Dan Bartlett, asked “How about paying your taxes?” Two of the richest people in the United States got into a public feud on Twitter about who was a better advocate for working people.
We both know that neither of them is a real advocate. It is all a performance.
NY Times contributor Ross Douthat explains that their activism exists, “to justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers so that those same power brokers will leave them alone in realms that matter more to the corporate bottom line.”
And isn’t that exactly what we do?
When Apple denounces a few restaurants in Indiana that don’t want to make cakes for gay people we praise them and ignore their ties to countries where it is a crime to be gay. When Jeff Bezos and Dan Bartlett uplift their workers’ wage increases or all the federal taxes they’ve paid, when any of these powerful companies speak out, we willfully ignore the CEO to worker pay ratio that is 278:1, growing every day.
Performative activism gives powerful people a pass. It allows people to point the finger outward so that they don’t have to get it pointed at them or worse point their own finger at themselves. Because then they may actually have to change for the betterment of society.
It is not different from that moment where Trump stood in front of a church with a bible in his hand after giving an order to teargas the innocent people in a nearby park. It is when we allow people, including ourselves, to put on a show instead of doing real work.
Instead of just performing as activists, calling other people out, posting infographics and tweets, we need to be activists and that starts with educating ourselves. It means taking the time to listen to what people of color go through and being allies of the movement every day. And we shouldn’t just fight against racism or homophobia or xenophobia in public.
We should fight it in private, with our families, with our friends and in our predominately white school districts. We should make it embarrassing to be a bigot everywhere, even in private, instead of just letting it slide so that things are comfortable and then posting a hashtag to try to prove that you’re one of the good ones.
We can not just blame the cops that brutally murdered innocent people. We also have to recognize the privilege that has allowed so many of us to sit out of the movement until now.
“We are in a state of emergency. Black people are in a state of national emergency,” Tamika Mallory said to the Oklahoma Eagle.
This is why we all need to be in the streets, putting our money into organizations that actually support the people and looking inwards to how we contributed and contribute to the racist society we live in either through our own actions or our silence.
Nobody wants to see a performance. Because what we want is to change.