Performative activism (n) : a pejorative term referring to activism done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause

Baz Pugmire, Michigan State University

On June 2, dubbed Blackout Tuesday by social media, 28 million people posted a black square on Instagram in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but only 13 million had signed the petition to arrest the cops that killed George Floyd. See the issue? 

Anyone can post a picture of Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery, but if you’re not signing petitions, educating yourself, and having tough conversations with family and friends, no real change will happen. If your commitment to a movement is shallow, the results will be just that: shallow. 

As the weeks went by, my Instagram feed was slowly filled with pictures of vacations, friends and food. Black profile pictures were gradually changed back to smiling selfies. Some even went as far as to delete the black squares because it didn’t match their aesthetic. The few genuine allies still posting about Black Lives Matter were being drowned out by those simply tired of the inconvenience and ready for things to go back to “normal”. As if fighting racial injustice and 400 years of oppression was a 2-week problem already solved. As if the lasting wounds from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow could be erased as easily as an Instagram post. And just like that, a movement was minimized to a moment.

I’ll admit, it was encouraging and uplifting to see so many non-Black people embracing the Black Lives Matter movement. When just a few years ago, even the most liberal people claimed “all lives matter” in response, and there was no mainstream outcry for the murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many more. However, it made me wonder how genuine all the posts were. 

The peak and subsequent steady decline of Black Lives Matter posts were eerily familiar. At one point, even mimicking the orange drawing challenge where a person writes #blacklivesmatter and tags 5 others to repost and do the same. Was this what Black Lives Matter represented to my white peers? A trend? An aesthetic? A challenge? Or did they just feel obligated to post in fear of being the odd one out?

Generation Z prides itself on being socially progressive through nationwide movements: demanding stricter gun control, climate change reform and LGBTQ+ rights. The passion for environmental and animal rights causes felt authentic and energetic. Yet, the Black Lives Matter advocacy seemed odd because so many white people didn’t understand systemic racism or just how severe police brutality was until now. In the middle of a global pandemic, is going to a Black Lives Matter protest just an excuse to get out of the house for some white people?

People have a tendency to create elaborate facades by projecting unrealistic lifestyles on social media. So, it makes sense they want to present themselves as racial justice advocates when everyone else is too. But, true activism starts with yourself. 

What are you doing when no one’s watching? What are you doing when you put down your phone? Are you reading White Fragility, So You Want To Talk About Race and The New Jim Crow? Watching 13th, When They See Us and Seven Seconds? Listening to 1619, Code Switch and Pod Save The People? 

When your uncle says all lives matter, do you sit idly by? When your non-Black friend says the n-word, do you ignore them? Declaring you’re not racist is not enough. If you’re not practicing anti-racism in your daily life, you’re contributing to the problem. When you choose to only participate in the effortless parts of activism that make only you look better, you are making a mockery of a struggle Black people have endured for centuries. You’re not standing in solidarity with your Black brothers and sisters, you’re following a trend.

I’m not saying posting a black square is wrong, or that just because you started posting non-Black Lives Matter related content so soon you’re a bad person. What I am doing is questioning how sincere your commitment to the cause is when you just got involved in a civil rights battle that has been fought for generations. How can you enter and exit so quickly without pausing to take it all in? Without realizing the gravity of the situation we’re in?   

I have no way of knowing if you’re actually doing the work on your own time, but I do know it’s not easy and most people like to take shortcuts. Shortcuts that save face and protect them from being deemed “racist”. Shortcuts that make white and non-Black people feel less uncomfortable about their privilege and benefits in an inherently anti-Black system.

As a young Black person in America, I try. I keep raising awareness because I don’t have the luxury of just thinking it’s sad when I see police brutality on the news. I think, is my dad next? My brother? Staying silent is not an option for me just because it’s no longer deemed cool to talk about Black Lives Matter.

According to Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape, the percentage of white people who acknowledged racism and police brutality rose in May then began to revert back to previous levels in June. The sudden outpour of white support for Black Lives Matter, as many Black people like myself feared, was not sustainable. It had become just a trend.