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On the danger of performative activism

Writing by Rachel Flynn. Illustration by Polly Burnay.

It’s now been 107 days since the murder of community worker George Floyd and 177 days since the murder of EMT Breonna Taylor. These days have been filled with a global outpouring of grief and questioning, and many of us, sheltered in our white university bubbles, have faced disbelief at how this could have happened.

The answer: it can’t be boiled down to a singular reason, but rather a multitude of institutional faults created in the service of white supremacy, and more importantly sustained by white people, one way or another, to this day. In the same way, our response cannot be singular. If police brutality exists, mass incarceration exists, structural inequality exists – what does a mere #BlackLivesMatter hashtag do other than partially clear our consciences of the thought we might have ever been racist? 

Many responded to Floyd’s death with outrage, constructed out of pure disbelief. My peers and I questioned: what can we do? A quick Monzo transfer to Minnesota Freedom Fund? A panic re-post about tools for how to be a better ally? The truth is, we were not allies before this event, and we can’t expect to become allies overnight. Yet, this is not to say it is not absolutely essential that we try. 

Surface level activism, or what is often referred to as slacktivism, has been rife in Generation X’s response to the global re-ignition of the Black Lives Matter movement. It has proven itself to be meaningless at best and damaging to critical progress at its worst. While Instagram can be an extremely powerful platform, it often acts as our own personal highlight reel, irreflective of our realities. With this logic, while you may believe to be showing your solidarity or ‘doing your bit’ via a few story reposts or the posting of a black square, there is a dangerous risk that your work now feels complete - you’ve acknowledged the issue and followed the tide of others doing the same, so now what? 

The viral trend of posting a black square to your Instagram is a prime example of where activism is a) performative, and b) deeply problematic. The problem with it was not the intention behind the post, but it’s lack of. What’s more, after hundreds of thousands of people had posted the square, UK Black Lives Matter wrote a statement, which was then vehemently shared, to ask that people stop. It was drowning out important tools and information; protest updates, upcoming events and legal responses to Floyd’s case. It was drowning out the space momentarily carved out for Black voices. And yet, very few chose to listen. Whether intentional or not, the Black community was being ignored and their voice and requests overridden… again. And it comes down to the core of what is wrong with performative activism: posting a black square, or sharing a vague or inaccessible Instagram story, is far easier than addressing the intricacies of how tightly racism is woven into our society and how we are all complicit in it. In the words of Reni Eddo-Lodge, why would white people actively confront a system which has always benefitted them? 

White people, we must do more. We must support people of colour beyond the Instagram trend. Amongst many others, we have the absolute privilege to learn about racism, not experience it. Renee Eddo-Lodge calls for the need for a ‘collective redefinition of what it means to be racist.’ This means to acknowledge why the BAME community was disproportionately affected by COVID-19, why the percentage of POC at Russel Group Universities is astronomically low, why the call to decolonise schools and universities curriculums is considered radical. We need to challenge ourselves, our circumstances and our surroundings. It is our job to recognise these often-invisible biases and our conveniently hidden privileges. It means having uncomfortable realisations and conversations. It means ACTIVELY engaging with black voices and experiences. It means doing the work, no matter how difficult it may be, and doing it again and again. 

Some tools and activists that have helped me:

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