The Blurred Lines of Performative Activism

by Aden Tom, Opinions writer
graphic by Lynn Kim

In early June almost two years ago, social media was filled with black squares under the #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackoutTuesday hashtags as the world protested police brutality. While the goal of Blackout Tuesday was to use social media to spread awareness about racism around the country, varying intentions have diluted the effectiveness of this method of advocacy.

Around Blackout Tuesday, the term “performative activism,” the act of supporting a cause to receive social acceptance or to seem righteous, started gaining popularity. According to Google Trends, the term peaked in searches during the weeks prior and during Blackout Tuesday. Skeptics called the Blackout performative, as it drew many people to post black squares just to follow a trend, without any true regard for the meaning behind the action. 

An example of this involves a famous TikToker, Charli D’Amelio. Around the same time as Blackout Tuesday, D’Amelio began using her platform to promote Black Lives Matter. She posted videos and changed her profile picture to a black screen. But her traces of activism quickly disappeared. D’Amelio’s content transitioned from promoting Black Lives Matter back to dancing videos, and she changed her profile picture when the BLM movement became less popular.

Personally, I was reluctant to post during Blackout Tuesday. Leading up to the blackout, I constantly questioned my reason for participating. Was it because I genuinely cared about the issue, or was I seeking approval from others? The unnecessary pressure of posting greatly outweighed its actual impact, defeating the entire purpose of the blackout. 

Although many people’s contributions to Blackout Tuesday might have been appreciated, they often made minimal efforts to address the issue beyond the single post. This facade of advocacy is ultimately counterproductive: performative activism, while a convenient and easy way to show support, is just a mindless sharing of posts which overshadows the work of genuine advocacy.

I have noticed that performative activism comes to a forefront during various heritage and identity months, such as Black History Month and LGBTQ+ Pride Month. During the first few days, companies roll out their supportive banners and comments of solidarity, but as the month comes to an end, their passion quickly dwindles and the buzz of awareness practically disappears. 

It’s almost like those issues are only present during their respective months. I often wonder where all the enthusiasm for activism goes and why it is incited and dissipated so quickly.

I believe that this is partly due to gaining acceptance or wanting to fit in. Some people want to give off an impression of being supportive. While doing something as simple as reposting a list of facts is an easy way to show allyship for a cause, it’s like opening a door for someone but leaving before they get to the door. The door gets shut in their face, and they have to open it themselves. 

In doing so, performative activism is an excuse to follow the crowd, as the activism is doing the bare minimum. The desire to fit in was evident during South’s walkout against sexual harassment, as many chose to wear white shirts. Some participants misunderstood or were unaware of the intentions of wearing a white shirt. This confusion only perpetuates the issue since nothing is being done to address the problem. 

Back to Blackout Tuesday: I struggled to accept my decision to not participate. A feeling of guilt began to build up for not publicly showing my support of efforts against police brutality. I felt like a horrible person when, in reality, I did nothing wrong. In fact, the entire time I was criticizing myself, I could’ve been more productive in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. 

While I wasn’t able to go to any in-person events due to the pandemic, I still donated to reputable charities and fundraisers. Taking steps to advocate, even if they were small steps was, for me, the most effective form of activism. The continuation of small steps of advocacy directly addresses an issue and pushes society in the right direction of fixing it.