Performative Activism is Useless

Reid Rizk, Staff Writer '21

The idea that we can perpetuate a change through organized protest has been around for decades, but more often than not, the protests that have effected the most change are not the ones that have been the most popular. When pictures of black men being beaten by white police officers (Alabama, March 7, 1965) or a body lying prone at Kent State University (Ohio, May 4, 1970) were distributed in newspapers all over America, they created moments of massive change for the movements that they represented. 

The movement that we find ourselves in now is less of people marching arm in arm but rather a movement of reposted and reshared colorful seven-slide Instagram infographics about one subject or the other. There is a part of protest that is rooted in education, no doubt, but now education is the only thing that happens. This performative activism, supporting a cause by the barest measure, does nothing to continue the fight that thousands have fought for. The implication that reposting an informative post goes anywhere near far enough that some people can do it and check out is ridiculous.

Blackout Tuesday happened June 2, 2020, for people to stand against police brutality. Image courtesy of Nyela Walker.

Organizing, donating, and signing positions are all things that help make meaningful steps towards the success of change. The other more lengthy endeavor is running for office. There are over 500,000 elected officials in the United States. The majority of them work at the local level. Federally there are only 537 elected officials. Every one of those positions puts a person in a place where they can help change occur. If you cannot run for office yourself, supporting a person who aligns with your movement can also help effect change. Another way to help the movement is to contact the person who represents you. For the most part, representatives at all levels are extremely responsive. A phone call, an email or a letter are all responded to by the office, and many officials have regional offices, depending on the size of the district. Contacting your rep. is one of the easiest ways for a person to help a movement. It’s certainly better when the bar is as low as a repost.

To say that all performative activism is bad, which I already have, is a broad sweeping statement many would find to be too broad to take into account what performative activism can do. Many people believe that performative activism can be used to inform people about issues. To their credit, they aren’t wrong. However, more often than not performative activism only occurs on issues that are already in the limelight. Climate change and racial disparities are two of the most popular issues for performative activism. The over-saturation of this content, however important the issue, drives people away from the movement or creates an indifference. Celebrities who do performative activism have a massive web of people and money at their fingertips, but when the most they do is a photoshoot next to broken glass, are they really using the considerable power they have for good?

Performative activism is harmful. It puts people into positions where they feel like in order to fit in they need to support a cause, which isn’t how change happens. Without meaningful change we will not progress past this point as a society. Next time you find yourself signing another petition that has dubious wording or reposting another colorful slide deck, call your representative and ask them to support the movement.