Performative activism vs true allyship: A deep dive into performative activism

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Article by Esther Uthayakumar

The Black Lives Matter campaign made headlines in the Summer of 2020, but the momentum has since fizzled out.

A lot of influential individuals and household brands took to social media to “stand in solidarity” with the black community following the murder of George Floyd. For some this was genuine, and unfortunately for others it was another bandwagon to jump on for commercial gain. This is called performative activism; a persona of support which is not genuine. Even if it was somewhat genuine, at the very least it would be two-faced; often the enthusiasm on social media posts of individuals or brands is not replicated in most board rooms.

It was just earlier this year that the home secretary condemned “gesture politics” in reference to footballers taking the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Unfortunately for the black community it was no surprise that following the Euro’s final, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho would face the brunt of enraged racists. Priti Patel took to social media to condemn the racist attacks once it hit headlines. As Tyrone Mings put it “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens”.

Performative activism also appears in our day-to-day lives – whether it’s posting a black square on Instagram, focusing on tokenistic ‘diversity quotas’, or making sweeping statements on racism without substance. These public facing actions are simply not enough to dismantle institutionalised racism. What differentiates true allyship from performative activism is intent. Being transparent, honest, and educating yourself is what is needed to become a real ally.

Tackling inequalities is only possible if allies are willing to have difficult conversations, donate to important causes, and step in when they see racism happening (to name a few). Fighting for basic human rights is not supposed to be “trendy” or a competition. It is important to remain consistent and question your intent, so not showing “activism” to feed an ulterior motive but reflecting this in your real everyday life. Social media has been a substantial tool in spreading awareness but without drive behind this – it is simply hollow, often serving people and brands. As the saying goes – actions speak louder than words.

Educating yourself and staying informed is the key to being a true ally. This comes with not picking and choosing what sits with you comfortably. To truly support, we need to (somewhat) understand the pain, suffering and oppression black people face. This also means looking within yourself and understanding that we are all complicit in a system that oppresses the black community.

This accountably often falls on those who are oppressed instead of allies taking an active responsibility to unlearn racist tendencies. Black people, or any other marginalised group, are not obligated and do not have the responsibility to educate you. The narrative that “if you don’t educate me, then how am I supposed to know” is a classic tool used to gaslight the black community. The assumed responsibility would require patience, as it often consists of white apathy and ignorance of any privilege. There are plenty of resources available to help educate yourself, and in this day and age, failing to do so is wilful ignorance.

Esther UthayakumarAbout the author

Esther Uthayakumar is an Account Executive at specialist financial services agency Teamspirit. She joined the team after graduating from the University of Salford in her postgraduate degree in PR and Digital Communication. Prior to this she did an undergraduate degree in International Politics and Policy at The University of Liverpool. She has also interned at Oldham Council and the House of Commons.

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