Performative Activism Is the New ‘Color-Blind’ Band-Aid for White Fragility

White people embracing hashtags won’t help us destroy anti-Black racism. Here’s why.

A photo of an Instagram post of a black square as part of #BlackOutTuesday.

A week ago, thousands of people uploaded a black square onto their social media accounts to observe, mourn, and advocate for policy change in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Celebrities, sports teams, and large corporations all joined in solidarity. Yet, the movement still missed the mark, and some participants received harsh criticism. Others then accused elements of #BlackoutTuesday of being performative. And in many ways, it was. Performative activism is problematic at best and dangerous at worst. It’s similar to color-blindness in that it’s illusionary and reinforces White supremacy by romanticizing the notion of activism, but in reality this diverts attention from social justice issues to coddle White fragility.

Word of Blackout Tuesday spread like wildfire, and yes, I even drank the Kool-Aid. But my optimism was short-lived after reading posts and tweets from activists who criticized the movement for maintaining White supremacy and made the astute observation that a black box will not eradicate anti-Black racism.

“Y’all really boggle my mind with the performance. Black people write detailed ass books of our pain, organize protests, educate, put our lives on the line to end white supremacy and y’all want to make your profiles Black??? Did MLK JR say this was an effective measure? Y’all love him so much and yet don’t do any of his teachings- just beat Black folks over the head with his quotes when you want to silence us. Well guess what a damn Black screen is also SILENCE and if you aren’t taking a myriad of actions today and everyday — You could give two shits if we live or die,” said femme activist Ericka Hart on Twitter.

“Well guess what[?] a damn Black screen is also SILENCE.”

Several sports franchises were challenged for their hypocrisy in participating in the movement. After the Washington Redskins tweeted its support of Blackout Tuesday, thousands criticized the football team, including U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who responded:

“Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name.”

The San Francisco 49ers also received backlash after announcing its participation in the movement. Many quickly referenced the franchise’s lack of support of Colin Kaepernick following his 2016 protests during the national anthem by taking a knee in a stand against racial injustice. Others challenged businesses and large corporations to explicitly denounce anti-Black racism and police brutality and to open their wallets.

Sports franchises and corporations weren’t alone. On Tuesday, my Instagram feed was filled with black squares as far as the eye could see. Some of which were posted by White associates whose silence was finally broken after posting their black box. Social media hashtag challenges became popular during the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, and it seemed everyone was going hashtag crazy.

Sadly, the patterns of response to George Floyd’s murder on Blackout Tuesday weren’t symbolic of a break in silence to denounce the murder of Black bodies. They simply fell within a trending hashtag culture. This then spurred on other hashtag activists (who are White) who regularly speak out on social justice issues yet separate themselves from Whiteness and White supremacy by pointing their finger at “the bad Whites who don’t get it.” Their participation in performative hashtag social activism selfishly checks a box so they can be considered an ally and, thusly, soothe their White guilt.

Because Whites are the nonracialized majority, they live in an insulated environment of racial protection and comfort, which makes them unable to tolerate racial stress. Whiteness scholar Robin DiAngelo refers to this as White fragility and says this about it: Once White people are confronted with racial stress, it triggers various defensive responses in them, such as anger, guilt, silence, outward displays of emotion, defensiveness, and shutting down. Some argue that color-blindness has been used as a way for Whites to accommodate their racial fragility and ease their guilt. Feelings of shame and defensiveness associated with racial injustice can be minimized if its existence is denied. Like color-blindness, performative activism is manipulative and maintains systems of racial privilege by Whites centering their desire to seek comfort over addressing racial injustice.

If a White person or a non-Black person of color is truly interested in how they can support the Black community and fight anti-Black racism, here are a few starting points:

  1. Understand the meanings behind privilege, anti-Black racism, and Whiteness.
  2. Be honest with yourself about how you benefit from racial privilege as a White or “passing” person and how your racial privilege is oppressive to Blacks.
  3. Learn the historical and social patterns of the effects of anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression.
  4. Sign petitions, donate to organizations and causes that support the Black community, protest, volunteer — dedicate your time and energy toward pushing the movement forward.
  5. Speak out.
  6. Support Black businesses.

We are demanding more than performative activism now, especially from our banking institutions and law enforcement. So far, Bank of America has (seemingly) answered the call to action by announcing a $1 billion program to financially support businesses that operate in our communities or that work for equality and justice. Though details are slim on who will get this cash and what the interest rates might be, the $250 million per year program will last, the bank says, for the next four years. Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would revisit a plan to grant additional budget money to the city’s police department and instead review a funds reallocation to services that are used for or are needed by communities of color. Similar discussions are taking place in cities such as New York, Nashville, Philadelphia, and Dallas. But Minneapolis nearly broke the internet when, over the weekend, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the police department and create a new safety system that doesn’t include traditional police.

Now that Minneapolis, Bank of America, and Los Angeles are presumably leading the way, it will be interesting to see how other cities, banking institutions, police departments, and corporations will follow suit. Although weary of unmet promises, I’m reserving my cynicism and conspiracy theories for now. But no matter the amount of money that is donated and reallocated, as long as Whites are performing woke to protect their comfort, we know proof positive that White supremacy is still alive and kicking. Fighting anti-Black racism is a lifelong commitment and a process. The end goal is not for Whites to appear or feel good, but for society to be better and for Black lives to matter to everyone.

Professor, Forbes Contributor, Race Scholar, Activist, Therapist, Keynote Speaker, Consultant, Wife, Mother, & Addict of Ice Cream &Cheese.

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