• Sat. Dec 9th, 2023

The Student on performative activism

ByMillie Lord

Feb 25, 2021

It is past time we came to the realisation that an Instagram post probably won’t change the world. More and more, I am seeing trite social media posts that purport to inform, but in fact trivialise serious issues. They require no effort to share, and are often posted by individuals who show little sense of social responsibility in their non-virtual lives.

Performativity is not a new trope. Individuals, states and corporations have long pretended to be progressive to gain social credit and profit, whilst secretly undertaking discriminatory practices. From Israel “pinkwashing” its embrace of the LGBTQ+ community to cover up human rights abuses against Palestinians to BP advertising low-carbon initiatives whilst investing 96% of their expenditure in oil and gas, this is not new. Criticism of performative activism also goes back generations, with Martin Luther King’s conclusion that the “white moderate” was the greatest “stumbling block” to the civil rights movement echoing contemporary concerns over false promises from the privileged.

However, social media has uncontrollably magnified this problem. As the Black Lives Matter movement reached a high point this summer, tidal waves of posts and stories washed across Instagram, promising support and providing information. Much of this was inspiring, and we witnessed some genuine accountability and change, but not enough. I love social media, and it is useful as one tool, but only alongside other types of action. Historic protest movements have proved again and again that change comes from community action, and I believe that social media ‘clicktivism’ often gives people the false impression that they are doing enough, when they really are not. Reducing people’s rights to a pastellised Instagram trend is not a driver for structural change.

Education on privilege and prejudice is crucial to activist struggles, but has absolutely no value if you do not put what you have learned into practice. How many of those who posted Black Lives Matter content online actually put antiracist principles into practice in their own lives? How many people took a long hard look at how they may have abetted white supremacy? How many educated themselves on how to change? How many are using their platforms to uplift marginalised voices? And how many actually challenged problematic friends and family, and put in the work beyond social media content? It has been over nine months since the BLM movement sparked long overdue conversations about structural racism, but the online conversation is not being matched in real life interactions. This is not unique to antiracist struggles- in all fights for rights, true change comes from within communities, rather than the echo chamber of social media.

During COVID, social media has given us all access to radical free resources, and allowed the building of networks, but it has also made cheap activism easy: activism that involves no struggle or sacrifice, and improves social standing rather than society. It is hard to tell whether someone posting online has taken action in their real lives, and I have seen countless example of those who profess principles online failing to hold friends accountable for rape jokes, or making racist comments.

Of course it is easier to shame a Trump supporter online than to actually sit down and challenge your racist grandma, but I think we all know which action has more of an impact, and it is rarely the one conducted through a screen. If we truly want change, and not just to be seen as “woke”, we must challenge ourselves, our communities, and those we respect to be more inclusive. This can be difficult, but is small fry compared to the struggles marginalised peoples face every day.Those of us with privilege must use our voices against our friends, as well as more obvious villains. Society will never change if we confine our critiques to the mirrored walls of the internet, constantly reflecting in on each other.

We cannot change society until we change ourselves, by acknowledging our dangerous subconscious biases, and those of the people closest to us. So go ahead and share that infographic, but don’t just share it online: actively challenge those in your life who go against that creed. If you fail to do so, perhaps it is time to accept that you care more about how other people perceive you than about actually helping marginalised communities. Let’s all step up, and move beyond this to create real change.

Image: Felipe Tofani via Flickr

Image shows an orange sticker on a lamppost, reading “If online activism changed anything, it would be forbidden”