How Performative Activism Stifled the Black Lives Matter Movement

Black Lives Matter was a movement unlike any other, but performative activism held the cause back. Now, it must continue.

People filled the streets; pain, anguish and defiance on their faces. Signs held high, demanding they be seen. Demanding change happen. ‘Black Lives Matter’, the cry echoed from town to country to continent. According to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 26 million people attended a Black Lives Matter protest during May and June, beginning the day after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and soon taking place the world over. It seemed like a revolution controlled by the youth; social media focussed only on those protesting and Instagram influencers posted exclusively of the injustices of police brutality. Six months later, and the same influencers are silent.

“During the weeks of protesting this past summer, everyone played a role in creating good noise. People were leading and attending protests. Sharing information on social media; helping rebuild the communities; handing out food and water to protesters.” Tells Akpokiniono Eyafe, an American Black Lives Matter protester and influencer, who uses her self-titled blog to talk about issues black people face. “But performative activism takes away the genuinity of true activism.”

According to Google Trends, the term ‘performative activism’ reached peak popularity on 21 May 2020, six days after George Floyd’s death. Performative activism is exactly what it sounds like; people taking part in protests — most typically on social media — but doing so only as part of a performance. To seem morally superior but without any intention to put in the work to support the injustices that they are profiting off.

Performative activism is used by social media influencers and companies alike. Influencers attending protests in order to post about their turning up became such a common occurrence during the BLM protests that an Instagram page (@InfluencersInTheWild) was created to publicly shame those participating in performative activism. L’Oreal Paris was also accused of hypocrisy for posting support for the BLM movement by model Munroe Bergdorf. Bergdorf had previously worked with the makeup brand, but had been dropped from their True Match campaign in 2017 following remarks made following a ‘Unite The Right’ rally in Charlottesville, which saw white nationalists clash with counter-protesters, during which she discussed white privilege and ignorance.

But performative activism doesn’t simply promote those posting; “Performative activism causes problems for genuine activists; it can make the work of genuine activists seem like an act they put on for the media. It can cloud the cause that true activists are fighting for, as people focus on the fake acts”, says Lizzie Mate Kole Rampe, who organised a Black Lives Matter protest in Kent.

Performative activism was, arguable, seen most widely on ‘Black Out Tuesday’, which took place on 2 June 2020. The campaign was intended to raise up the voices of Black people, sharing their suffering, spreading educational pieces and donation pages, with white allies posting a black square to share support and mute their voice. “I think there were true intentions behind the black box posts. However, some people did still carry on with normal life and didn’t understand the meaning. It kind of became a trend and people used that to show that they cared, and stopped after they had posted the box. They would post the box and then carry on posting their daily life.” tells Rampe.

Despite the misuse of the campaign, influencer Tabitha Worley, who runs the @TakeHeartUK Instagram page, believes the size alone was beneficial to the movement. According to Scout Social, 24 million #BlackOutTuesday posts were posted to Instagram. “The scale of it reached so far that people who this type of education and awareness never touches were called to action. It engaged millions of people in a cause that hadn’t been able to gain that traction before. It drew a line in the sand and removed so much room for apathy. The challenge then becomes making sure it isn’t a flash in the pan viral moment, and that social media declaration permeates into wider society.”

Six months on, and Black Lives Matter is no longer at the forefront of the news. Progress has undoubtedly been made; the policeman who knelt on George Floyd’s neck was charged with third-degree murder, and the other three officers present have also been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder; Minneapolis lawmakers vowed to disband the city’s police department less than two weeks after Floyd’s death and hundreds of slavery linked statues were torn down by the public.

Despite this, according to a study by Pew Research, support for the BLM movement dropped from 67% in adults to 55% between the months of June and September, with a particularly steep drop in the White and Hispanic communities. Worley believes a necessary step in re-opening the discussion about BLM is in the hands of white social media users, “White influencers need to stay in their lane. White people centre themselves in most narratives — it’s the way we’ve been raised. We need to lift up the black community by opening doors and making spaces in the arenas our privilege allows us power and movement.”

Rampe believes that, fundamentally, the key for the BLM movement to create permanent change, and not become a forgotten trend, is remembering that the fight against racism has not yet been won; that action must continue.

“Search for ways to be anti-racist instead of just sharing information and supporting the black community when it’s easy and convenient. It’s important for people to be constantly active. Reach out to see what can be done. It’s so easy to just sit back and watch racism go by in daily life; it’s important and necessary to show others how their actions and words are racist and hurtful too. The Black Lives Matter movement needs constant support”.

Student journalist living in London.

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