A digital image of a skeleton with a shirt that has a photo of an instagram post that "black lives matter", pointing to themselves.
(Inti Gonzalez/Youth Spirit Artworks. You can find more of Inti’s art at IntiGonzalez.com)

Everyone knows there’s strength in numbers, but as we are forced to isolate, it’s easier than ever before to rely on social media as a platform for activism, instead of physical involvement, inspiring controversy about the line between productivity and performativity. Using social media to boost social movements is not new. Social media has always demonstrated a tendency to be an outlet for the political views of its users, as well as a mechanism for debate. But what happens when social media is not just an addition to the cause—what happens when the majority of activism is taking place virtually? In the midst of a new surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, many are forced to evaluate the impact (or lack thereof) of their contribution. This is especially important to consider now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which creates obstacles for participating in social movements.

Performative activism occurs when an individual acts out of a desire to increase their own social capital rather than out of true devotion to a cause. “I think I would define [performative activism] as following a trend, but not following through in your own personal life,” says Uma Joshi Garcia, an ethnic studies teacher at Oakland School for the Arts. “It’s this idea that if I put on a show and make it seem like I care, I don’t have to do any self reflection on my own contributions…nor do I need to further pursue any actionable items.”

While it’s true that some people who support social movements through reposting on social media are also taking part in other forms of activism (such as protests, petitions, donations, and letter writing), social media also makes it easy to seem more involved than you are. Reposting can easily take the place of further action. “On social media, performative activism looks like mindless reposting of mediocre content on people’s stories that ultimately doesn’t really make any change or progress. It could also be posting pictures from the protest you went to, but you didn’t stay for long, and mostly you care that other people see that you went,” says 17-year-old Rabiah Kabir. 

This is not just a social faux pas. It can also have tangible, negative impact. Joshi Garcia breaks this damage into two major issues. For one, it oversimplifies complex problems. “It’s almost like ‘let me make this palatable enough for you to understand systemic years of oppression,’” she says. Joshi Garcia relays that it can also be harmful to post death and trauma on social media. “You’re making it seem like you’re promoting awareness of the death of this person by a police officer, but you’re not fully understanding the trauma that the people who live in those bodies have to deal with seeing that on social media,” she says. “So that’s also a part of this idea of performative, doing something just to say that you agree, without taking any reflection on your own contributions or what you can do to help with this problem.”

“It’s the idea that if I put on a show…I don’t have to do any self-reflection.”

Performative activism is nothing new. It almost always happens when a movement becomes mainstream, and people feel a social obligation to support a movement, but not a personal one. This mentality is in no way exclusive to the individual. Large corporations frequently jump on the bandwagon of social change to their own economic benefit. We see it happen with the Black Lives Matter movement, as companies like Amazon (in direct opposition to their blatant support and funding of the police force) post “We stand with black lives,” in huge print across the top of its homepage. (The statement has since been removed.) 

Many fast fashion companies manufacture Black Lives Matter T-shirts, sweatpants, and other clothing items. One of the most obvious examples of corporate performatism takes place during LGBTQ+ pride month. Annually, corporations like Urban Outfitters, Home Depot, and Verizon dawn rainbows and equality statements for the duration of June, promptly shutting down their visible support as soon as Pride month ends. However, it takes just one Google search to find out that both Home Depot and Verizon donate to anti-gay politicians, and not only has Urban Outfitters marketed a product featuring a transphobic slur, founder Richard Hayne also donated $13,150 to openly homophobic presidential candidate Rick Santorum. So while Urban Outfitters’ Pride line may be cute, it’s incredibly performative. 

So how can you be a productive ally, rather than a performative one? According to Ana White, a political journalist for the Pennsylvania Capital Star, the first step is to understand your inherent relationship to the movement. This means identifying your privileges, and their role in easing your way through this world, as compared to how things would have gone without that advantage. It’s also important to know when it’s appropriate to speak up, and when it’s not. Allies should always center the voices of those most directly impacted by the movement at hand, rather than speaking over them. Lastly, participation cannot be reserved solely for when it is convenient. To really be an ally, you have to be all in. 

One defining trait of performative activism is its comfortability. If it always feels comfortable, or accommodating, it’s probably not enough. As high school student Isaac Sanchez says,“It’s one thing to support a cause only to forget about it when it’s convenient, but it’s another thing to be applying what you learned from a cause in your day-to-day life.” 

For those who wish for their allyship to be productive, not performative, Joshi Garcia has two main pieces of advice. For one, consider where you are spending your time and money. “People can say ‘I’m in support of Black Lives Matter,’ but do you support black businesses, do you read black authors…it’s stuff like that…because where you’re putting your dollars is helping certain communities economically,” she explains. For those who do not have the resources to contribute financially, volunteer work, or relaying information about volunteer opportunities, is a good place to start.

Her final advice is to turn to the experts. “A lot of people online think that they’re experts because they post something or they look up something on google and make an infographic, but there are people who have had to live through movements in which their lives were constantly threatened, and have actually written and spoken and had great and informative things to say,” Joshi Garcia says. Much can be learned from lifelong activists, such as Angela Davis, who is still alive today and not only continues to deliver public speeches, and also writes books and articles. 

All of this isn’t to say that reposting an informative post on your Instagram feed is inherently counterproductive. It is simply important to be aware of how influential your participation is, and how you can work to affect true change.

Edrisina Sklar is a South Berkeley resident and a senior in Literary Arts at Oakland School for the Arts.