On Columbia’s campus, accusations of performative activism are often thrown around. What is performative activism? Is it ever beneficial? When does it become harmful and how does this harm materialize?
On January 19, the day of the Women’s March, my Instagram and Facebook were flooded with photos of young women in shirts straight off the racks of some online store, posing with clever signs stating, “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance” and, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.”
In theory, there is nothing wrong with these photos, and I respect these women for using their right to protest. However, these photos are often reminiscent of a larger cultural problem—performative activism. The day we made being “woke” cool is the day we opened ourselves up to merely acting out the motions of activism to gain social capital rather than engaging in real action. I often find that white women (myself included) are the worst at this.
White women somehow hope that by donning “Girl Power” t-shirts or sharing posts proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter, everyone will forget that 47 percent of white women voted for Trump or that 67 percent of young white women between 17 and 34 describe themselves as being “somewhat opposed” or “strongly opposed” to affirmative action. Or that a white woman falsely accused a nine-year-old black boy of groping her. Or that a white woman in Georgia called the cops on a black man babysitting two white kids.
Or that, historically, white women have perpetuated racist systems in the United States. A new book by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers dispels myths that white women were not slaveholders, arguing that women engaged in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for their own economic and social mobility. Thavolia Glymph argues in her book that those who were enslaved faced far more violence from their mistresses than their masters.
Assaults of white women were used to justify thousands of lynchings of African-American men between the Reconstruction and World War II as well as the 1908 Springfield, Illinois and 1921 Tusla, Oklahoma race riots. Both women whose accusations started the Springfield and Tulsa riots later recanted their stories. This follows a similar pattern to the case of Emmett Till, where the white female accuser recanted her story in 2017 or the Central Park Five who recently reached settlements with the city of New York totaling almost $45 million.
Just because white women experience discrimination in the United States does not mean we are not also a part of the larger problem. However, we can and should change, and, hopefully, be part of the solution. We can turn our often performative activism into real activism, and, consequently, our performative allyship into real allyship. We can and should do better.
Before we post, tweet, share, or like something, we need to check ourselves.
First, we need to be sure we are truly informed about the issues. This comes from not just picking and choosing the facts that make us the most comfortable. We need to truly understand the history of the United States and the role white women have played in perpetuating its racist systems by accepting more uncomfortable, honest narratives.
Secondly, we need to be consistent. We cannot be fair-weather allies. What you say on social media must be the exact same things you are saying in real life.
Thirdly, we need to be aware that all of these causes are intersectional. White feminism is not feminism. If the only brand of activism you support is the type precipitated by other white women, then something is wrong.
Finally, we need to be honest. At the end of the day, what you’re posting on social media is useless if you’re not also questioning and working on yourself. What are times when you’ve screwed up? How can you be better? When someone calls you out for a behavior, try to actually listen and learn.
I was raised by some incredible white women who, just like myself, want to do better, but we cannot if we don’t acknowledge we have a problem in the first place. Posting photos at Women’s Marches will accomplish nothing if it is only to show off. Educated activism will.
Kayla Abrams is a sophomore in Columbia College who very much understands the irony that she will probably share this article on social media. She would like to state as well that despite her attack on Urban Outfitters, she does really appreciate the UO sale section. She also would love to hear what you think. Feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let me begin by acknowledging that my response to performative activism is very dependent on the topic at hand—it’s not an issue that can be addressed in general terms. Signing a petition to commit Columbia to carbon neutrality by 2030 without knowing the nitty-gritty of climate change cannot, from any perspective, be as detrimental in as donating money to a GoFundMe to fund Trump’s border wall. However, in the spirit of offering a coherent response, I will defend performative activism.
Performative activism holds the implication that it is an act, void or substanceless. In our social life, it holds the connotation that it relates to a tweet, a post, or any form of social media presence. It’s important to remember that by definition, social media is performative. We use social media as a platform to share what we want, when we want to, on topics that we care about. Our social media profiles are our Pinterest dreamboard versions of what we aspire to be in real life. For this reason, there’s no way for us to address anything on social media without it inherently possessing this element of performance.
However, performative activism can be helpful because it’s incredibly accessible. The fact of the matter is that being a citizen of this country grants an individual a level of freedom that’s otherwise unavailable. For one who does not enjoy the freedom of tweeting an overwhelming amount and flooding the world with their thoughts, this social media activism allows access to a voice they wouldn’t have otherwise. Those who don’t have the right to share every thought and feeling they have in person are forced to turn to other platforms, the most accessible being social media. Moreover, social media becomes their key driver of change. It’s these online outlets that enact quick and effective action—an ideal example of which is the Saudi woman that managed to seek asylum in the Bangkok airport through her Twitter video.
However, this accessibility argument isn’t confined to regions of the world that seem to us as distant and alien as Neverland. The spread of online movements creates a sense of inclusion for people everywhere. For Ibrahim living in Midland, Michigan who believes he’s the only Arab within a 50-mile radius, Mona in San Luis Obispo who believes she’s the only Muslim in her county, or Iman in Herndon, Virginia who believes she’s the only half-Palestinian half-Jamaican on Earth, a hashtag can turn into a sense of belonging. I, for one, never felt a greater sense of belonging in this country than when I woke up to #TweetYourThobe—a trend started by Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American Muslim in Congress that wore her traditional thobe to be sworn in. This sense of accessibility isn’t limited to expressing identity, but having the courage to express personal narratives as well. This was very clearly seen through the #MeToo movement.
An important caveat, however, is that performative activism should not become a replacement for tangible action. This lies under the umbrella of moral licensing—the idea that doing one good deed negates any bad deeds. Moral licensing becomes an issue when an individual believes that including a French flag layover on their already existing profile picture is enough to compensate for action.
Social media activism can be harmful when activism begins and ends with social media. Therefore, social media activism is important if and only if it is used as an entryway to a conversation, but it cannot be the extent of that conversation.
Criticizing performative activism while doing absolutely nothing to change the status quo seems like a waste of time. While social media activism is always performative, this property is not commutative. I would even argue that there is an element of performance present in campus groups that meet for an hour or two every week to brainstorm how to solve the largest world problems, even though their performative activism is not on their social media. In this case, there is too much pride taken in what we do to justify ourselves in an effort to get recognition while our activism remains void.
The author is a sophomore that recently signed an online petition in efforts to commit Columbia to carbon neutrality by 2030. She is also taking this opportunity to shamelessly self-plug this initiative. If you’re interested in learning more, or potentially signing this petition, contact her at lna2116@columbia.
Performative activism comes in many forms, but in my opinion, social media activism is the worst of all of them. On social media, popular topics spread like wildfire until they reach their maximum attention, and then they quickly plummet—out of our sight and out of our minds. We only refocus our attention when things go from bad to worse. This is the opposite of what activism should be about. It should be about making things better.
I find that outraged Facebook posts about the current trending social media topic tend to be one of the most prominent forms of performative activism. This becomes clear when the online hype disappears and you don’t see as many people talking about important issues anymore. Facebook activists go back to posting memes, awful subtweets, and fake deep quotes.
I’m not denying the effectiveness of social media in change—in fact, social media can speed up the development of a movement. Hashtags can change lives. While this kind of activism can be beneficial because it gives an issue some time in the spotlight, it’s important to note that this spotlight dims pretty quickly.
My issue with social media performative activism comes when people don’t seem to have sustained interest in a topic. This fleeting activism is all about clout. A number of Columbia students think everyone is posting about serious problems, I should too because it will make people respect me. People half-skim an article and write their online tirade. They flap around like hummingbirds pollinating flowers, only concerned about which flower is producing the most pollen on a particular day. This can be damaging because after performative activists lose interest, it’s as if the issue no longer exists. Except it still does.
It’s just that in the current climate, there are always newer scandals, juicier controversies, and hotter tea to spill.
To give a more concrete example, in 2016, many celebrities brought the public’s attention to the Flint water crisis. It’s been nearly five years and the state of Flint’s water is still questionable. If I weren’t from Michigan, I wouldn’t know that the crisis is ongoing. The only reason I know is because there are radio commercials about how the situation in Flint never would have happened in the more affluent, densely white-populated suburbs of Detroit. Flint suffers from lack of attention that would resolve the ongoing water crisis.
What might be worse is when a previously popular issue reappears in the media and people act as if it’s happening again. “Woke” Columbia students living in this Pantone 292 bubble are guilty of Columbusing problems; just like Christopher Columbus, they discover “new” problems that have actually been around for a long time.
We see performative activism all the time. Suzie Q is attending So-And-So Protest. John Doe is attending This-And-That March. If you ask them about the event, one of two scenarios likely happens: 1) they talk about how they meant to go but didn’t because of (insert lame excuse) or 2) their eyes light up as they pull out their phone to show you pictures. If you ask me, the latter is worse because they’re the real clout chasers. They want validation that they’re a good person because they stayed for 15 minutes to take pictures and posted about it.
Stop treating serious issues like an #OOTD. It’s annoying, demeaning, and trivializing. True activism is when a person or a collective contribute to resolving an issue. Let me put it like this: Are all of you still writing your congresspeople about changing our gun control laws like you said you were going to after Parkland? Or is it going to take another Parkland for you to actually do it?
The author cannot stand injustice, which some might consider soapboxing or activism. When she was writing her contribution, terror attacks occurred at two mosques in Christchurch, NZ. Her heart goes out to Muslims around the world; انا لله وانا اليه راجعون.
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