Performative Activism: Does it Perpetuate False Realities?


Esha Singhai, Staff Writer

You’ve just woken up and are aimlessly scrolling through Instagram—except this time, all the posts are black squares. “What? Is my Instagram broken?” you think to yourself. After scrolling for a few more minutes, you see that all the captions are similar: #blm, #blacklivesmatter, #georgefloyd. Immediately, you realize that you’ve messed up. Somehow, the whole world is a part of this movement and you aren’t. Quickly, you post a black screen captioned “#blm” to your account. You take a sigh of relief. Now no one can think you don’t care. So, time to get off Instagram until all the black screens go away.

This is performative activism. The practice of using posts, gestures or words to promote an individual’s own public image, rather than helping a cause. Unfortunately, this practice has become incredibly common in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which became a household name after the death of George Floyd.

Floyd’s death was only one of many horrific instances of police brutality and systemic racism. The video of his death (note: do NOT search for or distribute videos of police brutality as they are very harmful and traumatizing for POC) catalyzed an unprecedented uprising against these historical injustices. And while many activists quickly used Instagram and Twitter to increase awareness and educate the public, they were drowned out by 28 million black squares, making it more difficult to obtain important resources regarding the BLM movement. While posting a black square in solidarity with the Black community isn’t necessarily a harmful act, out of the 28 million people who had done so, only 13 million people had actually signed the petition to arrest the police officers who had killed Floyd. This immense disparity is the problem.

My intent is not to ridicule others for their response to the BLM movement, but to raise crucial questions that we must ask ourselves. Is tagging 5 friends on a black screen with #blacklivesmatter truly furthering the cause? Does this action contribute to a trend that minimizes the depth of the BLM movement? How can we show our solidarity outside of social media?

Reposting premade graphics of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in her home) or Ahmaud Arbery (who was chased and killed by two armed white people) is not enough to instigate change unless we take time to educate ourselves, sign petitions or have honest conversations about racism with family and friends. Deleting Blackout Tuesday posts and slowly transitioning back to “normal” Instagram does not delete reality either. By doing so, we are only moving backwards and allowing the status quo to remain unchanged until it is once again revitalized by a stream of graphics, posts and tweets.

Influencers like Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner and Cara Delevigne were just some of the few celebrities who took part in story chains–or the act of reposting and tagging friends on Instagram stories. However, it is not enough to take this easy way out. This action reduces the BLM movement to a trend; it becomes unsustainable and is minimized to a single event, rather than a continuous movement. Consequently, instead of continuing to educate ourselves, many of us may move on with our lives once the presence of BLM leaves Instagram.

Understanding that we may unintentionally be in the wrong is important during these times of uncertainty. It is easy to follow what everyone else is doing. It is easy to repost graphics on our stories and shut off our phones. It is easy to get overwhelmed when trying to figure out how to start assisting this cause. It is not easy to admit that we are contributing to these faults.

Admittedly, the lack of clarity surrounding what is “right” and what is “wrong” on social media is what fuels this complacency. However, the best way to combat this is to educate ourselves on current U.S. policy and racial dynamics. Understanding how the legal system has disproportionately harm people of color allows us to put current issues into better perspective and assists us in realizing the depth of the issues relevant on social media platforms. We must tirelessly work to understand how our seemingly inconsequential actions contribute to a performative culture. Performative activism benefits no one.