Take it from someone who just graduated with their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater, when I tell you I know a good performance when I see one. Let's put my training to the test, shall we? In my opinion, a good actor consists of three things: A. An understanding of tactics and given circumstances, B. An ability to command an audience, and C. A believable performance of the material. It isn't a surprise that performative activism also encompasses all of these things because it is just that, a performance. My only questions remaining, as a critic, what activism is true activism? Or are these simply just cover up performances to ensure that you do not get penalized for actually being ignorant and racist?
The murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin created an uproar in the United States. Unfortunately, police brutality and the unjust killings of Blacks at the hands of officers and/or civilians in this country are not new. These are not isolated incidents that occur once in a blue moon. In fact, they open up an even deeper dialogue about how prevalent systemic and institutionalized racism actually is. From our education systems to our justice system. Still, I have never been able to understand why it takes media coverage of a tragedy to wake people up to the injustices in this country that Blacks face each and every day. Whether it be microaggressions or blatant racism, nothing is new.
Yet corporations, fashion brands, and everyday people are suddenly showing their die-hard support for the Black Lives Matter movement. People that were once silent when their Black friends or peers spoke to them about how they felt in an incident or institution are suddenly outspoken on social media and do not hesitate to post their recent protest involvements. The sad fact of the matter is that we are left to question if this is true change or merely performance. Modern-day technology allows us to hide behind our screens and show others what we want them to see. Performative activism makes us question if people are actually changing their mindsets or simply appearing to do so out of fear of trying to go along with what they feel is a trend.
Unfortunately, police brutality and the unjust killings of Black people at the hands of officers and/or civilians in this country are not new. These are not isolated incidents that occur once in a blue moon.
My college experience was oftentimes very difficult for me. As a Black woman going to a private, white institution, coming from a private high school that primarily consisted of women of color in New York City, I had a huge culture shock. It was the first time since elementary school that I had experienced once again being one of the only minorities in the room. Despite my university being an arts environment, which promoted equality and difference, I still felt like my voice as a Black woman was rarely heard.
Most people of color in the institution constantly had an issue with the way the school regarded race-related issues. This, as I'd come to find out, was also not a new problem. In fact, I will never forget a Black alumnus from ten years ago coming to our senior showcase in New York and asking me if things had gotten better. Every time students of color would get together to write speeches to present to faculty and ask for allies, we rarely received any. Whenever we would talk about how we felt things were race-related issues, from the plays that were chosen, to casting, to our theater history curriculum, it was met with hesitation and mediocre efforts to try and change the problems presented by both faculty and students alike. Whenever we would try and speak up in class, some would listen but most would go about their days because they knew quite frankly the issues of race did not affect them. In my department, we were outnumbered and blatantly shown that things would continue the way they had always been because it did not affect the majority. It was never Black lives matter in rehearsal, it was never Black lives matter in class, and it was never Black lives matter when confronting our dean about how the school's students of color felt. Yet, all of sudden after the death of George Floyd, those who had shown consistent disregard, were now die-hard allies.
If you refuse to implement your newfound education on racism in real-life environments and not just on social media, then you are not an ally.
I can't track and don't know others' personal developments. Perhaps something has changed inside of these newfound allies and they have, in fact, woken up and are starting to see racism for what it truly is. However, I find it quite alarming that it took yet another tragedy to do this. My question to new allies is: Did you think your Black and brown peers were lying about the way in which they have constantly felt in these environments and in life? Or did you just not care enough to implement your allyship until you were at risk of your true colors being revealed?
I am no way trying to call people out. In fact, the support the movement has received and the amount of people who truly want to be educated and commit themselves to being aware of racism in work environments and school systems is alarming. However, I am forcing you to think. If you refuse to implement your newfound education on racism in real-life environments and not just on social media, then you are not an ally. Period. It is my personal belief that in order to create long-lasting change, active action is required. Sadly most people are quick to throw being an ally out the window when they feel something might be in jeopardy for them. In contrast, people also feel they need to force being an ally when they are afraid their reputations are at stake.
Going with the flow when it comes to activism all because you are afraid of being called a racist or ignorant, is you actually being unable to truly understand and acknowledge problems. Put simply performative activism on social media and real life also equates to silence. It is you trying to be an activist and an ally when you quite frankly don't even care to begin with. Why is this detrimental? Because you will not take active actions in real life, you will not challenge people on the issues of race in order to change them, you will not open up dialogues. You will not hold yourself and others accountable for their actions, therefore you will continue to be silent and nothing will be done. Yet your so-called posts of solidarity prove otherwise.
Going with the flow when it comes to activism all because you are afraid of being called a racist or ignorant, is you actually being unable to truly understand and acknowledge problems.
The problem with a company's public relations team sharing with the world that they are dedicated to learning, improving, and changing racism in their environments, also presents a problem when a person of color in real life comes into those work environments or institutions expecting a change and then are shown nothing has really evolved. It is your refusal to actually acknowledge Black issues and goes back to being afraid of jeopardizing opportunities. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a new ally and trying your best to be aware of your past and present actions. The problem lies in people's ability to not be held accountable for their mistakes or not even acknowledge past ones. This isn't something as simple as a PR team response or a half-effort post trying to prove to the world that you stand with Black people when in the past you were also responsible for racism and the inability to move forward. Plain and simple it makes no sense to tell your audience, your friends, or peers that you are dedicated to real-life change, when you aren't. It's time to actually educate your employees, and your students on effective change moving forward. Social media activism only goes so far, until you are presented with the same challenges racism provides in your everyday environments, and once again choose to stay silent.
Racial gaslighting is also a very prevalent problem in these environments. When your Black or POC peers tell you about a problem they feel is based on race, it usually happens to be so.
The question moving forward is how being an ally transcends into the real world. Part one is creating safe spaces where people can feel comfortable sharing not just problems but also solutions. It is making your work environment or classroom catered to all people, not just the majority. It shouldn't be up to your Black counterparts to constantly provide resources and education to be able to do this. Racial gaslighting is also a very prevalent problem in these environments. When your Black or POC peers tell you about a problem they feel is based on race, it usually happens to be so. We never like to talk about race because it feels uncomfortable. We never talk about black issues, because society feels as though racism and racial bias is something that we can slap a bandaid or a performative post over and call it a day. Once we open up these dialogues and actually do the work, only then can we see change. The allyship has to move on past the news cycle and past the protests. It is all too common to see people pour their hearts out in support, and then once again become silent and unable to speak out.
If you feel that you have been putting on a good show, and know that you, in fact, do not have what it takes to do the work in real life, it's time to let the curtain close. If your only fear is being called out on social media and unfollowed or being well-liked, it is also time to take your last bow. While social media is an amazing tool to stay informed and educate people on different resources, if you find yourself purely doing this because you think this is a trend it is also time to turn off the stage lights. The moral of the story here folks is that this movement is not a way to capitalize on your fake performances that seem to be for the people. It is not a way to avoid speaking up on your past mistakes or try and prevent new ones. The movement is for those who are truly fed up, who are tired, and who actually understand that radical change doesn't happen overnight. It is for dedicated individuals who want to create a world where their children no longer have to march for basic justice and equality. It is for those who want to be seen and heard in order to take active actions to reform the system. If this isn't you, take your final bow, and understand that you were never right for the part of an ally in the first place.
WRITTEN BYMcKenna Kelley