Performative activism

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Performative activism is activism done to increase one's social capital rather than because of one's devotion to a cause.[1] It is often associated with surface-level activism, referred to as slacktivism.[2]

The term gained an increased usage on social media in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

History and usage[edit]

Early uses of the term[edit]

In 1998, St. Martin's Press published Spectacular Confessions: Autobiography, Performative Activism, and the Sites of Suffrage, a work by Barbara Green about Federation era women's suffrage in Australia.[3] The term appeared online in 2015 articles by Hyperallergic and Atlas Obscura, but referred to the activism that involved an element of performance art.[4][5] The Hyperallergic article referenced the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, and how some women protested nuclear weapons by decorating a fence "with pictures, banners, and other objects," and added that "they blocked the road to the site with dance performances. They even climbed over the fence to dance in the forbidden zone."[4]

In February 2017, The Outline writer Jeff Ihaza wrote that "one of the most crippling tendencies of modern liberals is their obsession with being seen, whether it be at a protest wearing a fuzzy pink hat alongside Madonna or in viral tweets totally owning the president. This preoccupation with optics is more often than not frighteningly self-centered," and later adding that "From 'performative' activism to a fixation on clever protest signs, modern liberals know better than anyone else how to cash in on a political movement, but they know very little about how to harness the power of one."[6] Also in 2017, following the Charlottesville car attack, Philadelphia writer Ernest Owens included the term performative activism without interrupting punctuation, criticizing it as an activism "about making cheap symbolic gestures and catchy remarks to center yourself instead of the issue."[7]

In September 2018, Lou Constant-Desportes, the editor-in-chief of resigned, citing "performative 'activism' dipped in consumerism and 'woke' keywords used for marketing purpose."[8] An October 2018 article in The Harvard Crimson employed the term performative wokeness, defining it as "drowning your lecture comments with a host of social justice buzzwords — try favorites like intersectionality, marginalized, discourse, subjectivity, or any -ism — without regard to whether other people understand you."[9] In 2019, the Columbia Daily Spectator and the Washington Square News, the student newspapers of Columbia University and New York University, respectively, published articles addressing on-campus discourse surrounding performative activism and students participating in social media activism.[10][11]

In relation to the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter[edit]

The term rose in popularity following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.[citation needed] The Los Angeles Times wrote that students have warned against engaging in performative activism online.[12] On May 28, 2020, Rice University student Summar McGee founded Rice For Black Life to help promote fundraising for Texas-based non-profits and to not go through bureaucratic processes of other organizations on-campus. McGee and Kendall Vining, another member of the organization, expressed that this type of "nonhierarchical activism helps avoid performative allyship and activism."[13] Social media has become a tool for genuine discussion. On June 1, while expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the George Floyd protests, singer Lorde stated, "One of the things I find most frustrating about social media is performative activism, predominantly by white celebrities (like me). It's hard to strike a balance between self-serving social media displays and true action."[14][15][16]

On June 2, about 28 million Instagram users participated in the "Blackout Tuesday" movement, which involved users posting a completely blacked-out square image in order to show support of the George Floyd protests.[17] However, only 13 million people had signed the petition to arrest the police officers who were involved in the murder of George Floyd.[18] Celebrities and general users alike received criticism by other social media users for engaging in "performative activism" via these Blackout Tuesday posts.[19][20] According to Aliyah Symes, a master's candidate of UCLA, "A fundamental part of embracing anti-racism work is leaning into the discomfort of unlearning."[21]

An example of a government official being criticized for "performative" activism sprung up later in June, when Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser had the phrase Black Lives Matter painted on 16th Street in front of the White House.[22] Bowser was criticized for this, as some brought up her presiding over law enforcement practices that have been called harmful to the black community in D.C.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Moore, Noah (2021-09-28). "OPINION: We have to be more critical of performative activism". Indiana Daily Student. Retrieved 2021-12-02.
  2. ^ Metta, John (2020-07-20). "The problem of performative activism - Black Lives Matter". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 2021-12-02.
  3. ^ Short, Stacey (1999). "Review: Untitled". Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. JSTOR. 18 (1): 120–122. doi:10.2307/464353. JSTOR 464353.
  4. ^ a b Larkin, Daniel (February 6, 2015). "When Women Fought Nukes with Anarchy and Won". Hyperallergic. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  5. ^ Zarrelli, Natalie (December 9, 2015). "The Danish Anarchists Who Inspired SantaCon Could Not Have Imagined Its Bro-Hell Future". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  6. ^ Ihaza, Jeff (February 1, 2017). "A T-shirt is not a protest". The Outline. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  7. ^ Owens, Ernest (August 14, 2017). "OPINION: White People, Only You Can Stop the Next Charlottesville". Philadelphia. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  8. ^ Darville, Jordan (September 5, 2018). "AFROPUNK editor resigns, cites "performative activism," employee mistreatment". The Fader. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  9. ^ Gray, Jenna M. (October 1, 2018). "Performing Wokeness". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  10. ^ Abrams, Kayla; Fregne, Jemima; Awadallah, Lana (March 26, 2019). "Discourse and Debate: Is performative activism inherently bad?". Columbia Daily Spectator. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  11. ^ Lozano, Gabby (October 28, 2019). "Understanding the Trend of Performance Activism". Washington Square News. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  12. ^ Tiong, Annabel (June 1, 2020). "Say their names: How students are responding to the BLM movement". High School Insider. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  13. ^ Feldman, Ella (May 31, 2020). "Rice for Black Life encourages Rice community to financially support Black activism". Rice Thresher. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  14. ^ Rettig, James (June 1, 2020). "Lorde Addresses George Floyd Protests, "Performative Activism" In Rare Statement". Stereogum. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  15. ^ "Lorde speaks out after George Floyd death: 'It's sickening'". The New Zealand Herald. June 2, 2020. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  16. ^ Kaufman, Gil (June 1, 2020). "Lorde Writes to Fans About George Floyd Protests: 'White Silence Right Now is More Damaging'". Billboard. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  17. ^ Ahlgrim, Callie (June 2, 2020). "Here's everything you need to know about Blackout Tuesday and #TheShowMustBePaused initiatives". Insider. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  18. ^ Abdi, Yomi (September 5, 2020). "A Tale of performative activism: How Black Lives Matter became just a trend". Archived from the original on May 7, 2021. Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  19. ^ Singh, Olivia (June 2, 2020). "Emma Watson is being criticized for 'performative activism' after altering black squares for Blackout Tuesday to seemingly fit her Instagram aesthetic". Insider. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  20. ^ Ledbetter, Carly (June 2, 2020). "Emily Ratajkowski Slams People Doing The 'Bare Minimum' By Just Posting Black Squares". HuffPost. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  21. ^ Symes, Aliyah (September 2020). "In Memoriam: The Online Policing and Trivialization of Black Lives and Black Deaths". Student Anthropologist. 7 (1): 98–102. doi:10.1002/j.sda2.20200700.0020. ISSN 2330-7625.
  22. ^ Nirappil, Fenit; Zuzmer, Julie; Chason, Rachel (June 5, 2020). "D.C. paints 'Black Lives Matter' on street near White House". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  23. ^ Elizabeth King (2018-01-20). "J20, One Year Later: What It's Like to Face Decades in Prison for Protesting". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2020-06-18.