Editor’s Note: This article was original posted on MSA’s literary arts blog, curated by literary juniors and seniors.
What does it mean to be an activist? I’m not gonna tell you how Webster Dictionary defines it, because this isn’t a research paper for seventh-grade English nor is it the introduction to a corny Wattpad novel. I personally think of an activist as someone who openly advocates for an idea that will positively change the lives of marginalized groups, whether that idea involves a social, political, or economic shift. When you read those first few sentences, you probably had the immediate thought of those who are protesting police brutality in our country. Although Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013, it is in the past year that we have seen an unprecedented amount of nonblack people showing support for the movement and advocating for social change. Being an ally to those who do not have the same amount of privilege as you is essential for movements like BLM; black people have been fighting for this change for their entire lives, but nobody listened until nonblack people in power (politicians, celebrities, content creators, etc.) acknowledged the fact that they were fighting anything at all. It shouldn’t be like this, but until it isn’t, as people in a systemic position of privilege, we have to understand the impact of our allyship and make sure we are using the platforms we have, no matter how small they may be, responsibly.
I assume you know at least one person in your personal life who has shared information about Black Lives Matter on social media, whether they expressed general support for the movement, provided links to petitions, shared educational posts and resources, etc. Chances are, you know a lot of people who have done this…and you’ve probably noticed that many of those people only shared those things during the summer months. We are witnessing an alarming amount of what is known as performative activists, which is a term used to describe those who partake in surface-level activism in an attempt to increase their social status, or simply put, nonblack people who do not show support for black lives outside of online spaces. It is the person who reposts things on their Instagram stories but claims they “don’t want to get political” when presented with real-life discussions about issues surrounding race. It is the person who leaves supportive comments on black activists’ posts but says nothing when their friend uses the n-slur. It is the person who responds to your posts about BLM in private messages, claiming to agree with you but won’t share the resources themselves.
These people want the attention they receive from claiming to be “woke” about social issues, but are not actually willing to defend black people. They do it to feel good about themselves, because hey, they shared that story and that makes them a better person, right? Wrong. If you are choosing to be friends with someone who believes in All Lives Matter and is unwilling to educate themselves, you are not an ally to black people. If you sit by while your classmates make racist comments, you are not an ally. If you speak on behalf of black people instead of bringing attention to the feelings and experiences thousands of them have expressed on social media, you are not an ally. If you are following influencers who have been radio silent about the BLM movement and refuse to call them out for that silence, you are not an ally. If you can just “agree to disagree” with your racist friends, you are not an ally. You are not an ally. You are not an ally. Stop calling yourself that.
One major thing that I think is fueling performative activists is the way our society praises white people for doing absolutely anything. That YouTuber you like retweets a single link after months of silence? God, he is such a good person! Your favorite actress says in a livestream that of course, she does not think black people deserve to be discriminated against. Saint Mary, is that you? A band whose account you follow on Instagram liked a comment that said “Like this if you support BLM!” We truly do not deserve the wonderful light they put into the world. This. Is. Ridiculous. Why are nonblack people receiving praise for doing the bare minimum to show support for the movement? Why are nonblack people being praised for their activism at all? It is not a good skill or quality we have; it is us being decent people, so why are we being thanked? Why are some of us acting like we’re doing black people a favor when we express that we respect that basic idea that they are human beings who deserve to not live their lives in constant fear? Why are some of us acting like we are giving black people something by advocating for them? Why?
If you are reading this blog and you feel that sinking embarrassment rising from your stomach in your chest because you know you’re a performative activist, good. Be uncomfortable. Sit in it. Soak it up. Absorb it. Don’t keep scrolling and act like you never saw this; take accountability for the fact that you have spent all of this time pretending to care and it has done absolutely nothing to aid black people in their fight for justice and change, educate yourself on how to be an effective ally, and do better. Do better not because you want that feeling to go away, but because you understand that it is your obligation as a person to help your fellow human when they are being treated unfairly.