By Leann Tran
In the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement was at its peak. Many were quick to vocalize their support- the NFL, H&M, Zara, Selena Gomez, Lea Michele, John Boyega, Emily Ratajkowski, Virgil Abloh, Kylie Jenner, and so on. However, half of the brands/influencers were viciously attacked online for voicing their support.
I know, it’s weird. Why is anyone mad that these brands took the time to address an issue that needed amplification? They are super cool for this and everyone on the internet is just a hater, right? Wrong.
When it comes to branding, organizations know how integral good content is to developing a good social media strategy. Your words (or “content”) and your actions align to create your brand.
With these brands, their words did not align with their actions. They are partaking in performative activism. This creates tension between the brand and its publics. All it takes is one bland statement about “not seeing color” and a black square for the cyberbullying to commence.
In order to not get cyber-bullied online (and lose your brand’s reputation and your publics’ trust), this post will cover what performative activism is, how to avoid it, and examples of it.
For the sake of clarity, I will continue to use BLM throughout the post to explain performative activism.
What is Performative Activism?
Performative activism is activism, mostly done online, for social gain or clout. Performative activism isn’t helpful in advocating for political/social/economic justice, and it may even cause more harm to marginalized communities. It usually involves a brand/influencer/celebrity receiving insurmountable praise for doing the bare minimum. It is surface-level activism.
For example, think of how popular Kylie Jenner is. Imagine if someone with her platform, her power, her influence just reposted a black square on their Instagram story as an attempt at solidarity? Oh wait…that did happen.
The general public will look at this and say, “She’s a good person” and Kylie will be lauded for ending racism, and all will be right in the world. Kidding. In reality, how is reposting a black square going to help anyone?
To these influencers/brands, posts like these are strategic, meant to boost the brand’s image as “one of the good ones,” and for the most part, it works. The audience eats up the pretty, empty words and it allows these brands to remain complacent, not really advocating or engaging with the topic authentically. It’s all very much surface level activism.
Why is Performative Activism Important?
Every brand has their own respective publics, and performative activism affects every part of these brands. That’s not to say brands are going to be crucified for doing the bare minimum - actually, they most likely will. But it’s easily preventable!
Performative activism is really just another lense for the public to look through. The goal, though, is to not have anyone look through that lense when it comes to your brand. Because what you choose to support, especially when it comes to political matters, reflects your entire brand and thus, the public’s perception of your brand.
And before you’re like, “Okay, so what if I don’t post anything? I would be spared from the cyberbullies and save my brand’s reputation, right?” I mean, you don’t have to post at all and that will still speak volumes about your brand (good or bad depending on who you ask). It will definitely distort public perception of your brand though. But, not to worry, I made a quick step-by-step guide that can help you post in an authentic and engaging way.
In general, when you use your platform to post, really look at the post and consider who it is helping? Is it helping the brand (by saving face) or the audience (by informing them)? When it comes to politically pressing matters, like police brutality, this is crucial to consider, because posts that use simple statements like “We see you” or an image of a black square or simply a hashtag in the caption are purposely vague. This shields the poster from critically engaging with the topic at hand (i.e systemic racism) and comes off as very disingenuous.
By critically engaging, I mean that the content must acknowledge systemic racism, and not be expressed in terms of outrage. According to Holiday Phillips, sociologist and writer, “your outrage isn’t useful — if anything, it’s a marker of your privilege, that to you racism is still surprising. Trust me when I say this is not so for black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) for whom racism is an everyday reality.”
Ultimately, you want the post to represent your brand. Do you want a post full of empty promises to represent your brand? Or do you want the informative post - advocating, and critically engaging with the topic at hand - to represent your brand? If you’re posting for the sake of posting with no real substance, don’t. People can tell and they’ll cyberbully you on the internet and boycott all your products. This is why it’s important to know what performative activism is. Other people can tell when you’re part of the problem.
The easy way out is not some phony black square post on Instagram. It’s doing research and addressing the systemic issues. It must come from a place of authenticity and you must advocate.
Examples of Performative Activism:
On Twitter, L’Oréal posted this:
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