The Theatrics of Performative Activism
Updated: Feb 16
Isa Ayidh, UG’ 22
Illustrations By Ananya Bawa, UG’ 21
When your ‘usually radio silent about anything politics related’ Instagram profile uploads a black square with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, it seems as though you’re placing an ‘I’m not a racist’ sticker on yourself for free clout. While this act is inherently not wrong, the problem arises when it’s the only course of action you adopt in supporting the movement.
Instead, introspect: Are you donating? Did you raise your voice against unlawful arrests? What was your take on the CAA? Are you going to the protests? Are you supporting black businesses? But if fairness-cream endorsing Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra can pull off a similar stunt of selective solidarity, why shouldn’t you? TL;DR: you and Priyanka are performative activists.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, a series of protests against racism arose in the United States of America, and that’s when celebrities 13,595 kilometres away—who stay alarmingly ‘apolitical’ about state-sponsored murders in their own country—began to care about police brutality. The convenience of their ‘activism’ rests on this very distance; there is nothing more comfortable than copy-pasting Martin Luther King, Jr’s quotes from the internet. Of course, it’s low risk and high reward. You don’t want a sedition charge against you. Fair enough, or should we say Fair & Lovely?
Although social media has proven to be a gateway for activism, it becomes harmful for your cause when the only place you show solidarity is your Instagram handle. Feminista Jones, an American social worker and writer, argued that the black boxes that accompany the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday—the poster-child of performative allyship—grab the mic from organizers that share information about protests, donations, and video evidence of police brutality. This movement, amongst many others, is not here to soothe your conscience about all the microaggressions you’ve engaged in your life. If your social media activism fails to follow-through—to a donation, a sign on a petition, participation in a protest, and most importantly, acknowledgement of one’s own privilege—are you helping?
Unfortunately, the concept of “Blackout Tuesday” is not the first of its kind. One day, it’s Blue for Sudan, and another day: Red for Kashmir. One could argue that these are ways in which a movement leaves its mark, but do resources accompany your profile picture change? Without them, we reduce long-term, systemic issues to trends that live and die with news cycles. Activism slowly morphs into a debacle of clogged hashtags and stories with quippy one-liners that disappear as fast as they appear, and nothing ever changes. It’s almost like the MUN of social justice—incredibly large, complex discussions happen in a relatively small, controlled space, which turns topics reductive and almost purely symbolic. As Molley Sweeney, an organizing director writes, “[being an ally] means not dipping in and dipping out just because the moment feels urgent to you now. It means committing yourself to this work ongoing and showing up, not just in these moments that are on the news, but day to day.”
What’s worse is that some incidents often take greater precedence in this valuable window of news cycle time than others. Why? They’re more convenient to advocate for. When, for example, in the case of so many Bollywood actors as of late, you condemn horrific events that occur outside your own country while being silent about—and even complicit in—prejudice that happens within it, there’s a slight (read: major) disconnect. No matter how you frame it, Indian celebrities’ attempts to assert themselves as actors with any kind of political sway comes off as insincere. Their outspokenness on a particular issue only comes at the cost of their silence on another. While activists who’ve devoted huge swaths of their lives to causes within our own country like Safoora Zargar find themselves unlawfully incarcerated, it’s uncalled for that celebrities feel they deserve any credit at all for doing the bare minimum.
All of the above doesn’t intend to say there’s a “right” kind of activism, or to be exclusionary. Some people may not be able to be more vocal about causes to avoid family retaliation, some may not be in a position to contribute to causes monetarily, and some may simply be woefully uneducated about certain issues. For the latter, the act of simply spreading awareness does become important. The outrage here is about the patterns that perpetuate the same injustices over and over again—where performative activism is one pattern of many. Picking and choosing which topics to show support for solely to maximize net perceived-wokeness is selfish, disingenuous, and ineffective. And it deserves none of the traction that online and real-life activists have been drumming up in earnest.
It’s easy to identify performative activism in celebrities because their stances—and their silence—are very markedly commented on during controversy, as they have been now. But we must prioritise calling out performative activism in our own friend groups and campuses as well. Many of us know people who post-black squares for BLM and stay silent about casualties in Kashmir, people who denounce CAA protests as overreactions and share their favourite black athletes’ statements through their stories, and, ultimately, people who choose to be activists when it’s convenient or self-serving. Alternatively, take inspiration from different kinds of effective activism we see in our campus: from Project Safar to the Ashoka Women FC, and the efforts of the Environment Ministry and the Feminist Collective, real change is striven upon. It’s on all of us to act less—whether that’s by putting our money where our mouth is, stepping aside to amplify marginalized voices, and/or constantly educating and re-educating ourselves—and do more.