Performative Activism and Identity in the Digital Age | Drew Davis

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This is a time of alleged mainstream revolution. There is a somber taste in the air from the insurmountable fatality from the pandemic; a firm reminder of our mortality is at the forefront, more than any of us under twenty-five can recall. Systems are failing and the people are fed up, it is quite easy to have a disillusioned outlook towards what lies ahead. Yet, there are embers of hope: local communities are rebuilding spaces of comradery and support; new age renditions of community funds are being reinvented via cash app, shared housing is prominent, and everyone on the street has a greater threshold of patience and sympathy. Even with these subtle changes leading us to a kinder future, I cannot help but wonder: are these new ways of thinking and living trickling to the top? Will massive corporations participate in dismantling systematic oppression?

Summer 2020 was a form of (nonconsenting) calibration. The shades of privilege over white people’s eyes were snatched off, or at the very least, slowly slipping off—or so it seems. The murder of George Floyd was a moment of racism; a ringing reminder that all Black people are disposable masses of production. In the system of Whiteness, Black people across the diaspora are mere cattle, undeserving of the gleeful moments humanity has to offer. Black Americans were not given the liberty to grieve in peace. Instead, they were forced to contend with the atrocities in the viral video…while also being forced to muster up an ungodly amount of patience to “teach” whites in their social network the qualms of Black life. But this is a cyclical routine: Americans of any generation can recall cinematic murders of Black Americans, the somber feelings, the unity. We have convinced ourselves that this time is different, and arguably it is. The union between the pandemic and Black murder caused the paradigm to shift because people had time to digest the event. To breathe in the nihilist energy from Black elders… it was worse than any angry mob. It was an immovable sense an ennui; Black Americans have seen this scenario play out before.

#BlackOutTuesday perfectly showcased the ways in which performative activism is not only vapid but also distracts and takes up spaces from those committed to infrastructural change. Designated as a day to take a break from the online competition of “who can be the happiest”, Instagram users posted a black square to symbolize solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Arguably, a nameless black square coupled with a hashtag does little to amplify a movement. The day became known as an activist faux pas for a variety of reasons. To preface, the origin of the hashtag is unknown to most Instagram users. It simply became a sensationalized event that everyone knew about a few days before it was set to launch. At its best, the support behind the event was divisive.

There were Black American Instagram users, especially activists, who thought of the hashtag as a neoliberal ploy to garner brownie points for vaguely recognizing the plight of Black Americans. Rather than repost relevant—and quite frankly, needed content about protests and resources to help Black Americans, “allies” to the movement simply reposted the same black square that quickly turned into a hashtag abyss. Thousands of people included #BLM hashtags and other online signifiers of the fight for Black liberation in their #BlackOutTuesday post. In a capitalistic attempt to garner more views and engagement for their own page, the same users inadvertently buried valuable information that needed to be shared between activists and Black persons seeking resources. This example of “activism” prioritizes the visage of online activism over the transfer of resources and information to marginalized communities.

Millennial and Gen Z Black Americans navigated the loss of Black lives and overall lack (and daresay, disinterest) of support from local and federal government in a savvy, generational-specific way. With the global onslaught of anti-blackness permeating daily life for these individuals, they looked inwards to find fulfillment and validation. Thus, the trend of “I am a Black man/woman” was born. In short, the trend consisted of a Black man or woman stating the first line, followed by a list of qualities that the identity embodies: I am a Black man/woman! I build…I don’t tear down other Black men! … I have felt the pain of being torn down and I have decided I will be deliberate about building others!  With a list of other exemplary qualities along with tagging ten of one’s closest friends, the post is complete; a sense of community is sparked. Friends that were tagged in turn do the same process, et cetera et cetera.

It is important to think critically about the ways in which community is built, especially in instances where we seek to unpack anti-blackness (i.e., being the antithesis to stereotypes: we build, lift each other up, etc.). At its highest vibration, Black liberation means freedom in every facet for every type of Blackness. For two notable reasons, the representation this trend describes fails to accomplish this goal. Most apparent is the use of binary gender pronouns. The challenge fails to be accessible to gender non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals. It is not only linguistically insensitive, but ironically does the exact thing users of the trend were trying to escape from: categorizing Black persons based on Eurocentric standards, while excluding those that do not fit within the gender binary. The implications of the gender binary and the performance of “building” alludes to the Black excellence archetype. Black excellence, gaudily glittering with remnants of the talented-tenth manifesto by Du Bois, is about using hard work as a way to push for the advancement of the Black race. It is not only ableist, but it also forces Black people to be defined by their work output. To constantly be shackled with the expectation to produce quality work whilst being an “acceptable” negro is a form of unethical confinement that Black person deserves. Black persons deserve to be mediocre, destructive, and nonconventional.

This use of language must not be taken lightly. Language is a tool that shapes our perception and identity within a society that is constantly trying to sell us who we are. The internet, specifically social media, once had the allure of being the new wild West: a digital wilderness waiting to be tamed by youthful users looking for a space to tame themselves and their inhibitions. Social media is more than simply a perfectly lit selfie or great outfit; it is about iconography and symbolism, and it is about willfully engaging in the dualistic relationship of branding one’s own self based on the archetypes given by the machine of the masses. Therefore, any form of activism online will always be performative: on a digital platform it must be packaged in an accessible and aesthetically pleasing way to gain views and engagement, i.e., social capital. The title of activist, in a social media setting, has the potential to increase visibility— especially for those who conform to conventional beauty standards. Performative activism, in essence, is about increasing one’s marketability through sympathy; if one is seen as caring, worldly, and an overall decent human being, naturally they gain access to certain spaces—with the help of desirability.

To combat performative activism, culturally, we should pull back the veneer: What is our intention when we seek to amplify marginalized voices? What does it mean to be a decent person to a fellow human being, without the notion of gaining something in return? Lastly, what would our world look like if we stop incentivizing acts of kindness and instead saw it as the bare minimum?


Drew Davis, part time writer, full time adventurer. Furman University alumnus.


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