It’s about 3:00pm, you just got home from school, and you’re unwinding on your bed (after you changed out of your outside clothes, I hope), scrolling through your Instagram feed. As boredom gets the best of you, you switch from trickling down your never-ending timeline, to swiping through your peers’ stories.
You mindlessly go from story to story, until you stop at one that catches your eye. Embedded on a black screen is a repostable sticker, courtesy of Instagram’s newest feature, that says “Repost if you’re not racist. I can see who skips.” You squint in confusion, trying to see if you’re reading that right. Repost if you’re not racist? Obviously, you aren’t, but you can’t help but wonder what reposting a sticker is doing to end racism. Something tells you racists aren’t going to see that Instagram story and suddenly stop being, you know, racist.
There was an influx of these kinds of stickers all over Instagram about two weeks ago. “Repost if you’re against homophobia,” “Repost if you’re against misogyny,” “Repost if you think minorities are okay, I guess.” These repostable stickers were meant to “spread awareness” about a number of social issues. Admittedly, the effort was (kind of) there, and was done with good intentions. However, the whole spiel felt incredibly disingenuous, like people were using serious matters for two seconds of Internet clout. It also did absolutely nothing to aid the communities people were trying to advocate for.
Also, no offense, but why did we need to spread awareness about things like misogyny and homophobia in the first place? Who didn’t know that they already existed?
Reposting an Instagram sticker is the definition of performative activism, which is defined as “activism that is done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause.” In Layman’s terms, performative activism is a form of activism that people engage in for their own social benefit, and not because they are truly dedicated to whatever societal concern they are “advocating” for.
People are essentially “performing” as an activist, because it may look like they care, but in reality, they haven’t done anything that corroborates that. Previously, I wrote an article about performative activism specific to Asian-American Pacific Islanders, but anyone can participate in performative activism.
Performative activism is extremely detrimental to the causes these “activists” are trying to assist. Chelsea Candelario, writer at PureWow, says, “Performative activism can take the attention away from critically important issues and causes. It shines a light on the “activist” instead of the communities affected.” Essentially, when you participate in performative activism, instead of amplifying the voices of marginalized communities you’re trying to aid, you only silence them even more.
Not only that but, writer at ReadyForum, Esther Fu, says, “One of the greatest problems with performative activism is its ability to turn topics and activism into a superficial trend; it makes a mockery out of social issues, and no tangible action is being taken.” Performative activism waters down the severity of these matters to the public, consequently causing others to take these topics less seriously, making progression even harder to happen. Treating these subjects as a fleeting fad is incredibly disrespectful to individuals who are consistently impacted by those issues, especially since they will continue to be affected even after their situations are no longer “cool” to post about.
Additionally, people participating in performative activism can start a negative chain reaction that results in even more performative activism. Since performative activism is so easy to engage in, it often “discourages others from doing more,” says Candelario. If no one wants to go above reposting a sticker or retweeting a hashtag, absolutely nothing will be accomplished. Sure, maybe it will spread awareness, but for how long? Will it set into motion actions that will aid in implementing change? All performative activism does is take away people’s understanding of how paramount these obstacles are. If it is presented as less important, people will treat it as such. All in all, the easy way out will never lead us to where we want to go. With every one step forward taken using performative activism, in the end, it ultimately takes us two steps back.
When you’re young, it seems as though there’s not much you can do to help, which leads a lot of people to partake in performative activism, because that’s the most young people think they can do to chip in. However, there’s so many better ways to contribute than to repost a sticker or two. One way you can do that is by taking the initiative to educate yourself and using what you know to spread that knowledge to others. Easy and accessible ways for you to learn include tuning into podcasts, watching YouTube videos, reading articles, or even just listening to the voices of the people around you can help you garner more knowledge to become a better activist and ally.
You can also use your social media to post material that will actually produce some kind of progress. Reposting on Instagram isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just make sure you’re posting things with actual substance, even when those kinds of issues are not trending. Infographics with factual and helpful material, such as information about a critical matter, links to GoFundsMes made to support disenfranchised communities, examples of businesses of color to support; those are just a few examples of actual educational, impactful things you can repost on Instagram.
Activism isn’t something you should participate in halfheartedly. Give it your all, because it’s what these issues deserve. These problems are incredibly intertwined into our society, and it’s our responsibility to untangle them. We’ll only tie the knot tighter if we continue practicing performative activism. Be proactive, and not passive in your activism.