Person using computer and phone

“The last few years have really enabled what I call performative or armchair activism — nice gestures that are ultimately empty, because they are backed by no actions whatsoever… It’s flashy, it’s public, you can brand yourself as ‘doing something,’ but it doesn’t necessarily result in substantive change.”
—s.e. smith, Just say no to performative activism

A few years ago, after I’d given a talk at a meetup, I was approached by a woman of colour. She wanted to talk about my slides. Not the content of the presentation, but the fact that I’d chosen to use stock images from a group called “WOCinTech”. I’d heard about the group on twitter: it aimed to boost representation for women of colour who work in tech. I hadn’t thought too hard about using the images—why not have some diversity in my presentations? (It didn’t hurt that they were professionally shot and free to use under a “creative commons” licence.)

“I noticed the photos you used in your slides,” she said. “Thanks, you’ve made me think. I’m surprised by my own reaction—by how unusual it is to see people who look like me in professional presentations.”

You might think that I’d be pleased to hear this, perhaps even proud of myself. But despite the entirely positive feedback—she literally thanked me for using these photos—something about the experience was jarring for me. Did I really deserve praise for doing this? I realised that one of my motivations had been to show off how “woke” I was, what a virtuous person I was for understanding that tech has an inclusion problem. I now realise I was engaging in what s.e. smith calls performative activism.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with what I did. After all, this group specifically asked people to use their photos as a way of challenging stereotypes about what tech workers look like. And there may have been a couple of white men in the audience who found the images challenging and learned something as a result. But I’d be fooling myself if I claimed that my choice to use these images made any substantive change to the intersecting oppressions of racism and sexism in our society. It cost me nothing to do—in fact it saved me giving money to iStockPhoto!—and it supported a kind of smug complacency about my position. Other people use overwhelmingly white photos, but I think you’ll find that I use photos of women of colour. Check me out!

I’m going to make the bold claim that most actions that privileged professionals like me take in opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and other oppressions are forms of performative activism. Supporting “diversity and inclusion” schemes, mentoring, or “unconscious bias” training; voting for progressive or liberal political parties, donating to charities; signing petitions, adding badges or ribbons to our social media avatars, tweeting hashtags. All of these feel great and may do some good. But they are unlikely to lead to substantive change in the underlying systems that maintain these oppressions.

I see two major problems with these actions. First, if it’s easy for me to do, it follows that it doesn’t challenge my privileges. My white privilege is not challenged, or even brought into focus, when I use images of people of colour in my slides. It can even have the opposite effect, where I deny my white privilege through the use of “diverse” imagery, similar to the way in which white supremacists claim that they’re “not racist” because they have black friends. Similarly, corporate “diversity and inclusion” schemes give the impression of diversity without calling out the beneficiaries of the status quo (white people, men, middle class people, etc). In effect this means that when I support these types of actions, I am unwilling to use the power that society grants me to resist oppression and create real change.

The second problem is that performative activism plays into the myth of the “good” white person. Most of us have been socialised to crave praise and fear criticism. We’ve also been taught that racism is a set of bad acts caused by individual prejudice, not a violent system of social control. A part of us wants to be seen as “good”, and performative actions give us that dopamine hit, as our friends like our tweets (or indeed tell us how woke our slides are.) The reality is that there is no “good” white person. Whiteness is a racist construct which benefits people who look like me at the expense of people of colour. Anti-racism asks us to look beyond notions of good and bad people and instead see how we participate in oppressive systems like whiteness, gender norms, capitalism etc. Because we have privileges, we could be ideally placed to resist these systems—but only if we somehow learn to kick the habit of constantly wanting to be seen as good.

To participate in substantive activism on racism or any other oppression, we need to challenge one of our basic beliefs: that we earned our positions in society through “merit” and hard work. Yes we were taught that, yes perhaps we believe that. But it’s a myth. By and large we, the multiply privileged, benefit from oppressive systems like racism. We’ve been told our whole lives that our privileges were earned, either from hard graft or our natural “merit”. These are lies, albeit lies we hold onto tightly and perhaps don’t believe we can survive without.

So when I say we need to face up to race, power and privilege, I’m not talking about punishing ourselves or feeling guilty. I’m talking about deconstructing the denials that allow us to participate in a system that we know, at some level, benefits us by harming others. I’m not saying that our performative activism has no value, that mentoring people doesn’t help, that retweeting is always futile. It’s not that these actions make us bad people. It’s that only through moving past the good/bad binary can we use our power to genuinely resist the oppressions that we claim to oppose.