On May 25th in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a modern-day lynching was captured on video and spread like wildfire across the globe. The world watched in horror as George Floyd begged for his life while detained by four policemen, pleading “I can’t breathe” as officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It is an event too evil to fathom, and yet his unlawful death personifies the reality of racialized violence and White supremacy that is ingrained in our governing systems. This act was not a result of “the system” failing, but rather a condition written in its design to secure White power and marginalize minority communities.
George Floyd’s death happened amidst the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic which disproportionately affects Black communities in factors of job security, access to healthcare and mental distress. It came only months after Breonna Taylor was shot in her bed by police in Louisville, Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down while jogging and murdered by ex-cop, his son and accomplice in Glyn County, Georgia. Floyd’s plea “I can’t breathe” is hauntingly familiar; six years earlier, Eric Garner pleaded the same refrain while choked to death by police on Staten Island, New York and again in 2019 in Aurora, Colorado when Elijah McClain was restrained by police and given a fatal dose of ketamine. Floyd’s death came seven years after the Black Lives Matter movement ignited in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. These names are among an exhaustive list that echoes a long and painful history of institutionalized racism and police brutality that stems from slavery to modern day.
George Floyd’s murder was a tipping point that ignited one of the largest sustained protest periods in all of history. People took to the streets to advocate in over 4,329 cities across the globe, with demonstrations still happening to this day. #JusticeforFloyd, #BlackLivesMatter and #DefundthePolice were among the innumerable hashtags that inundated social media timelines for weeks on end. Celebrities, organizations, politicians, and businesses immediately outpoured statements that declared their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and promises to fight the good fight against systemic racism. Based on appearances, one would think we were on the precipice of a revolution. But when it comes to action, we must question appearance vs. reality.
WHAT IS PERFORMATIVE ALLYSHIP?
The notion of ‘performative allyship’ has gained widespread recognition following the May 25th murder of George Floyd in criticizing certain responses from the “ally” community that appear supportive, but in reality, are not helpful and often destructive to the movement. In recognizing this phenomenon, one should first understand the difference between activism, advocacy and allyship, which vary based on intensity and effect.
Activism is the continuous action of vigorously campaigning to bring about political or social change. Activists are trail blazers who directly challenge the dominant system and propose solutions. For example, Black Lives Matter organizers and leaders are activists.
Advocacy is publicly supporting a cause and aligning beliefs with those of the movement. Advocates are passionate and open about their support but are not spearheading the revolution. For example, celebrities who actively post about social injustice and make recommendations for ways to help are advocates.
Allyship is the position of supporting a social cause or movement. Being an ally is a mindset – it is a commitment to learning and teaching others within their own sphere of influence. For example, people who are not persecuted by racialized violence but support the Black Lives Matter movement are allies. Because allies are not victimized by the system, they are privileged. Consider the utter shock and anguish from the White community over George Floyd’s murder as a form of privilege in and of itself, because for Black, Indigenous & People of Colour (BIPOC) this is nothing new.
For allyship to be performative, it involves the act of publicly signaling solidarity against social injustice without challenging the system that reinforces these unjust conditions. In other words, they naively create the façade of being an ally without rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work. This is incredibly problematic as the focus shifts towards gaining recognition in place of taking real action to help Black communities. It means that people treat allyship as a kind of social currency, stepping in and out of the role in a way that makes them only appear to be helping.
Okay, I’ve made a deal with myself. I’ll stop posting these when people stop doing dumb shit like this at protests. Until then… pic.twitter.com/ykXnppRrtR
— influencersinthewild (@influencersitw) June 15, 2020
Think about the act of an ally taking a selfie at a Black Lives Matter protest. Those who are victimized by the system in power are generally persecuted for speaking out individually. Therefore, joining a unified force provides protection in numbers and amplifies the message through mass demonstration. Protests create opportunities to dismantle oppressive systems, challenge harmful policies and insight ideological shifts in society. Taking a selfie at a protest is manipulating that opportunity and internalizing it for personal gain. For allies, it is positioning themselves at the center of an issue that does not personally afflict them. It is hijacking the purpose of the movement and converting it into something fashionable. It shows the ally’s privilege because they do not fear the repercussions of being seen. Moreover, this performance is validated through virtual likes and comments, even though there is no context for how the photo was taken. In some cases, people will only show up to capture the moment and do nothing to join the movement.
Performing allyship is choosing when and where to express support in a way that gets someone admired without confrontation. Consider a non-BIPOC person who signals their allyship online yet fails to correct racist remarks made within their social sphere. They are choosing when to speak and stay silent to avoid confrontation and discomfort, but Black communities have no choice. Racism is their reality even when the #blacklivesmatter hashtag is not trending. So, while that person feels good about their virtual signaling and even better because they avoided discomfort, Black people still suffer the consequences of racism going uncorrected.
In our digital culture where everything gets measured on the surface, it is imperative that we understand the difference between making gestures that passively acknowledge BIPOC oppression versus taking a deep dive to identify the systems of power that perpetuate White privilege and persecute minority communities. What allies must recognize is that racism is not limited to single acts of discrimination, therefore, allyship cannot be single acts of involvement. We must adopt a critical mindset of self-reflection and encourage de-centralized advocacy. We must work towards an anti-racist culture to dismantle our current oppressive system. We must recondition our society to normalize Black excellence and create opportunities that put underrepresented communities in a position of power. But to change society, allies must genuinely show up and keep showing up.
HOW DO YOU SPOT PERFORMATIVE ALLYSHIP?
Performative allyship, also known as “optical allyship” or “performative wokeness” exists in many different forms, however, there are several clues that can suggest an action is inauthentic.
1. The action centers the ally within the problem and gets them recognized for good will
This article is a classic example of an ally drawing attention to themselves in a way that increases their social currency. The author provides the reader with more than enough reasons to praise her political correctness, so we understand that she is aligned on “the good side.” The problem with this action is that while she gets recognized for “good allyship,” she is drawing attention away from the perspective of minorities. The ally, being a White privileged CEO, already has a voice in our society. We need to give voice to those who are personally affected by these issues. This is not to say that her actions are ill intended, but simply not helpful. Good allyship starts with decentering oneself to uplift those who need help. It is doing something not for the recognition, but for the betterment of our society.
2. The ally expresses outrage or extreme shock at the conditions of marginalized communities
— Emily Jashinsky (@emilyjashinsky) June 24, 2020
This video depicts a White woman at a protest who is clearly making a scene about her anger towards racism. While she has every right to be enraged with systemic racism, she does it in such a way that creates a spectacle out of her allyship. She is screaming at Black cops because “they are part of the system,” as if they are the ones who do not understand racism. It is not helpful to simply express anger as a form of allyship because it does nothing to contribute to solutions. Outrage from the White community regarding George Floyd’s death only points out the ignorance surrounding systemic racism because this is nothing new.
3. The action puts shame onto others to deflect accountability
It is important for allies to call people out and address acts of racism in a way that holds them accountable and creates opportunity to learn. However, this is often performed in a way that shames people and excuses the accuser from self-reflection. As allies think “I’m not as bad as this person” it allows them to feel good by comparison while not taking the actions to change within. Furthermore, the act of shaming is divisive – it prevents people from engaging in conversations about change from fear of making a mistake. This is detrimental to changing our society as it is essential to engage the masses and gain enough political power to dismantle systems of oppression.
4. The action is overly simple or misses the point completely
This is an example of a business that uses the popularity of Black Lives Matter sentiments for personal gain and misses the point completely. They are using broken glass from the Charleston riots to make accessories that are each named after a victim of police violence. As a result, they are glamorizing the traumatic experience of real people and converting it into something stylish. They are piggybacking on the trendiness of the Black Lives Matter movement and grossly profiting off Black individuals who were unjustly murdered. Actions such as these further normalize the experience of Black communities being persecuted by police as it does nothing to challenge systems of oppression that perpetuate these horrific deaths. Furthermore, it gives people the idea that social justice can be commodified and idealized when there is nothing ideal about systemic racism.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE PERFORMED ALLYSHIP?
If you have performed allyship, first, take a deep breathe. Do not be defensive about your mistake. Good allyship means you can be called out for your inaction in a way creates opportunity to do better. The “perfect ally” does not exist and mistakes will surely happen. But we must get out of the practice of shaming people into fear and encourage reflection and teachable moments.
Do not deflect, research & reflect…
Educating one’s self is key to recognizing the prevalence of systemic racism and the powers that perpetuate discrimination and racialized violence. To dismantle White supremacy, we must decolonize our mindset and acknowledge that as non-BIPOC, we benefit from a system that affords us with more opportunity. We cannot undo the privileges that have been afforded, but we can dedicate ourselves to unlearning and learning to uplift those who are oppressed.
HOW TO BE A GENUINE ALLY?
1. Unlearn, learn, and educate others
- Here is a document of Anti-racist Resources with links to articles, podcasts, videos, books, movies, and TV shows to consume and better educate oneself.
- Campaign Zero is an organization working to create solutions to stop police violence
- Black Lives Matter provides information about protests, programs, and solutions
- Learn about Defunding the Police
- Follow BIPOC activists and leaders on social media
- Another option: simply google it! Seriously, it is that easy.
2. Turn words into action
- Protest locally
- Sign petitions (https://www.change.org/)
- Call people out for racist remarks
- Vote for leaders who will make institutionalized change
- Call local authorities and demand justice
3. Decenter yourself and center BIPOC voices
- Advocate without being recognized
- Seek answers from the perspectives of those affected by this issue
- If you have a platform, lend it to BIPOC individuals or organizations and share their message
4. Act with your wallet
- Donate to social organizations, bail funds, and relief funds
- Support BIPOC owned business in your community
- Toronto Resources:
- Follow @blackowned.to on Instagram to discover products and services in Toronto provided by Black business owners
- Here is a directory of Black owned business in Toronto
THE CONSEQUENCE OF PERFORMATIVE ALLYSHIP
It has been three months since the murder of George Floyd, and already we can see the destruction of performative allyship unfold. Since May 25th, we have seen police taking a knee, cities painting streets with “Black Lives Matter” and politicians making promises of transformation more than we have seen real policy changes to dismantle oppressive systems. We have witnessed companies and organizations making public statements to recognize systemic racism and reaffirm their values of diversity and inclusion, to then back out or do nothing when the attention is no longer on them. On social media there was a two-week outburst of allies sharing anti-racist resources and sentiments, who then went back to their regular practice of posting selfies and patio drinks. Why? Because these performances made it appear like things were changing. Until Jacob Blake…
On August 23, a video captured 29-year-old Jacob Blake walking towards his car, pursued by police who then shot him seven times at point-blank range while his three sons were in the backseat. This happened only 90 days after the murder of George Floyd. It happened after months of public outcry to retrain, de-militarize and defund the police. It happened after people, politicians, organizations, and celebrities outpoured their solidarity statements that affirmed “enough is enough.”
The consequence of performative allyship is our society’s misconception of what change really looks like and how it can be achieved. It makes people feel as though their one-off social media post is activism when genuine activism takes hard work and sacrifice. It allows politicians and institutions to create the image of being socially conscious without practice or accountability. Moreover, it normalizes the performance of converting social justice into something fashionable – something that can be worn, shown off and then thrown away when it is no longer trendy. We must reconceptualize society’s understanding of change that steps outside of the virtual realm and into the real world. Only saying, “enough is enough” will never be enough.
Think about various ideological shifts throughout history that all started with a social movement challenging the dominant system. In our contemporary age, it is hard to imagine a time when women were not allowed to work or vote, yet our mothers and grandmothers lived this reality. Kids growing up today may find it hard to imagine a world where same-sex marriage was illegal, however, all of Canada only legalized it in 2005. These changes in society do not happen overnight. It requires hard work and sacrifice. It requires showing up and showing up again. And without exception, it requires allies – those who are privileged by the system – to use their power and create opportunity for those disempowered.
Our world is on the verge of an ideological shift in society, but nothing will change if we continue to perform allyship instead of practicing it. Allies must do the work, not just signal it.