Performative Activism

Oh good, time for Theo to get his angry hat on again.

The biggest “difficulty” in writing about this is that it feels like I’m getting at friends who are genuinely good people and do their best to help. But it needs to be looked at, so here we are.

Performative activism is any act that makes a show of a person supporting or being against a movement and/or action. It comes in many forms, from badges to posters to flags, but it’s a statement of a person’s position, and you’re meant to see it.

There are several problems with this sort of thing:

  1. It’s a showy act, but they’re often empty acts. It’s easy to put up a rainbow flag during Pride month, or change your profile picture (See my Allies rant from a few weeks back). The things is, until you actually back it up with anything, it’s just a show. You need to walk the walk, to talk the talk.
  2. They can be easily hijacked. Visible campaigns like, for example, the recent one sprung up in the wake of the Brexit furore where people who are “ok” with immigrants wear a safety pin to show their support. Because this is to show they are a safe person to sit beside on the bus, or talk to walking down the street so you aren’t alone. Thing is, everyone has safety pins, or can acquire them easily, and there are some awful people out there who will happily use them to trick people into walking into an attack.
  3. They can be a front, even if you don’t mean it. It’s easy to say “I’m not racist/homophobic/ableist”, and then in the next sentence use an ableist slur. A lot of people would like to think they are good, decent people, and they likely are, but they will likely still have vocabulary and thinking that in some way targets marginalised groups. So whilst wearing a safety pin, for example, might show you’re not racist, it’s only scratching the very surface of the problem.
  4. They don’t actually help any cause. Cities painting zebra crossings rainbow doesn’t make up for the fact the government just voted again to put down transgender rights. Wearing a safety pin to show you’re not racist, but not actually speaking up when something happens in front of you isn’t going to solve the racism problem that has been dragged into the daylight in the wake of Brexit. We need actions, not empty words and badges.

It is hard; not everyone is able to be involved in direct activism for various reasons. A lot of people take comfort in having their badge or their flag or their poster. And despite what I’ve written above there is nothing inherently wrong with it, but people need to start realising it is performative, it doesn’t solve the problems, and stop congratulating themselves whilst talking over the people actually affected.

Take for example the people today on twitter who decided to take to the #heterosexualprideday tag and tell LGBTQIA+ folx that it’s all just a joke, that these people are just whining because they’re not getting attention for five minutes. And maybe in some cases it is, but in the wider world, it’s anything but a joke. We’ve seen all too recently the violence that LGBTQIA+ folx face for just being themselves. Shot down in nightclubs, refused travel by airlines who won’t recognise their gender. There are people who have family asking why they should get a Pride month for being queer when straight people aren’t celebrated. I’ve seen a lot of people retweeting the quote about how Pride is celebrating our right to exist without persecution, not that we’re gay (because it’s always centred around cisgays, but that’s for another post), and that’s great and all, but we need people to stand up and say “No, this is not a joke, and we need to tackle why”.

We’ve seen a massive uptick in racist attacks since the Brexit result was announced, but this isn’t a new problem. People coming out and saying that those who voted to leave are just uneducated, out of touch “coffin dodgers” are muddying the waters and taking away from the fact that this has been a problem for a long time, the racists just now believe that a vote in the direction they were hoping for has given them a mandate to act as they are openly.

Stepping up is scary: it can be dangerous, time-consuming, energy-consuming, and in extreme cases deadly. But you can have all the words in the world up on a website like this, if you can’t actually step up at the time of an incident, they mean nothing. It doesn’t have to be confronting the attacker either, at least not if it’s a verbal attack: walk up to the victim and greet them like a friend, cutting off the attacker and helping to outnumber them. Cowardice is a common theme with these people, once they’re outnumbered they lose all bottle. If you can’t get involved because it’ll put you or someone you’re with in danger, film what’s going on and report it. If someone else steps up first, you should still step up too. Action in numbers shows you’re really against something.

The world is a scary place for marginalised people, we could do with more of a hand than a shiny badge that says you’re cool.

 

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