By Roog Kubur, February 7 2022—
A day commemorating one of the greatest civil rights activists — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — was observed on Jan. 17 in the United States and Canada. It’s a day to honour Martin Luther King Jr.’s (MLK) fight against racial segregation — an achievement we are reaping the benefits of to this day. The observance of this day brings the opportunity to reflect on his legacy as well as reflect on how far we’ve come since then. While we have come quite a long way since his time, we have a new racial landscape to navigate. The introduction of social media has created new social interactions to be reckoned with. We try to live up to his legacy by fighting against the new barriers we face, however, this brings with it a wealth of new issues.
The question is not how to live up to the legacy of MLK but rather how to continue it. With activism being the new hot trend following the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2020, there has been much discussion of what equates to meaningful activism. The digital world has placed an immense amount of pressure on us to make our anti-racist efforts known — threatening us with the idea that we are not truly anti-racist otherwise. This is a universal pressure to not only be anti-racist but also be an activist.
Performative activism has been a concept thrown around quite liberally since then and has been used to encompass the phenomenon by which individuals will be outwardly outspoken against racism while doing very little to actually combat it. If your activism is not doing anything meaningful then who are you advocating for? What is the point of being an activist?
This form of activism is closely associated with social media — wherever there is a chance to put on an anti-racist disposition, someone will flaunt their self-proclaimed wokeness. The most common outlet for such performance comes in the form of the unrelenting reposting of pastel infographics that seek to explain different socio-political situations. This is only the beginning of the show. Performative activism manifests itself wherever people are compelled to perform and — as Shakespeare said — “all the world’s a stage.”
While social media is a primary modus operandi of such performance, it exists everywhere. This may mean excitedly telling your Black friend about the racist comments from their classmates, being overly enthusiastic about getting the chance to debate with racists or even over-compensating for your own race by apologizing for the actions of your ancestors.
While these gestures are very obviously anti-racist, they lack a fundamental understanding in what makes racism persist. Racism is ingrained into structural institutions and a result of generations of white supremacy — it will not be undone by resharing posts. Our reluctance to admit this allows us to partake in the conventional, easy form of activism — the kind that doesn’t actively try to do anything productive and only serves to glamorize very real socio-political issues and make us feel better about ourselves. By personalizing activism, we neglect the real-world implications of racism and how it affects racialized individuals. Rather than trying to get to the root of the issue, we confuse performativity with productivity and place value on mundane actions. This activism has a clear beginning and goal but lacks substance and a strong throughline — making it a poor performance and quite boring.
The conventional answer to performative activism is well-known. Understand the implications of your words and actions (read: don’t be racist), try to be anti-racist in your personal life (read: call out racist friends and relatives) and raising awareness (read: repost the infographics afterward). This answer neglects one very critical part of activism — achieving real change is not easy. There is an answer to performative activism and it, funnily enough, involves a different form of personalization.
The personalization of activism isn’t inherently such a bad thing so long as it’s undergone in a meaningful way. This births a less palatable form of activism — the kind that centres individual action before publicizing it. This is the kind of activism that comes from the inside out, but is also the kind that takes the most amount of time and discomfort. It requires the unlearning of internal biases before anything else and requires confronting your relationship with race — both your own and others in order to understand why that relationship exists.
Truthfully, such a process is quite shameful in today’s society because it suggests that at some point, you were racist. The era of social media expects us to have been perfect all our lives, always being the pioneers of social justice and proudly toting such an achievement. However, productive activism requires an admission first. It’s okay to admit that you were ignorant about race at some point or maybe even perpetuated racism — because we all are continuously learning, unlearning and relearning.
It’s impossible to be raised in a world that centers race into every discussion and not have a few biases leak through from television, music or your own parents. Please note, dear reader, that this goes for both ignorance as well as racism. In today’s society, we seem to think of racism as only the overt kind — involving slurs and cursing at immigrants — but it is much more complex than that. This admission of former ignorance is simply an admission that you weren’t always well-versed in the complexities of race in today’s society, which is normal. The most important part of this admission is that there is one and distancing yourself from notions of racism doesn’t do anything productive because it is a refusal to acknowledge they even exist. It’s okay to admit that notions of race have permeated through your own thoughts and are part of your experiences.
The relationship between yourself and race is not only internal biases, but also acknowledging how race plays a role in your own life. Understanding that, as a racialized individual, there were points where your race was a primary factor. This process is much more difficult because it may involve confronting memories and experiences that were more hurtful in hindsight, and recognizing bias that may be held against you on the basis of race. This involves acknowledging the existence of race as something to be reckoned with. There are no exceptions to this process. Whether or not you would like to admit it, race has played a role in your life and you need to figure out what that role is.
The part that makes this process “activism” is that, once all of this internal work is done, you go out and do something with it. This is also the most difficult part. This means looking at the world around you with a critical lens and realizing just how crucial race is to our society. What makes this step so difficult is that it involves the active confrontation of what you’ve learned. This could mean apologizing to people you may have hurt in the past or confronting individuals who have hurt you. Regardless, this is necessary in the anti-racist process because it is actualizing what you’ve learned. It’s taking tangible actions and actively working against the racism of the world. At this point, this is where external activism can truly begin. If you still feel compelled to post infographics by now, go ahead, but at least now there’s some depth to such an action.
The important thing to remember about this activism is that it does not involve a grandiose display of what you’ve learned. There is no applause, flowers or praise for undergoing such a process. People will not think any differently of you, nor will they commend you for being woke. This is what makes this such an effective process, the sheer fact that nobody else will know you’re going through it. This is where the true value of such a process lies — the fact that it’s being done for yourself. You underwent this process because you want to better understand race and better understand how to combat it, making your input in dialogues about racism all the more valuable.
There are several caveats that must be acknowledged. This is a process for racialized individuals, proposed by a racialized individual who went through it and can recognize its value. This is not explicitly for white people. There is no point in writing about how to be a better ally because there are hundreds of articles doing such a thing. This is for individuals who want to be better acquainted with their relationship to race, regardless of your own background. Such a disclaimer needs to be stated because all too often, we find that any discussions of race are co-opted by certain groups and turn into an information session rather than a productive conversation. We have had enough discussions of how real racism is and why it’s bad. The dialogue now must be refocused on what to do, on an individual level, to abolish it.
In the world of performativity, it may seem like we are obliged to make our activism efforts known. Being anti-racist is not a badge of honour, it is an active component of one’s life. This process is not timely. It took me two years to confront the reality of being a black woman and — to this day — I’m still actively reflecting on what I’ve learned from that time. It requires extensive conversations with other racialized people, copious amounts of reflection, admission of ignorance, a suspension of pride, tremendous mental fortitude and a willingness to be extremely uncomfortable at times, but it can be done. This is more meaningful than trying to become the next MLK because it focuses on what each of us can do. It is more meaningful to do the internal work than choosing to flaunt it, and it will show. Just trust me on this one.
This article is a part of our Voices section.