Words by Melissa Nava and Neill Padlan
Edited by Angel Martinez
Art by Jianine Cerrada
How does a nation grapple with the challenges confronting democratic erosion? Are people who engage in digital participatory politics much more likely to have ‘real’ political involvement? Is there a place for neutrality in times of moral crisis?
From the Boston Tea Party to protests on George Floyd’s death, we can see how people have demonstrated an unyielding desire for a better society. Though slavery and segregation practices have long been abolished, discriminatory policies and inequalities in social services still prevail; thus, nationwide calls for genuine reforms and actions are vital.
Activism is undoubtedly a legacy of struggle. History is witness to how people transformed a nation into a haven for the voiceless and marginalized. It is actual, tangible proof that collaborative action, be it through violent or peaceful demonstrations, can help achieve desirable systemic reforms. However, the narrative of activism has drastically changed throughout the years, thanks to the emergence of social networking sites (SNSs).
In a political landscape where so many adults may have felt anguish and hopelessness, it is now the youth who have risen to the challenge by speaking on behalf of future generations. Many of them turn to digital spaces to express their political stances in creative ways: organizing donation drives, signing petitions, and volunteering in publications to show solidarity and digital civic engagement. Some movements have found strength in numbers in social media to express protest, allowing voices of dissent to grow stronger. But like everything online, it’s almost impossible to tell an ally apart from the performative activists in this digital age.
According to Holiday Phillips (Renegade Sociologist), it is important to first see what real allyship is. “An ally is someone from a nonmarginalized group who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group. Performative Activism, on the other hand, is when someone from that same nonmarginalized group professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful or that actively harms that group”. It is also referred to as slacktivism or surface-level activism. Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am not an exemption to these acts, and just like you, I have been trying to understand this concept and what it truly means to be an ally to the marginalized. In order to help the BIPOC we must equally play our part in rejecting these notions of Performative Activism.
“An ally is someone from a nonmarginalized group who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group. Performative Activism, on the other hand, is when someone from that same nonmarginalized group professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful or that actively harms that group.”
But to do that, we must acknowledge that social media is intrinsically performative. The users will be the ones to decide which parts of themselves they will let others see. Hence, we are constantly filtering the undesirable and flawed parts of ourselves to create a better virtual version of who we are. With that, online platforms make it very clear that anything digital is just a reflection of something else – the web content we believe to be genuine could easily be something engineered by an author with ulterior motives. This goes, doesn’t mean to say that social media isn’t capable of successfully inciting concrete action. But while it is not necessary to post one’s stance to express solidarity, likewise, being vocal on virtual spaces does not automatically make us allies.
Performative Activism is a detrimental gesture because it pressures us to show a better, more “woke” version of ourselves to prove that we are on the right side. True to its name, it calls for action. But once the curtains are down and the lights go out, we go back to our usual lives, supporting the same people and businesses we called out instead of seeking to change the status quo – much like a performance.
At the end of the day, the primary goal is just to save face, to avoid being judged or called ignorant. It is attending a protest just to take a picture that affirms our attendance. It is sitting out of conversations once they go beyond surface-level, and refusing to be held responsible for any deeply-rooted systemic ills. Once issues leave the list of trending topics, they are presumed to be over and done with, when the battle has barely even begun. Ignoring this reality puts those who need our help in danger, as it will allow the same problems to rise again simply because they were left unaddressed in the past.
“At the end of the day, the primary goal (of Performative Activism) is just to save face, to avoid being judged or called ignorant. It is attending a protest just to take a picture that affirms our attendance. It is sitting out of conversations once they go beyond surface-level, and refusing to be held responsible for any deeply-rooted systemic ills.”
If you came across this article wanting to understand Performative Activism, a cause, or change the way you perceive these movements, I cannot guarantee that you will find everything that you’re looking for here. After all, I’m also learning myself. But based on what I have read, there are several ways you can address the issue at hand, regardless of what your position is. Self-confessed slacktivists, aspiring advocates, or enforcers of accountability are all welcome here.
If you were called out for being a performative activist, that doesn’t mean that you are a bad person, incapable of change. It is not the end of life as we know it. The fact that you’re reading this means there is hope for you to understand where you went wrong, and make amends. But this is only one step of many: allow it to challenge the way you perceive and act upon the information you interact with. Willingness plays a crucial role: nothing will happen if you won’t want it.
Perhaps, you could start by preparing to question your place in society and if it interferes with your comprehension of certain issues. The tricky part is being open about your preconceptions because this allows you to pinpoint the source of your misinformation. Is it due to stereotypes? The environment you were exposed to? Years of practicing certain subconscious behaviors? Once you find out the root of the problem, an effort towards education should be made, and it will require continuous practice. A common misconception is that those you advocate for or those passionate about their cause are supposed to be educating you. However, they are not obligated to do so. You may be influenced by your peers to take an interest in a subject, however, the only one responsible for your further enlightenment is you. And so I recommend that you ask these questions:
- What is the intent behind your actions?
- Are there any biases at play?
- Do you have alternative means of participating that will express your support for the group?
- What are you doing online and offline to fight for systemic change and the causes you advocate?
When you come to terms with the answers to these questions, all sorts of emotions may start surfacing: denial, fear, possibly even anger. This should be no cause to stop the intervention: we must revive our willingness to change. Give some time for the information to sink in, and reflect on them in a tangible manner: maybe write about what you feel, or talk about it with someone you trust so you can examine your points of improvement up close. Don’t be afraid to own up to your moral failings, and admit that there are other areas you’d rather allocate your energy to.
Whether it’s social inequality, animal rights, or climate change, you can devote ourselves to a cause, given the resources you have at your disposal. You can read about particular topics thanks to a wide range of articles, journals, research papers, and books; interact with people relevant to your topic: peers and acquaintances with the same fire in their hearts, professors, individuals belonging to the community itself; listen to the people directly affected, because their opinions are the perfect primary source. With today’s Digital Age and the various media and streaming sites we could consume, we can also include watching documentaries, shows, films, among others. This may also help you determine where you fall in the activist-ally spectrum: are you up to be a part of the first line of defense, or are you content with being an outsider cheering them on? Either role is alright: they are closely intertwined, and both require a brave heart and strong spirit.
Each person is changing, regardless of whether this is documented for others to see. Moreover, monitoring everyone’s personal development is in fact, not anybody’s job. So don’t let your progress stop there. Continue assessing yourself – mindset, actions, word usage, as to discontinue any of your old habits that may pose harm to others. Start small habits that are revolutionary in their own right: respectfully correct the people around you, observe the way you act when no one is looking, and maintain your mindset even in situations where you’re being tested.
“Each person is changing, regardless of whether this is documented for others to see. Moreover, monitoring everyone’s personal development is in fact, not anybody’s job.”
Performative activism may be difficult to realize and accept, but the longer it takes for us to do so, the act that brought freedom to millions will continue to be reshaped until it can no longer serve its rightful purpose. If you will not implement your newfound education in real-life situations then you are not an ally. Performative activism can never be a suitable substitute for concrete solutions, as long as disenfranchising systems exist. And so I urge you – especially those who are able to indulge yourselves in education and in enforcing change – to collectively find the heart and passion to listen, to collaborate, and reform systems.
Let this spark new conversations. Keep the fire burning so many more can join in!
Melissa lives in Metro Manila, Philippines, and is currently a Sensereporter for Maksense Asia. Her role focuses on penning down truths that are both meaningful and substantial. She hopes to bring awareness, new perspectives, and encourages her readers to join in as she goes along a journey to learn new things and delve deeper herself. Melissa feels particularly passionate about gender equality, inclusivity, and press freedom.
Neill resides in Bulacan, Philippines and is currently working in a government agency as a Technical Writer. He is passionate to issues concerning sustainability and had extra-curricular works with various socio-civic organizations.
Angel resides in Quezon City, Philippines and is currently a Sensereporter Intern for Makesense Philippines. Her role focuses on creating content that aims to shed a light on pressing social issues across Asia. Angel is an advocate for many causes but feels particularly passionate about mental health and community empowerment through education and livelihood.
Jianine is a freelance visual artist based in Metro Manila, Philippines. Currently, she is a graphic design & digital marketing intern at Cloop, a social enterprise focused on upcycling plastic waste while empowering communities in need. She is passionate about social impact through design, as well as her advocacies in gender equality and environmental sustainability.