Ally or Actor?: How to avoid the trap of performative activism | Ana White

PITTSBURGH PROTEST 2
(Submitted photo)

By Ana White

Performative Activism: The “Bells and Whistles” of false allyship. For many, going to marches with signs held high with bullhorns and shouting seems to be enough.

After all, if one’s voice is being asked for, what better way to provide that than within a large group of people, right?

While we have seen that many have found relief and oftentimes resolve with public displays of support as the basis for their intended allyship, we know there is much more to the movement than that. Further, placing oneself in these spaces as a new member of this group can lend itself to some difficulties in navigation to avoid the faux pas that can occur while being a white ally.

But with all of the transitions and demands, it proves harder advocates to maneuver in the world. This begs the question: IS there a such thing as an ineffective ally? Many do not think that can be true, but it happens more often than people are willing to discuss.

Many of us have been here before. We’ve seen groups of people carry the torch for a bit and put it down when the flame burns out, discarding the mission and its participants to the wind. We maneuver in the ashes of burnt foundations for change, and we seldom say a word.

It comes as a surprise then that when this “season” of advocacy arrived, that many black and brown protestors decided against white participation, exclaiming the need for more productive, and less theatrical advocacy. This may leave an abandoned and poor taste in the mouths of many who feel that their contribution towards a better world is not being accepted and acknowledged, causing further divide between us.

While marches and rallies allow for freedom of expression, many allies are finding confusion in the freedom. There is a tough balance occurring in the nation right now.

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Many tough decisions surrounding deeply rooted disenfranchisement and the systems that have created it are rising to the surface. There are some difficult realities being realized. For many, relationships are ending, marriages are becoming undone, family cohesion is dissipating.

The commitment to further advocacy is being demanded in a way that has never occurred before. Individuals are having to truly take a look at how their demonstration of resistance or advocacy has looked like in the past, and provide much more than the “bells and whistles.”

But if one is not knowledgeable on how to shift and increase their advocacy, it looks like nothing more than performance, a stale superficial display of solidarity which at the moment, paints itself as alignment, but very soon after dissolves into the sea of normalcy that continues to effect everyone around.

Performative activism is very easy to slip into. It comes naturally for those who love the display of freedoms and the showcase of liberties and outrage alike.

But, if not coupled with true actions steps, continues to show itself as theatrical self serving display and does little for community.

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Further, how non-people of color (NPOC) display their advocacy during this level of activism is important to note if they are to be well equipped to more sustainable change. NPOC must first realize that theatrics are what occurs when the true work is either being actively avoided to avoid the true changes needed, or ignorantly positioned as the pacification necessary to skip over this moment in a way that diffuses the issue at hand.

As a Black person who has seen both individuals tiptoeing themselves into advocacy and those who remain stuck in the “hallway,” confused about how to truly enter into advocacy and activism, I offer the following:

Understand your positioning as a NPOC to better understand how to avoid getting stuck in performative activism. Learn the history. Understand the symbols. Identify your major areas of deficit when it comes to utilizing your whiteness for strength and yielding in their whiteness for advocacy.

Understand your own feelings that come to the surface when being asked to use your voice, and be comfortable with knowing when to use your voice and when to surrender your position for the sake of the movement. It is not always necessary to assume that your position as a white ally reserves the position as the mouthpiece. Your voice matters. But where it is positioned, and how you choose to maximize it, matters.

Marches and rallies serve as a core place for the oppressed to share space. Be mindful of how your position both aligns and interrupts those spaces. Honor the idea of how your voice works, and take meaningful steps in asking how to best move from t he marches and rallies to more effective steps of change.

The easy part is the theatrics.

The much harder work comes with knowing how to navigate oneself in spaces both reserved for you and exclusively inaccessible. An ally is granted the right to align. Honor that position. Hone your skillset in it, and rise above the highly predictable, but oftentimes theatrical and superficial space of performative activism. When the show’s over, The REAL work begins.

Opinion contributor Fiordaliza “Ana” White, of Harrisburg, is the owner of Way With Words Consulting Services, LLC., which specializes in diversity and inclusion professional development training. She also works in mental health services in the Harrisburg area. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.