Humility is a difficult lesson to learn. Being wrong is a part of life, not an end-all-be-all determination of character. Learning from and making up for our mistakes is a sign of personal growth. Admitting when you’re wrong is the hard part.
So when I say it’s easy to change your profile picture to “Black Lives Matter,” or when I say it’s easy to call the police response to insurrectionists compared to protesters hypocritical (if not treasonous), understand there is no inherent wrong in those supportive actions.
Anytime there’s a renewed cry for social justice, there’s a simultaneous resurgence of performative activism, often when privileged parties find marginalized voices impossible to ignore. For instance, the murder of Trayvon Martin gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, and ever since it’s become common to see brief bursts of support on social media.
Those who only care when everyone is watching miss the point of caring. Extreme examples of this can be found in the past and present of the University of Georgia. While its tune has changed since the times of mob violence against pioneering Black students, little has been done to rectify the core problems exhibited by students and faculty other than condemnation or suspension, when applicable.
Instead, UGA lacks transparency about its history of slave labor, mass community displacement and its recent dismissal of enslaved remains. Only when the cry for social justice is deafening do they acknowledge that Black, Indigenous and people of color should be acknowledged. Individuals and independent organizations shoulder the responsibility of betterment.
Getting defensive is an easy mistake to make when confronted with these facts, especially when plenty of people don’t spout racial slurs, don’t protest against human rights and have friends or family who are BIPOC. I’ve made that mistake, but I changed by asking myself a new question: What more can I do, and why am I not doing it?
During the height of the #MeToo movement, I was reminded of my privilege as a man in our patriarchal society. I took the time to support the women in my life who shared their personal experiences, as well as reflect on times when I may have been performative in my care.
It does not feel good to re-examine interactions I once thought to be innocuous, only to realize how harmful they were to women I knew or still know. It’s difficult, but I know it’s the right thing to do. #MeToo didn’t stop sexual assault or sexism or inequality, but that doesn’t mean speaking out is pointless.
When my store manager questioned the legitimacy of allegations against Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby, I had to say something. Even as I stammered to form a coherent argument, I had to speak up, because I remembered the looks on the faces of classmates and family members when they confided in me.
Hindsight helped me realize our common struggle: the pain of dredging up past trauma to convince another person, who has never had to go through a similar experience, that you suffered and survived.
So when a marginalized person says a rainbow crosswalk isn’t enough to end homophobia or adding a “Black voices” series to your platform isn’t enough to end racism, understand that this doesn’t mean “you’ve done a bad job” or to “stop trying.” It means you can and should do better. Anyone can do it if they’re willing to put in the work.
People who remain in a state of performative activism are stunting their own growth, and although there are plenty who do care and want to help, many don’t know how.
The answer is simple: There are marginalized people in your life, right now, who need your help. Listen to these individuals. Believe their truth and do something tangible to help, often.
It doesn’t matter who you are or who they are. One day, you will be wronged by another person or by a group of people. You will seek understanding. You will need help. Hopefully, when that day comes, you won’t know the pain of your experience being questioned or your existence being trivialized. Hopefully, the people around you won’t smile and say they care without lifting a finger to help.