Are Institutions and Businesses Engaging in Performance Activism?

The Relationship Manager and Lending Specialist for the local branch of Bank of America called my house. Fortunately, I wasn’t home. But my husband, who never picks up a phone, answered and later dutifully gave me a message.

What did she want? I asked him.

That’s when he became my recognizable husband again. I don’t know.

She sent an email with the subject: Follow up to my call.

I recently called you to thank you for your business, but was unable to reach you.

In these difficult times, I want to make sure you know I am here to help.

email to author dated 11 June 2020

I almost wrote back: You want to help me! Great! Can you clean parrot cages????

All of a sudden my box is filled with messages similar to this one from faceless people belonging to businesses I use, or institutions of higher education I attended. And most of the messages are the same: Everyone is here for me; or, they are standing side-by-side with me, or others; or, they have all of a sudden seen the light and want to support Black lives, and any other lives they haven’t seen fit to support until now.

Where have you all been folks? And don’t you think you look disingenuous becoming woke now, when you really have no choice because people have had enough?

My daughter gave me the term for this sudden alliance with me: performance activism.

The Urban Dictionary provides the following definition:

When a person/group jumps on a political bandwagon in order to keep up appearances.  

Urban Dictionary, accessed 14 June 2020

Performance activism is a shallow way to do something so as to make it look like one cares about an issue or a cause. In the world of social media it looks like reposts, hash-tags and pithy memes. In concrete human form, performance activism also looks like marches, buttons, t-shirts, banners, or emails that coo: We’re here for you!

And then, everyone goes home; or, back to playing multi-player RPGs. They appeared; rode the bandwagon; sent an email; they’re cool.

The president of SUNY-Geneseo, my undergraduate school, sent an email titled: Becoming a more racially equitable and inclusive college. Wow. The college is almost 150 years old, but all of a sudden I have this missive talking about how it can improve equity and accept everyone. What’s up with that?

Geneseo even sent invitations for webinars I can attend. We encourage you to join us in a meaningful exploration of race, racism, and racial privilege in pursuit of fostering a more racially just Geneseo community and society.

A letter from the UNC Alumni office said: Standing Together With Our Black Community. UNC also offered the chance to join a Free Livestream on Racism in America.

And the University of Maryland? Maybe they lost track of me. That might be a good thing because the history of the University of Maryland system and Black students is not a pretty one.

Even Aerie, the company that is all things bras, undies, and making teens look sexy wanted me to know We Stand With the Black Community. And snap, the NAACP has a $500,000 from the AEO Foundation.

Finally, an email from Yoga Journal announced: More Than Ever, We Need to Listen to Those at the Forefront of Change. The email came from the “Brand Director” of the magazine. No hidden agenda there. But the note provided a list of Black yoga instructors who work in the area of radical compassion, restorative yoga to help heal racial wounding, or to cultivate courage and reduce self-consciousness. Nice. Wonder if I would have ever heard of any of these folks if it weren’t for George Floyd?

And that’s the challenge of performance activism. It’s too often one and done. It feels good–like a sugar rush. But, it’s here today, gone tomorrow. There’s little-to-no follow-through. Do your hashtags, donate your money, buy a t-shirt, talk-the-talk, but don’t ask folks to do the heavy lifting that is needed to put the nail in the coffin of racism once and for all.

Does this blog piece ooze cynicism? Yes. I want to see what happens in a couple of weeks when news cameras refocus on other events. Who will still be standing next to me? Offering me help? Hey! Who would like to give me funds, for example, to buy 6,300 copies of the book Stamped so my school district could do a district wide read along?

Business as usual is no longer possible. And we need business leaders and presidents of America’s educational institutions to do more than email a shallow act of caring. The picture of George Floyd dying under the knee of a police officer forbids us to walk away from the reality of racism in America. That was an ugly performance of hatred which has happened to often over the course of history in different forms, but should never happen again.

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