Since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the global conversation around racism has exploded. From protests sweeping the United States and the wider global community, to the significant uptick in social media conversation, many are debating ways in which one can genuinely work to deconstruct racist systems.
One interesting aspect of the anti-racism conversation is the rejection of certain actions as “performative.” From posting black squares to painting various boulevards with the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” some actions have been classified as “performative” and lacking in genuine effort.
The above graphic was widely shared in the past few weeks. The chart urges people to gravitate toward “authentic” activism, characterized by actions that are “strategic,” “focused,” and “goal-oriented.” Performance, characterized by actions that are “visible”, “audience-driven,” and “sustained by mass consumption,” is indicated to be insufficient.
One may consider that the line between performative and authentic allyship is actually quite blurred, and ought to be viewed as part of the same equation that leads to social change.
Protests are indeed performances. They are also the vehicle for the masses to communicate their upset with the system. Power in numbers is one of the few tools the poor have, to demonstrate their demands vis a vis a system where the wealthy few hold most power.
In critical theory scholarship, there is a serious question if we ever move beyond performance in our day-to-day lives. Our dependence on language, for example, requires us to reference certain “scripts” that others are familiar with, to illustrate our point. It is difficult to say if ever arrive at using “authentic” rather than “performative” language.
Indeed, the word “authentic” ought to be examined here. Postmodern scholars, like Jacques Derrida, tell us to raise a red flag whenever political discourse defines something as “authentic” or “genuine.” Can authentic action ever arise, if it is born out of a social fabric in which we constantly mirror each other and the experience of others? Is there a locus of truth in our actions, or do we constantly circle around truth?
My point in writing this is to argue that performance should not be so derided. In fact, it can be argued, that we must act before we become. In joining in the performance of protest, in joining the chorus of pre-conceived chants, in carrying signs that echo sentiments heard before, we participate in a collective experience of elevating certain symbols and discourses to the fore. They are necessarily repeated actions. They are necessarily performances that are targeted at specific audiences.
Of course, the hope is that individuals working to deconstruct racism are doing so because they believe it to be the right thing to do. That is as close to “authentic” as we may get. In choosing how to act, they must rely on pre-conceived strategies, existing mantras, and the amplification of messages that are as old as time itself, namely the messages of “equality” and “dignity.”
Posting a black box doesn’t pass policy. And yet, at the same time, we should be wary of becoming too cynical toward actions that do exemplify mass participation and do send a mass message.
The central argument rests here: political performances can have real impacts. At some point, performing becomes what is natural. If we imagine the political stage to be just that -- a stage -- what matters is not whether we are performing (postmodern scholars argue that we always already are), what matters is the drama we are acting out. What matters is amplifying the messages that are already there -- seriously rethinking the role of the police in communities, expanding social welfare nets for all, and abolishing private prisons to name a few.