When It Comes to Addressing Systemic Racism, Black People Need More Than Empty Gestures

In May, I wrote a post about the performative allyship I saw from my peers on social media. I wrote about how the flood of social media posts I saw from my classmates sometimes felt insincere because I had never seen them speaking up for black people in real life. In the weeks since, as I used the internet for article research, I’ve seen people try to justify activism that isn’t helpful in a variety of new ways.

The first example that comes to mind is social media users turning “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” into a meaningless statement by putting it into otherwise unrelated posts or tweets. Many nonblack people have claimed that it’s bringing attention to the movement and Breonna’s story, by making readers see Breonna’s name in places they wouldn’t expect. Another is teenagers on TikTok making Manny, a cartoon character from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, into a “symbol” of the Black Lives Matter movement. People argue that Manny is helpful because it’s getting more people to sign petitions and care about BLM.

At the end of the day, both of these represent the way that people only want to be activists when it is convenient for them. Tweeting “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” without following up with action steps for what people can do to help Breonna’s case turns a demand for justice into a meaningless tagline. She deserves much more than that. And, why would someone need to see a children’s cartoon character to encourage them to sign a petition?

This brand of internet activism is not only distracting but disrespectful as well. Black people’s lives are on the line, and now is not the time to create memes. There is undeniable power in numbers. If teenagers put the energy they put behind creating Manny content into genuinely educating others or themselves, more would be getting done to advance the Black lives matter movement.

However, I would say the most harmful examples of performative allyship are coming from those who have notable power already- politicians, universities, big businesses, and celebrities. While it is true that everyone has the power to help address systemic issues, the people and companies who already can impact thousands or millions of people are insisting on doing everything except what black people asked for. 

Throughout June and July, every day it felt like I was seeing a news story of companies and politicians announcing new things that would not enact any tangible help to Black people. I understand the importance of a symbolic gesture, but what makes city leaders think that renaming a street “Black Lives Matter” is the change that America needs? What makes real estate agents believe that changing the name of a master bedroom is more helpful than working towards ending housing discrimination? Just like the Manny flag and the “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” posts, this flood of news articles feels like it’s meant to be a distraction. Real work isn’t being done in a lot of places, only gestures that have no long term impact.

The best example of non-black people making changes without actually listening to black people when doing so is exemplified by the name change of the country music group Lady A, formerly called Lady Antebellum. The name “antebellum” does indeed symbolize and romanticize the Antebellum south, a time when the region’s economic growth was produced by slave labor. However, when “Lady A” changed their name, they stole that name from a black woman who had been using it for years.

What makes these changes feel even more empty, though, is the timing. Yes, better late than never, but it gives off the impression that these people in power only started advocating for Black lives when it was socially, or even financially, advantageous for them to do so. Black Lives didn’t begin to matter when the death of George Floyd became national news. Black people have been demanding for changes to police systems for years, and yet non-black people in power still aren’t listening.

There have been many changes due to the global protests, and those are what needs to be focused on. The news stories that are more outlandish and unnecessary seem to take up a significant amount of attention and talking space. From Confederate statues being taken down to millions of dollars being donated to organizations focused on helping black people, I know that these are the changes that will impact the black community the most. If there’s one takeaway from all of this it is to listen to black people. Creating action steps for issues of race is complicated, but it will always be best for allies to allow the people who are impacted to speak first.

credits: art by @brandychieco on Instagram