When ‘real’ activism becomes merely ‘performative’

Sydney Augustine

Second in a series

It’s been nearly 90 days since George Floyd’s death, which sparked an unprecedented racial awakening in this country as the half-year global pandemic still rages all around us.

Day and night, demands to finally address racial inequalities and social justice issues took over U.S. cities and towns for several weeks. What was then out front and under the spotlight seems now to have returned to the shadows. 

The MSR sat in on numerous virtual discussions during the summer of 2020 where the panelists talked race unfiltered, uninhibited and reflective, looking at current events as well as toward the future. This multi-part series will examine some of the topics discussed on these Zoom sessions.

This week: “Performative activism”

Has Black Lives Matter now become a catchphrase as fall approaches? According to public opinion polls, the protests against racism and police brutality that grabbed the nation by its collective throat all summer long may have waned after peaking in June.

A June Civiq.com poll found 49% of Americans support BLM, 38% oppose, and 12% neither. The poll also found BLM’s highest support expectedly among Blacks (87%), Black females (89%) and Black males (84%), and lowest among Whites (39%) and White males (32%). Opposition overall among Whites is nearly 50% while Black opposition ranges between 3-7%.

“Without prolonged activism and sustained media attention, the impact of this year’s protests on White public opinion could evaporate entirely,” noted a Five Thirty Eight.com article. “The effects of events on public opinion tend to last only for as long as they are at the forefront of the country’s collective consciousness.”

Carron Philips wrote in Deadspin, “There’s an expiration date on the Black Lives Matter movement [because] this country isn’t governed by people who care enough about Black lives to keep this going.”

Sydney Augustine expressed something similar: “We as Black people deal with this every day. We don’t get to be tired, even when you don’t feel like dealing with it anymore. It’s hard work.”

Augustine, a 2019 Ithaca (NY) College grad, started her Sports Disrupted website “to foster an honest dialogue on social issues involving sport,” she told us during a phone interview. She will be attending New York University this fall as a graduate student.
“I want everyone—fans, players, etc.—to think about their involvement in sport and what they’re doing that is detrimental to the culture, and what they could do to change the culture of sport,” said Augustine.

The August 26 NBA walk-off has been hailed as a historic feat. Both the WNBA and NBA have created social justice committees, and even the NFL, historically resistant, has been outspoken about the never-ending police shootings of Blacks.
Augustine calls this “performative activism.”

“It’s easy to post a simple message on Twitter,” she explained. “You are trying to prove to other people that you are ‘woke,’ that you care about social issues. It’s an external presentation. It comes off very disingenuous.

“It’s so easy to say Black Lives Matter, then walk out the door,” Augustine continued, adding that an element of White guilt could be a factor as well. But as Phillips earlier noted, this can be temporary: “When it comes to real activism, you have to be actively working yourself.”

Her website is her way of doing her activist part, the young lady declared. She has a degree in sports media and a sports and education minor. Her graduate focus will be on Black communities and media literacy and how it can be a social justice tool.
“Specifically,” said Augustine, “how Black people and specifically Black youth view other people like them, and really explore how White privilege media messages affect the ideas and values that Black youth have.”

“One thing that America does better than any other country,” Phillips said, “is to behave as if it cares about important issues, only to treat them like outdated agendas as soon as it no longer serves them.”

Augustine’s Sports Disrupted “really wants people to realize that everything that happens in society happens in sport, and vice versa. Sports is not a separate entity.”