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How Fake Activism Gets In The Way of True Progress On Race

By Joseph Coughlan, Legends Report Writer

What do we talk about, when we talk about change? About race? About progress? About supporting causes and movements? Are we truly devoted to a cause, really knowing what direction to effectively push forth to, towards progression or understanding in common society, envisioning an actual desired outcome? Or are we easily swayed by misleading headlines, following these causes just because maybe they are trending on social media or policies without any true understanding or devotion to something, harboured innocently by our inner desire to do good, and to do the right thing? Are we doing more harm to causes and movements by blindly following them for social gain and fear of being “left out”, rather than having an honest devotion and deep connection and understanding?

Following the George Floyd tragedy that occurred in May 2020, a huge wave of public support came out calling for justice. Passionate people, their voices spread far and wide across the world evoked their words of pain, compassion, of support in relation to this incident and others in similar circumstances such as Breonna Taylor and Stephon Clark, among others. The voices calling rightfully for justice did manage to have themselves heard, as the police officers involved in the unlawful death of Floyd were eventually charged after a petition was signed by over 13 million people (eventually rising to over 19 million). An incredible achievement motivated by a true desire for justice and change. However, during this time, some activity was occurring mainly on social media platforms that gained in popularity in its claim of activism but seemed to embody a more selfish underlining. The term used to describe this kind of activity began to appear more often during this time too: “Performative Activism”. 

Performative Activism

Performative activism is the act of ingenuine activism or support often portrayed on social media by individuals for the purpose of evoking the feeling that they are a true, dedicated activist for a certain cause without actually doing anything progressive for it. Examples of this include carefully orchestrated photos of themselves that portray an assumption of positive influence on a cause to an audience that will take these false images at face value, or perhaps the involvement in posting an image or hashtag in relation to the cause without any more information or effective methods or steps on how you can support the mentioned cause, or no further involvement from there altogether even.

A situation did indeed occur on social media in relation to Floyd, where the popularity of posting a single plain black image as a show of support became the main trend of every major social media platform, dubbed “Black Out Tuesday”. While positively speaking, this does create a sense of togetherness and solidarity in attempting to make a situation more known and to gain more support, it does alone however seem to be a hollow one at that when left just plainly as it is, as it doesn’t lead to anything in terms of a desired goal at the end of it, or any information on how to effectively do so. It began to seem like a large part of the userbase were only resharing the image to be involved in the trend, putting the individual profile of their social media platform first before the actual belief of the cause. One Instagram user highlighted this issue in a way which was damaging to those who were attempting to create useful content for those that do want to truly help:

“Black Out Tuesday posts are ineffective. People can’t see useful content about the Black Lives Matter protests when they click the hashtag on Instagram because of the overflow of blank black pictures.”

Some may believe the negative critique of the trend is unfair. However, the critique is just when a cause that needs the support of individuals giving something of their own self for the betterment of the whole, is used only as a selfish opportunity to advance an individual’s social presence. To put the point into numbers, the total estimation of black tiles shared over Instagram alone was estimated at 28 million different users involved. Mentioned previously, only 13 million signed the petition to enact justice for George Floyd. 

As the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles said:

“Performative activism is really about getting the so-called glory of activism without having to pay any price”.

#OscarsSoWhite

It isn’t just individuals on social media that are performative activists either, established businesses and organisations also play their part for their own reasons. 

The Academy Awards (also known as the Oscars), has been the highest award achievement presentation in the film industry since its inception in 1929. Well over the last decade, the Academy Awards have come under fire for its lack of black and ethnic minorities in the awards categories, the attention focused the most on the acting categories, as well as the lack of women represented in the directing category. During these initial times, the Academy Awards were slow to respond in any kind of way, with a now common hashtag regularly trending around the announcement of the award nominations and the actual presentation: #OscarsSoWhite. While outside of this hashtag, individuals couldn’t do much about this as an audience other than talk about it, the Academy Awards could do something about it. But really at the root of it, Hollywood in general needed to be doing more about it.

In recent years, coinciding with the falling viewership numbers it seems, the Academy Awards did begin slowly to notice films with a more diverse audience, but did so in an extremely reluctant way, as if to say “oh fine we’ll listen”. For example, Straight Outta Compton was a movie that featured a predominantly black cast of actors, with black producers and a black director, and when word was spreading that it had potential recognition at the 88th Academy Awards in February 2016. When the nominations were finally announced, the film had been passed over for every category except for Best Original Screenplay, where the writers of the movie got the only potential award recognition. All four nominated writers were white. 

Without taking away from the glory that these individual writers should feel for their work that is highly deserved, it did feel like a kick in the teeth to those seeing a potential chance for black and other ethnic minorities to get the recognition at the highest stage that they deserve which could hopefully build on to a more regular occurrence. 

Over the following years from that, the Academy Awards did indeed seem to be recognising the talents from a more diverse demographic, and a major event for change seemed to have struck at the 89th Academy Awards, when the film Moonlight, about a young boys journey from childhood to adulthood about being black, gay and poor, won the Academy Award for Best Picture (meaning Best Film, the highest honour at the ceremony) despite being the underdog to the film La La Land in the run-up to the event. A potential massive leap in progression, but did the Academy Awards as an organisation really believe in making a change? 

Examining every film up for nomination for Best Picture in roughly the last 20 years, you’ll find that almost every one of them made a significant profit at the box office, including Moonlight, which made $65.3 million off of its low budget estimated between $1.5 – 4 million. Every other major awards ceremony for film that year gave its highest award to La La Land, and while Moonlight deserved its award totally, it did seem that to make a move designed around keeping their viewership up compared to the other award shows, they had to do something against what they were known as such as the trending hashtag OscarsSoWhite. 

That argument would be nullified if we didn’t compare them to two years later at the 91st Academy Awards and accepted them at face value. That year looked particularly fruitful: Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and Green Book were all nominated for Best Picture. Green Book would also eventually win (which also relegated it's lead actor Mahershala Ali to the Best Supporting Actor category, which he did win in). All those movies also made hefty profits on their original budget. Director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, new film If Beale Street Could Talk was also recognised that year, and despite being a powerful film and worthy follow up to Moonlight, it was not covered in glory like the latter mentioned film. It made smaller profits, making $20.6 million off of its $12 million budget. It’s almost like saying “diversity and inclusiveness matters to us, but only if it’s profitable”. 

As of now, the Academy Awards have laid out new rules for its eligibility for films starting from 2024, where for a film to be eligible it has to meet certain criteria in two categories relating to inclusion of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, or stories to be focused on LGBTQ+, racial scenarios etc amongst other selected criteria that also go as far as inclusiveness in behind-the-scenes work. While the real work at the root lies at Hollywood in general allowing more roles and opportunities to be created for black and ethnic minorities in all positions, as well as better funding for education in the film industry for those in low-income areas in schools, the policy it has created should have been in their minds without needing to make it policy in the first place, and rather now it seems they are producing it for its own preservation. It’s like what actor and director Warren Beatty once said:

“The Golden Globes are fun. The Oscars are business.”

As of 2021, since the Academy Awards creation in 1929, 4 non-white male actors have won the award for Best Actor and only 1 non-white female actor has won the award for Best Actress.

Our Character And Taking The Knee

What does it mean then to show that you do care about something to this magnitude?  Even if it may divide opinion? 

Wilfried Zaha is a footballer currently playing for Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Zaha, (as well as other footballers) have on several occasions revealed what they receive from strangers on a regular basis on social media, revealing a torrent of racial abuse on a daily basis, all of the contents shown to be near sickening in truth. 

The FA (Footballing Association) decided to introduce a movement where players of all teams before a game would start, would drop to a knee in solidarity and to raise awareness about racism within football and that it isn’t acceptable in any way. 

After the adoption of this movement in 2020, Zaha then announced in February 2021 at the Football Business Summit that he would no longer be participating in taking the knee before games, stating:

“I’ve said before that I feel like taking the knee is degrading and stuff because growing up my parents just let me know that I should be proud to be black no matter what and I feel like we should just stand tall. 

Because I feel like taking the knee now, it’s becoming…we do it before games even and sometimes people forget that we have to do it before games. 

Trying to get the meaning behind it, it’s becoming something that we just do now and that’s not enough for me. I’m not going to take the knee, I’m not going to wear Black Lives Matter on the back of my shirt because it feels like it’s a target.

We’re isolating ourselves, we’re trying to say that we’re equal but we’re isolating ourselves with these things that aren’t even working anyway, so that’s my stand on it. I feel like we should stand tall and now I don’t really tend to speak on racism and stuff like that because I’m not here just to tick boxes.

Unless action is going to happen, don’t speak to me about it.”

Following this action, Brentford were one of several teams to decide to stop taking the knee as a team due to similar reasons that Zaha had mentioned. Ivan Toney of Brentford, also gave his opinions on the FA led initiative, believing that the campaign was just used to keep the heat off of them instead of truly believing in endorsing change with realistic outcomes:

“Everyone has had their say, and everyone agrees that we have been taking the knee for however long now and still nothing has changed.

We are kind of being used as puppets, in my eyes; take the knee and the people at the top can rest for a while now, which is pretty silly and pretty pointless. Nothing is changing.

The punishments need to be stronger. You’re going to do so much and, in a way, you have to get that helping hand, but it doesn’t look like it’s coming at the moment. So you have to push for that and hopefully things change.”

Lyle Taylor of Nottingham Forest gave an insight into some of the negative reactions he had received after also following the same stance as Zaha and Toney:

“I feel sorry for them (the players). A white player cannot stand there and say I’m not taking the knee because of this or that, because they’re branded racist. I’ve been racially abused by black people. When I came out and I said I’m not taking the knee, I was branded racist, branded an Uncle Tom, because I have an opinion that didn’t sit with other black people.” 

Les Ferdinand, director of Queens Park Rangers, also had this to say:

“Taking the knee was very powerful, but we feel that impact has now been diluted. In the same way “Clap for Carers” was very emotional for us all, it got to a stage where it had run its natural course and the decision was rightly made to stop it. Does that mean we, as a nation, don’t care or appreciate our NHS workers? Of course it doesn’t. No one is more passionate than me about this topic. I have spoken on the matter throughout my footballing life. Recently, I took the decision not to do any more interviews on racism in football because the debate was going around in circles. People want a nice soundbite when something happens, but how many of the media who have criticised QPR over the past 48 hours genuinely want change?  

The taking of the knee has reached a point of ‘good PR’ but little more than that. The message has been lost. It is now not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge. What are our plans with this? Will people be happy for players to take the knee for the next 10 years but see no actual progress made? Taking the knee will not bring about change in the game – actions will.”

These opinions have of course been divisive amongst the general British populace. One could go on to say that those who have abandoned the practice of taking the knee need to stick with it, as this may take time. Kids going to football matches with their parents could end up asking why all these players are taking the knee, and the parent could explain why, giving the child some understanding. However, to understand where these individuals are coming from, these players who have opposed the initiative are human beings and have felt pain and needless abuse from a young age. And if it is their opinion that the act does not work and doesn’t feel like a genuine attempt at acting on racist behaviour, then they have a right to say so in favour of finding an alternative that will create true progress. In their own character, they are showing that they are taking a strong stance on their own free will, not to create controversy, but because they believe in the cause itself. 

With similarities slithering through to the Academy Awards treatment to their late actions in tackling their own issues, coupled with claims by several individuals above, it isn’t an uncommon thought that these initiatives reek more of a self-preservation manoeuvre than actually truly wanting to do something about their problems. And it seems to be doing nothing in terms of actual progress, maybe even going backwards in some respects. Did the FA really care about black and other ethnic groups beforehand? Why and how did it ever get to this point if they really did? Did the Academy Awards or the FA think outside of their social spheres of black lives? African children dying at young ages since they do not have the resources available to them and these organisations’ business practises and popular image matters more to them than helping those in real need. It seems that organisations that follow the performative activism route are doing more damage to true belief in causes by pretending they do actually care, as they are getting in the way of those who do want to make a change. Individuals such as Michael Essien and Sadio Mane have donated their own earnings to make difference in Ghana and Senegal respectively, without the insistence of desired publicity to do it. Why does it have to just be single individuals with the ability to do so? Footballers such as Zaha still to the day of writing this article receive racist abuse online. Recently, someone was convicted by authorities. He was a 12-year-old boy.

Love

“Race relationships have to do with race relationships. You’re white or whatever you are, I’m black or whatever I am. We’re standing here talking now – that’s how we get things done. We can’t legislate love. The President of the United States can’t legislate us into liking each other. We have to step forth and ask questions of each other and engage. There’s no law that says “because I’m President, you all have to get along now”. So, it’s up to us.”

- Denzel Washington 

Denzel’s words bring everything crashing back down to Earth. Instead of us trying to portray an image of ourselves that we want others to think that we are fighting for causes and movements, attempting to leave behind a lingering that we do care about making things better for the next generation, why not actually try to be just that? Fully understand what is happening, understand each other and see what we can actually do, ask the right questions of ourselves and of others, listen to those who are deeply passionate about these causes and understand where they are coming from in relation to it.

We need to think about what our actions are truly for, whether they’re for a trend or actually because of the want to do more in this world. Are we made aware of these issues through our attachment to constantly refreshed news headlines and popular trends and hashtags? Are these movements beyond their initial powerful message anything more than stunts used for ulterior purposes for organisations and single individuals? 

In a response to a reporter asking if black people in America have made any progress, he responds:

“I believe we need to make headway in our own house. By the time the system comes into play, the damage is done….(speaking of a young boy, part of a criminal gang, killed at 11 by a 14-year-old) “Where was his father? It starts in the house. It starts in the home. ‘Well, my father was locked up’ – so where was his father?” 

Look at this quote and even relate it to something non-violent, like the damage caused by a 12-year-old boy, posting racist offences at a footballer. To truly understand certain issues, and the causes and movements for them, we need to understand. Then we can educate, then we can change. For our generation, the next generation, and the ones after that, equipping our children with the right knowledge and tools to make this world whole. But before we do anything like that, we need to learn one very basic thing: Love. Love for ourselves, love for others. We are all human beings, and division is something that is not inherited in human nature, it is something we created when we didn’t understand one another. We do not do this by pretending or giving off the impression we mean good, only by doing good and being good, do we make progress. If we all love, we all win.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

- 2 Timothy 1:7

Here's the full video of Denzel Washington:

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