Opinion

Performative Activism: a corporate take on social justice

We live in a world where activism appears to be increasingly normalized. To ‘perform’ activism takes up minimal time or research during your day – repost tweets that stand in solidarity with the rights of ethnic minorities, like and follow the required pages posting the kind of content that is factory designed with insta stories in mind. From there on, it is a simple copy and paste game, and before you know it, you have met the criteria to be an activist. To be an activist today is more about saying and less about action. This creates a society full of false pretenses. A society where people truly do believe that their infamous black square really can make a difference, that Kendall Jenner can end police brutality with a single can of Pepsi, and that by simply saying “Black Lives Matter”, you have engaged in meaningful social activism. And sadly, brands and companies are held accountable to these same meagre standards.  

Many brands and companies such as Disney, JP Morgan Chase, Nike and Amazon have released statements on racial equality and have posted on social media showing support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, these companies have been accused of engaging merely in performative activism. Criticisms of these companies outline that their responsibilities run far deeper than simply reflecting solidarity in official statements. Instead, calls have come for CEOs to #OpenYourPurse. In true Gen Z fashion, this term originated on TikTok, demanding social media influencers and companies to use their financial means to donate to worthwhile causes, instead of repeating hollow statements of condolence, which ultimately serve as nothing but a ‘checkbox’ to prove to society that as a company, you want to remain in your customers’ good books. 

Whilst at one point it may have seemed like a risky strategy to get involved with what so many deem a ‘political’ movement, today’s sentiments are markedly different. Because the truth is that for so many companies, politics is intertwined into the very fabric of their business. Amazon’s ‘Rekognition’ is a facial recognition software that has been sold to police departments all over the United States. But with glaring inaccuracies in identifying people of colour along with encouraging clear restrictions on civil liberties, it is obvious that, in a policing system that is evidently rife with racial bias, this collaboration only spells a recipe for disaster. After two years of protests from civil rights and research organizations, Amazon has agreed to place a one year moratorium on the use of this technology. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, this example only goes to show the immense unchecked power that such companies have, and the potential for their actions to lead to devastating effects for communities of colour in particular. 

What Amazon has not failed to address, however, is the fact that it has sold products with white-supremacist slogans, the horrific working conditions of warehouse jobs, in which 85% of its black employees work, and, despite growing demand, Jeff Bezos has declined to mention if he has ‘opened his purse’, despite his incomparable wealth. Amazon is by no means alone as 2020 figures show that of the 500 biggest American companies, only 4 had black CEOs, and allegations of racism in companies and big banks both amongst customers and employees are still widespread.

Is the solution then to simple hire more black employees? As the film industry is discovering, and Disney in particular, this cannot be seen as a quick fix to the lack of representation on our film screens. In an interview, John Boyega revealed how he felt about being a part of the blockbuster Star Wars franchise, owned by Disney. He commented on his role in the franchise: “do not market a black character as important and then push them aside”. These words raise the important issue of tokenism, where in films and TV shows, a small sprinkling of characters from ethnic minorities are cast in sideline roles, in an attempt to give an illusion of being ‘representative’. Perhaps they have not given enough thought to the true extent of the meaning of that word. For tokenization of black characters simply reiterates the harsh truth that the film industry is a white led system, in which minority actors can only play but a small cog in the machine. Not all representation is equal. And just representation most certainly is not enough. Instead, companies and brands must take a critical look at the systems of power that persist and understand their involved role in creating them. Whilst more visibility of black people in positions of power such as CEOs, lead actors and sports players is incredibly important, it ultimately amounts to very little if they are simply to be seen and not heard.

Sport is by no means innocent. Whilst the CEOs and Congresspeople are compelled to ‘Take a Knee’ in support of Black Lives Matter, the creator of this silent protest, Colin Kaepernick is still left jobless. And whilst the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell has stated that the NFL was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to peacefully protest”, perhaps it is a chilling reminder of the state of affairs in modern society that the NFL is only now choosing to open its eyes to what they tried so hard to keep out of sight and out of mind four years ago. To admit that you are wrong takes a realization of what is right, and frankly, it is by no means a cause for applause when companies do the bare minimum and agree that black lives matter. 

So what is prompting organizations and companies to make such statements? With no mention of Kaepernick, genuine redress for errors committed seems unlikely to be the reason. Instead, this may be seen as a marketing ploy or in the case for many, a desperate last attempt to keep a reputation untarnished in the eyes of the public. But this too is meaningless, as it has been shown that institutions on every scale are directly involved with, or are complicit in, systemic racism. And for this reason, protestors have begun to demand more of companies. 

In contrast to the NFL, however, is the NBA, which is using its wide audience reach as a method of engaging with social justice perhaps at the most simplified level: encouraging voter registration. Their activism extends far beyond the logos on their jerseys, creating online portals that simplify the voter registration process and using arenas as polling centres and giving free parking to those who don’t have access to public transport. The players are, of course, non-partisan in their appeals but the simplicity of this initiative attacks the foundations of the erosion of democracy in the US, voter suppression and lack of access to postal voting, which many believe will disproportionately affect black and ethnic minorities. 

This example proves that whilst it may be unrealistic to expect companies to single-handedly unravel the complexity of racial inequality, this should not deter them attempting to play a part. Whilst I do firmly believe that every large company and organization does have a social responsibility and should exercise it, I also believe that there is a large part of companies’ activism that does not need to be ‘performed’. They should instead start from the core and work outward to wider society, start from the top down, addressing the lack of diversity in managerial roles, working down to pay disparities between racial groups. There should be unconscious bias training to create a safer and more accommodating workplace for people of colour and to create fairer hiring practices. Companies need to critically assess the impact that they have had on the black community and consciously redress this damage. This kind of activism does not need to be paraded on social media platforms but instead, in time, will speak for itself. For this sort of activism can only take place for the right reasons. 

Pragna Challapalli

Pragna is at Magdalen College, where she is in her first year studying Law with French Law.