I’m So Tired Of Performative Activism
You Aren’t God’s Gift To Feminism Just Because Your Name Doesn’t End In Weinstein
By Allie Kruk
It was one of my first dates since my breakup. He was studying to be an orthopedic surgeon, and, coming from an adoptive family filled with doctors, he seemed absolutely fascinating to me.
The story of his latest patient (an athlete in need of a meniscus repair) reminded me of the various medical anecdotes I heard from my siblings or parents. His words felt safe. Familiar. Comfortable.
That is until another man about two seats over started undressing me with his eyes, winking at me, and blowing kisses in my direction. (Because obviously that’s the way to get a woman to pay attention to you).
Clearly annoyed by his actions, I leaned over and told the man point-blank: “Hey, you’re making me really uncomfortable. Stop doing that.” (I have recently abandoned the idea of being “nice” to men who harass me in favor of a commitment to being honest with them about their terrible behavior).
The oogler left the bar shortly thereafter.
My date asked me what the other guy had been doing (since my date’s back had been turned to him), so I explained the reason for the confrontation.
However, instead of validating my feelings or asking me what I needed in terms of support, my date turned to the bartender - a Black woman - and proceeded to relate what had occurred, as though she were somehow responsible for this stranger’s sexual harassment.
I tried to tell my date that the man had left the bar (and therefore, the problem had been resolved in my opinion) and that the bartender wasn’t responsible for this whole ordeal anyway (so please stop putting unnecessary, unpaid emotional labor on women of color).
This did not seem to faze my date, as he continued with his self-described “feminist activism.”
The entire display felt like a failed audition tape for “Who Wants To Be A Feminist” - a reality TV show (that I’ve just made up) in which cisgendered men try to “prove” their feminist credentials by undergoing a series of challenges ranging from “how should I react to that breastfeeding mother” (Answer: move it along and mind your business) to “when is it appropriate to whip my dick out in front of my co-workers” (Answer: Literally never).
Long story short, this surgeon and I did not have a second date.
Flash forward to about a month later.
I’m sitting in my car, on my way to the gym, listening to one of my favorite podcasts (“Them Boys” with Setoiyo and Alex Pearlman - side note: you know how your friends tell you to listen to their podcasts and you hear five minutes and get bored? Well this podcast is the exact opposite of that).
In the episode, the two hosts start talking about how various white male liberals were deeply offended by a parody video of a Trump-supporting firefighter getting dragged by the satirical version of CNN (Deplorable News Network or DNN).
Preparing to be equally offended (and preparing to use that anger to fuel my cardio for the day), I pulled over to the side of the road and watched the video in question.
It showed a white male firefighter being interviewed by “DNN” after having saved a Guatemalan family from a house fire. Over the course of the interview, the newscaster reveals that the firefighter is a Trump supporter, which results in the “hero” getting fired from his job (and the “DNN” news anchor going about his usual business of ordering random Mexican food and failing to be reflexive about his own complicity in the white supremacist patriarchy).
I promise, it’s funnier than how I’m describing it.
Anyway, instead of experiencing the anger that I was prepared for, I felt immense joy. Finally, someone had captured the type of performative white liberal activism that had been irritating me since...all the time, forever (in a way that was more humorous than I could ever encapsulate in word-form).
I was ready for Setoiyo and Alex to describe how the white male comedians watching this video became instantaneously cognizant of their own involvement in racism/colonialism/patriarchy and how they cheered enthusiastically for this incisive, intelligent cultural critique.
Just kidding, I’m not that delusional.
Instead, I heard Setoiyo and Alex relate a bizarre and upsetting social media fight in which white cisgendered comics attacked marginalized people for their opinions (because obviously able-bodied white men are the experts on all things oppression).
It was the same kind of performative, self-aggrandizing “activism” I had witnessed at that West Philadelphia bar just 30 days prior.
And quite frankly, I’m exhausted by it.
Because this type of grandstanding social justice warriorship does nothing to dismantle inequality. Instead, it makes those in power feel good about themselves and in doing so, fortifies the very oppressive systems such individuals claim they oppose.
And, if I’m being honest, it isn’t an impulse to which I’m immune. Over the years, I’ve engaged in the same kind of self-serving “activist” displays.
I’ve gone to my fair share of neoliberal protests where the action’s aims didn’t go beyond “we have to speak out against this awful thing that some white man - usually Trump - did” (in order to affirm our own moral superiority in the process, of course).
I’ve claimed allyship with people of color when the most I did to combat racism at the time was knock doors for Obama.
In short, I get the appeal of performative activism (which is probably why it angers the older version of “activist me” so much).
Because it feels good to feel like a good person. It boosts our egos and makes us feel like we matter above and beyond the other humans in this world.
But I’ve come to discover that feeling like a good person is overrated. It does next to nothing for the marginalized communities you’re trying to “help,” and while it may be an ego-boost initially, you still have to contend with that tiny voice in your head telling you that you don’t deserve to feel like a good person in the face of such inhumanity and violence.
And that tiny voice is right.
“We” (white people, men, cisgendered folks, etc.) don’t really deserve to feel good about ourselves. Such esteem is worthless in dismantling the conditions of oppression that we’ve created.
So, I vote we endorse a different activist metric: usefulness.
Let’s use our words to speak out against the oppression from which we benefit.
Let’s use our various forms of privilege to enact meaningful social change. Whether that means risking arrest as a white person at a Black Lives Matter or Abolish ICE protest or asking the woman you see getting street-harassed what she needs to feel safe(r) in the patriarchal society you (men) created.
And sometimes, let’s give up our privilege in favor of centering the voices, leadership, and skills of folks more marginalized than we are.
Instead of feeling “good,” I want my words and my actions to be useful in dismantling the systemic oppression human beings face on a daily basis.
I want to feel useful in the fight against capitalism/racism/colonialism/patriarchy - not like I put on a self-serving performance of what an ally looks like.
I want to feel like I’m becoming a more accountable, less terrible person than I was yesterday (and that my deeds justify such a characterization).
Because no matter what I do, I cannot extract myself from the white/able-bodied/cisgendered privilege that society unjustly bestows on me.
I cannot activist my way out of the oppression from which I benefit and to gloss over that fact is not only disingenuous - it reinforces the very subjugation I oppose and puts me on a pedestal of unjustified self-worth and self-importance.
And I’m so tired of that self-aggrandizing lie because it overlooks my complicity in the systems of domination that collide with my values.
So, from someone who’s engaged in a similar kind of awful behavior, leave your moral superiority at the door - there is literally nothing “morally superior” about an unjust world.
Instead, engage in some reflexivity. Or don’t - that’s your choice.
But please don’t bring your activist performance to my favorite bar (and to one of my new favorite bartenders) in Philly. That’s just rude.
And, for the record, it can really ruin a perfectly-made whiskey sour.