Whenever I read the word “performative” online I hear Ziwe Fumudoh’s voice. Specifically the voice she used to shut down Instagram influencer/Only Fans short-timer/bad friend Caroline Calloway during an Instagram Live over the summer.
“And when you say Black people, do you capitalize the B?” Fumudoh asks after Calloway describes her appearance on the Instagram comedy show as a way for Fumudoh to get some “emotional rest.”
“Absolutely because otherwise it’s a color,” Calloway says with aplomb.
“Performative,” Fumudoh quickly retorts.
Just like that, the interview kicked off. As Calloway offered a sly smile to the audience and took a sip of what looks like white wine, Fumudoh summarized all that is wrong with wannabe allies in one blunt joke that doubled as a serious burn.
Performative has had quite the year since the Black Lives Matter protests boomeranged around the world. It bloomed on social media where it’s become a searing callout against those who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
“Black folks have a long history of calling out people who are not genuine or authentic in their roles frauds. It’s kind of like that,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, a local chapter of the larger organization, when asked to reflect on the word.
She gave the example of her gentrifying, mostly Black neighborhood. She’s seen her new neighbors put up “In this house, we believe Black Lives Matter” signs (she has one too), but if you erect the sign without doing anything that actually makes Black lives matter, then that’s performative, she said. True allyship comes at a cost bigger than a sign (and, she added, it requires introspection on how gentrifying neighborhoods can hurt low-income Black residents and what you can do to off-set that).
Over the past year, Abdullah said she’s had multiple guns pointed at her because of her activism. Once by the husband of the former Los Angeles District Attorney while protesting at their house and again when a flurry of police surrounded her home after a troll made a fake 911 call, known as swatting. She’s also been jailed six times for protesting.
“Performative activism is really about getting the so-called glory of activism without having to pay any price,” she said.
Before the summer protests sparked by police violence against Black people, performative wasn’t associated with anything specific, but it’s now closely linked to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before the summer protests sparked by police violence against Black people, performative wasn’t associated with anything specific, but it’s now closely linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, said John Murphy of University of Connecticut’s Social Media Research Center. He reviewed how the word was used on social media over the past 13 months for Mashable using analytics software. Despite it not being strongly linked to a particular cause prior to 2020, it’s been used for years by LGBTQ activists denouncing Pride parade-goers or brands that add rainbows to their social handles during Pride Month but don’t support LGBTQ folks in meaningful ways.
In early June, when Black Lives Matter protests crowded streets around the world, performative was mentioned more than 550,000 times a day on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, a huge spike from the roughly 15,000 daily mentions it got before a police officer killed George Floyd on May 25. Since the summer, it’s still mentioned about 125,000 times a day.
Alongside that June spike on social media, Merriam Webster’s website saw a flood of searches for the word. Performative searches skyrocketed 1240 percent on June 2 year over year. It’s now in the top 4 percent of looked-up words. Within the past year, Merriam Webster added a new definition for performative that came with a disapproving label: “made or done for show.” Before that, it simply meant performing an action. It’s also newly associated with activism and allyship, noted Peter Sokolowski, Merriam Webster’s editor at large, in an email.
Sophie Ming, co-founder of NYC Youth Collective, a group she started with a friend focused on educating Black youth about the legislative process and encouraging activism, said she saw the word all the time online over the summer. She remembers seeing checklists going around for how not to be a performative ally. Activists bellowed the word on social media and YouTube as an avalanche of new allies pounded the digital pavement, making missteps along the way. It’s easy to retweet, and that’s probably why a lot of people did that without thinking, Ming said. It’s harder, weirder, and scarier to take action IRL.
“I think if someone’s trying to figure out if their activism is performative by nature, I think it’s really just asking yourself why are you doing it? Why are you saying Black Lives Matter? Why are you retweeting that? Do you actually agree with it or is it just like a quota that you need to fill for your followers,” Ming noted.
Even as a Black woman, she found herself wondering if she had been performative in the past. A demonstration in Manhattan following Floyd’s death marked her first protest — before that she was mostly talking about racism on social media. “It even made me question myself, so the fact that I questioned myself at a Black Lives Matter protest, I know that allies are definitely questioning their own forms of activism,” said Ming, who is also a YouTuber and biology major at Temple University.
The same day Merriam Webster recorded that bump in searches for the word performative, activists were criticizing people on Instagram for posting black squares to their accounts with “#BlackLivesMatter.” The Instagram noise on what was dubbed Blackout Tuesday offered few resources and buried posts that provided information on how to protest and meaningfully practice anti-racism.
“It rings hollow. You’re not gonna play us like that.”
Performative applies to people on social media, but it’s also a way to condemn corporations and larger systems, said Tabatha Jones Jolivet, a Black Lives Matter Los Angeles organizer.
Amid the Instagram hullabaloo, cops were kneeling during protests against police brutality and the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department omitted its racist history while talking about diversifying his force.
“It rings hollow. You’re not gonna play us like that,” Jones Jolivet said. “We’re not saying we want police to kneel with us at a march. We’re saying we want the police to be abolished, right?” While there are various schools of thought on what it means to abolish the police, Jones Jolivet envisions a complete reimagining of public safety. She wants to move away from a system embedded in violence and towards one focused on prevention and intervention. “That’s where again it sort of reeks of hypocrisy that has to be called out.”
And it was. Twitter descended on brands for being performative. Makeup influencer Jeffree Starr was slammed for looping in Breonna Taylor’s death while he apologized for fanning the flames of unrelated BeauTube drama. (A request for comment made with the press contact at Starr’s makeup brand went unanswered.)
Like with Calloway, Fumudoh has been slyly taking her Instagram and YouTube guests to task when they verge into performative territory (guests love to tell her they have four to five Black friends). As for her interview with Calloway, Fumudoh’s quick wit brings her blemishes to the surface — recommending nine books by Black authors on Instagram but only reading four, saying she began her journey with racism in 2018 — but she also gives Calloway credit when she deserves it. Like when the self-deprecating Instagrammer said we should stop asking Reese Witherspoon for advice on racism and pay more attention to what activist and author Angela Davis, who focuses on feminism, racism, and incarceration, has to say. Fumudoh would later call Calloway “truly iconic” in Interview. (Fumudoh, who also writes for Desus & Mero, didn’t have time to speak with Mashable. She’s working on a variety series for Showtime and writing a book of essays. Calloway, who’s supposed to be releasing a book called Scammer after another memoir fell apart, declined to comment through her representative.)
If Calloway, Starr, kneeling police, and everyone who posted black squares on Instagram this summer are being performative, what should they do instead? The mantra open your purse, popularized on TikTok, is a common response to that question, calling on allies to donate rather than give the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.” It’s fine to post about reading anti-racism books, but then you must also do the invisible work that doesn’t get you likes, comments, or virtual kudos.
“I think the real call and the invitation is: Will you show up? Will you show up again? Will you show up again? Will you organize and do the work in your own communities wherever you are? At work, in your churches, in your synagogues, in your institutions so that people of color, and Black people in particular, that you’re in proximity to will begin to see that you’re more than just talk,” Jones Jolivet said. You have to keep doing that work — hiring Black people for leadership roles (and paying them fairly), improving education opportunities for Black students, fundraising for Black causes, and advocating at police commission meetings — when anti-racism is no longer trending. When the pandemic is over and you’re not limited in what you can do with your time, she asked, will you still use it to support Black people?
Black Lives Matter LA created a coalition and website to raise awareness of the city’s budgeting process, and its Youth Vanguard successfully advocated for slashing 35 percent of LA Unified’s school police force. There are always more ways allies can help.
But Ming’s seen allies slip away since the summer; their contributions freezing along with the weather. “It’s December and it’s winter, but racism hasn’t changed. Black people are still being brutalized so where’s the conversation now?” Despite the disappointing drop in interest, she thinks the word performative will continue to grow.
“We used the word performative so much over the summer that it’s definitely stuck. And it’s being applied to things that are beyond racial activism. It’s being used to describe politics, it’s being used to describe politicians,” she said.
Even if #performative eventually goes out of style, a new way to call out people seeking an ally cookie —as Calloway called it in her interview with Fumudoh — will sprout. From Becky came Karen, and something else may blossom from performative too.
“When you listen to a song on the radio it cycles though over and over and after awhile people are tired of hearing it, right? I think that’s true for a lot of terms that sort of slip into our discourse, but I think that the principal underneath it is enduring,” Jones Jolivet said. She referenced If Beale Street Could Talk author and essayist James Baldwin as she considered the future of allyship.
“He said that I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do,” she explained, adding later, “What are you doing with your life? I can’t believe you if you’re not doing the work. That to me is the principal that will endure.”