Performative Activism is Everywhere

It is important for us to recognize that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But, in 2021, is “awareness” really something we need more of?

The awareness we needed came after the early to mid 2010s when women’s empowerment started trending in pop culture and slowly grew. We saw female artists and actresses considering feminism as a movement they might want to get behind and experienced new music and media that channeled feminist themes. Then, there was a sharp spike in 2017 with the development of the #MeToo movement. This movement was created specifically to start discussions that we were not having before about the spectrum of inappropriate behavior and nuances that make up sexual violence in our culture.

That’s exactly what #MeToo did. The movement encouraged support through strength in numbers and amplified the voices of survivors that had been silenced. This support grew as each survivor who spoke up inspired the next hundred or so women to do the same. It was beautiful.#MeToo also gradually opened up many important topics related to sexual assault and exposed the perspectives that a majority of men lacked. It’s influence forced many companies to rewrite the rules on what is and is not acceptable in the workplace. Businesses that previously allowed a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination took steps to alter their work environment. Even though there are still those that don’t always listen or care about these topics, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 5-10 years, the awareness already exists.

At the beginning of the month, I was notified that the University of Northern Colorado’s Division of Student Affairs released a video about “spreading awareness” for survivors of sexual assault. The video encourages people to come to their themed events and show support by doing things like wearing denim or hanging up clothing or to hashtag whatever on Instagram … for survivors!

This is the same university who politely brushed me off when I suggested they actually spread awareness to their staff and students about a professor they hired years ago who raped me and sexually harassed my sister. The Title IX investigator didn’t comment on my request to create a safer environment by tightening up student/teacher relations policies that are quite casual in this particular department. When I last spoke with the investigator in late June 2020, he told me that putting together a training was possible and that he would work with me. Disappointingly, that phone call was the last time I heard from him, despite the fact that I offered several ideas to him that would’ve made the training much more all-embracing. My priority was to help make it as easy as possible for staff members to better recognize the often very subtle signs of abuse.

The University did half-heartedly “spread awareness,” though! UNC held a required online training for teaching assistants titled ‘Sexual Harassment Training’ at the beginning of this past school year. However, only one section out of five within this 40 minute training covered sexual harassment specifically. This one section provided a few outdated examples of behavior that are deemed sexual harassment and “not tolerated by the university.” The examples were, of course, extreme or blatant situations that most of us would recognize as unacceptable because we already have this awareness. Compared to other modules that required thorough comprehensive testing at the end of each section which often took hours to complete, this training only contained a two-question quiz at the conclusion of the entire module.

Although UNC is far from the only institution that treats sexual harassment training as a box to check off, their example only exposes the hypocrisy and ignorance that their privilege allows.”

This was a basic online training that we’ve all probably completed in some way, shape or form as a requirement to check off our lists, whether it be for school or work. Anyone who took this training could simply click through it without paying attention and easily ace the two laughably simple quiz questions. It did a poor job of providing comprehension of the nuances of inappropriate behaviors that occur within a university setting. UNC did not call attention to the training, issue a statement or give the necessary context to highlight the severity of the issue. They failed to notify staff and students about the former trusted and well-connected professor who posed a serious threat to young women as I suggested they do because I was unsure if he was still in the area. I had also specifically requested that they hold in-person or zoom discussion about these serious topics that are rife with thought-provoking questions and misunderstandings.

Although UNC is far from the only institution that treats sexual harassment training as a box to check off, their example only exposes the hypocrisy and ignorance that their privilege allows. Unfortunately, this attitude is normalized in corporate culture. Sexual harassment training is something companies do because they feel an obligation to it, so they put forth minimal effort to meet the requirement.

The bottom line is, UNC has had countless actual survivors of assault on their campus who were assaulted by members of their own staff/students due to lack of safety, accountability and standards. I hope that during one of their events they decided to start a conversation about the fact that they hired and allowed dangerous people into their community. I hope, going forward, they intend on talking to survivors about how they could make a difference in the future, or maybe could have made a difference initially. That would be a great place to start, but I won’t hold my breath.

Just talking about something is good for new concepts, but systemic problems like this are never solved by talk alone.”

Sexual violence is an issue that is WAY past the need for awareness, just as most political issues are at this point. We need prevention and action from institutions with this kind of platform. They can, but they haven’t. UNC has had so many opportunities to make a difference in terms of campus safety but it seems the most they’ll do is promote their fun-themed events – as if sexual assault awareness month is a theme!

You may find it hypocritical of me to say so seeing as this entire blog is dedicated to spreading awareness about survivors and trauma recovery. I get it! I’m not bashing awareness and I’m not saying we should stop spreading it by any means. Because of my experience as a survivor, I’m aware that a lot of us need resonance in order to process difficult emotions. Words from others that resonate can truly make a survivor feel supported in their loneliest times. I am passionate about consistently supplying these words just in case they are the very words that someone needs to read. However, in addition to my blog, I am also performing other acts of advocacy that don’t need to be listed or hashtagged on instagram. And I don’t do them to boast my activism – I do them because there are problems that I am equipped to assist with, and I feel a responsibility to them. You can bet that if I had even a fraction of the platform of an esteemed university, I’d be using it to make a bigger difference because I’d feel even more responsible.

We should absolutely keep these important conversations going as long as action goes a long with it. Just talking about something is good for new concepts, but systemic problems like this are never solved by talk alone. For right now, I am doing all I can in my power. But UNC has so much power, and they are not even using a fraction of it. That’s my problem with this video. It’s performative activism.

Performative activism is a term which refers to allyship that only serves to platform the person, company or institution promoting it. An example would be a company releasing a statement of unity with a movement to increase their social capital rather helping the cause out of genuine passion. This statement will offer surface level support but not enough to aid in the progression of the movement. Users of performative activism aim to be viewed as an “ally” despite the fact that they’re doing the bare minimum, and their intentions are not exactly pure.

Organizations can be recognized as performative when they act as “allies” only when it is convenient or “trendy” – and therefore socially acceptable. We see it every year around June as companies use the Pride Flag to market their products. This past year, brands that have historically discriminated against black people published statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Think about it. What do colors or statements really do for these communities? To the general public, the companies appear as if they are socially conscious and progressive even if their actions behind the scenes show otherwise.

You’re probably thinking ‘But it’s harmless to issue statements like that, even if they’re disingenuous, right?’ Wrong. Every time they post a black square or #loveislove or shout “believe survivors!”, they are exploiting these movements and marginalized groups for their own commercial gain.

So what can we do?

Assuming none of my readers are actual companies or institutions, we as regular lower to middle-class human beings often think we can’t make a difference. Although it’s significantly more difficult for us to create societal change, you never know what your actions could amount to. The women who started the #MeToo movement had no idea it would explode the way it did. Just look at how much influence their work produced. Even if our actions don’t accomplish the establishment of a new social movement, we can always make a difference on an individual level. There are actually so many things we can do that would make even a slight difference in the lives of victims or marginalized people. I plan to write a more detailed post on this very subject so that its accessible to the people in my corner of the internet, but the information is actually already out there. It’s just a quick google search away

Here is a list of a few small things that you can do right now that require very little time or effort.

  • Promote and/or buy from businesses that are run by marginalized people instead of large corporations
  • Research the companies/brands you buy from and replace/cut them out if they are guilty of racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia
  • Share and/or donate to the GoFundMe of a victim/marginalized person
  • Fundraise on behalf of them
  • Reach out to a victim and/or send a care package
  • Speak up about these political issues in public, especially when others spread misinformation
  • Call people out for inappropriate behavior or hateful views
  • Start important discussions about these issues in your friend group

In Conclusion

When companies and universities act in their own self interest, especially when it comes to safety, it is going to harm the very people for which they are responsible. It will not only hurt victims, but potentially create new ones. Prevention is possible and establishments like these have the power to make it happen. Speaking about awareness is all for appearances. Whether they do or do not will reveal their true character.

Thank you for reading! What other actions can we take to make a difference in the lives of survivors and members of marginalized communities? Leave a comment below. To support my work, consider buying me a cup of coffee!



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