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The performativity of Black activism

By Ameenah Sahlajee

Black activism such as Black History Month and Black Lives Matter are no longer authentic. Where Black History Month(BHM) was once a celebration of Black heritage and culture, it has now become so heavily commercialised that its original message has been lost. Most visibly on social media, BHM has been reduced to a series of posts by corporations and media personalities who annually reiterate their commitment to the Black struggle. This performative activism only exists to benefit these corporations or individuals. It is telling that issues of police brutality, inequality within the education sector and racism within the workplace are not put into the spotlight by major brands that are doing the bare minimum to appear ‘woke’ and skirt criticism.

This trend of commercialization of Black activism was also highlighted during the Black Lives Matter movement. We were all greeted by blacked out feeds on Instagram in support of #blackouttuesday. However, only a small number of these same brands such as Glossier and Lego (who have shown continued support) have continued to spread awareness about racially motivated crime or the numerous cases of police brutality like George Floyd since. While corporate support to the Black struggle has greatly diminished, the problems of police brutality and institutionalized racism are still very much real. This is once again a clear indication that corporations only speak out about Black issues to remain relevant to contribute positively to their commercial image. Performative activism isn’t secluded to corporations but includes celebrities too. Emma Watson initially contributed very little to the Black Lives Matter movement, and only posted three blank black squares on #blackouttuesday to ensure that her ‘activism’ matched her instagram theme and aesthetic as it seems she couldn’t risk her instagram theme being compromised. Once again image was more important than activism.

Even worse, there have been cases where brands have silenced the voices of those who have attempted to raise awareness about the struggle of Black people; these being the same companies that release a customary message every year during BHM (the integrity of which is never questioned). Multi-billion-dollar companies such as L’Oréal have even fired an influencer from speaking out about race issues. The incident was in 2017, when Black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf was fired by L’Oréal for speaking out during a shoot about issues related to white supremacy. As an explanation, L’Oréal later released the statement that ‘their values did not align’. Despite these incidents,  L’Oréal still sports a nearly $30 billion net worth and remains a popular name as they successfully skirted allegations of racism by revealing that the brand and brands under its wing such as Maybelline, NYX and Urban Decay have donated money to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. The amount of money donated on the other hand remains a mystery. 

.A quick search on Wikipedia further highlights the hypocrisy of such companies. In the case of L’Oréal, not one Black individual or person of colour is present in the higher ranks of the company. I personally find it telling that corporations preaching tolerance and inclusivity are themselves not inclusive. The lack of representation of Black people within higher positions prevents the true celebration of Black culture. Such companies do not have enough first- hand input to properly understand and relate to contemporary issues faced by Black individuals, leading to the same generic messages and posts being released. Corporations embrace Black history on the surface, but do not translate that support into their organisation and corporate values. 

Actions speak louder than words. If brands truly want to contribute to Black activism, they need to do so consistently; as opposed to when these matters are most relevant in the media and so used as a marketing ploy. Support during Black History Month needs to extend past a generic customary post about the history of Black individuals. This is not a call to disregard Black heritage, but rather one to move towards the recognition of pressing and sensitive issues. Black individuals only make up 1.5% of senior roles in the UK; young Black workers were also impacted disproportionately hard by the pandemic with more than 40% unemployed from 24.5% the year before compared to 10.1% to 12.4% for their white counterparts in the same period. Most importantly, it is crucial that we recognise that the BLM movement is still ongoing and that brands need to continue to use their power and influence to spread awareness and change the status quo. Such corporations should invest their capital to fund foundations and NGOs who are well-suited to fight against such issues. Brands need to move towards contributing to important discussions consistently and using their power and influence in the right way. Only by promoting diversity in their ranks and spending time educating themselves and others on important, sensitive issues can brands meaningfully contribute to Black activism; instead of exploiting the movement for their own gains.

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