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Platitudes, Performative Activism and the Promise of a New Pathway

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Deconstructing Oppression, Amplifying Change and Intentional Actions

The protests and the platitudes have exposed a fault line in our societies and some unpleasant things about our collective humanity. In over 350 cities across the globe the chants of “no justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe” against police brutality; and the rallying cry of voices that “Black Lives Matter” and “silence is violence” against systemic racism and oppression have echoed in the annals of our souls. This is a contestation to our collective conscience and consciousness it is a reckoning of this fault line for our humanity as we know it.

An artwork by Banksy is seen in this image obtained from his Instagram account on June 6, 2020. (Photo: Instagram/@banksy via REUTERS)

When Banksy, the world’s famous elusive artist shared a powerful piece of new artwork in support of Black Lives Matter, it was symbolic of the fault line. The salient recognition is that we need to do much more for black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) to counter centuries of egregious acts of injustices, prejudice and discrimination to create solidarity against systemic racism. We have this moment in our humanity to correct course and create new pathways by utilizing engagement and empowerment to make fundamental change through our power, privilege, platforms and pockets to shape progressive policies.

The scrambling by leaders across sectors with their myriad of platitudes decrying systemic racism and attempts to ‘walk the talk’ on social justice issues, signals the need to do more than making promises. The global brands which often remain silent when it comes to social justice issues, started speaking out with statements and platitudes, however, this becomes questionable. In essence, the problematique is: are these just platitudinal gestures to assuage the feelings of the oppressed or is there a real commitment to addressing racism, oppression and divisiveness?

“Our institutions need to transform to truly change the experience for those vulnerable and marginalized.”

Asher Hill

In May 2020, McKinsey & Company in their Diversity wins: How inclusion matters research highlighted that the “relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time.” It appears, however, that organizations are still grappling with their commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) of BIPOC in their ranks, when it is evident that it is good for business. Why is this so? Is it due to lack of will, or structural racism?

Complacency or Complicity: Performative Activism and Prejudice

Taking a deep dive into the statements from leaders in business and academia, it could be viewed as opportunistic corporate social responsibility (CSR) for some and performative activism for others. Performative activism refers to activism done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause. According to Bloomberg, of the top 100 global brands, 76% posted corporate statements and 24% chose to remain silent. For those leaders who put out statements, was this a sociopolitical move to marry prejudicial capitalism with hypocrisy? Their statements were bereft of intentional actions, or is this performative activism? For the corporate brands that stayed silent are we to infer that they are complicit with racism, police brutality and social injustices? It leaves one wondering if they genuinely care to listen to non-white voices or do they really want change! In fact, there are corporate brands that exemplify performative activism, here are some contemptible examples —

L’Oréal Paris silenced Munroe Bergdorf by firing her in 2017 for speaking up about unconscious racism.

Starbucks also faced backlash and boycott as the company banned its baristas and employees from wearing any sort of T-shirt, pin, or accessory that mentioned Black Lives Matter. Interestingly, in the United States of America, 40% of Starbucks workers are BIPOC.

Costco , Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have banned employees from wearing Black Lives Matter paraphernalia and have dismissed employees and threatened others with repercussions if they breached company dress code policy, that have conveniently rehashed the divisiveness on which lives matter.

The NFL and its career-ending saga with Colin Kaepernick who began kneeling during the 2016 season to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

The Washington Redskins and Edmonton Eskimos have been silent on the growing call for the teams to change their names in light of the racist connotations amidst the protests and disrespecting indigenous peoples.

Amazon has been accused of hypocrisy supporting justice and equal opportunity for Black people, given its treatment of workers during the pandemic.

Clearview AI and Amazon have continued their commercial partnerships with police forces by supplying technologies that perpetuate police brutality and racism, that clearly targets and harm black and brown communities.

WE Charity co-founder Marc Kielburger in 2019 “aggressively” shut down Amanda Maitland when she spoke up at a town hall meeting about efforts to silence her anti-black racism and social justice speech.

According to University Affairs, “universities are considered to be among the most liberal institutions in society, yet many non-Caucasian scholars say they still feel excluded or denied opportunities.” Insider Higher Ed highlighted that very few higher education institutions (HEIs) in their statements “explicitly mentioned black people, referenced the Black Lives Matter movement or included any concrete action items to address inequities on campus or in wider society.” This is amidst the fact, that BIPOC faculty, students and staff have been calling on HEIs in light of the protests and many have been disappointed by statements that are no more than acts of performative activism. Canadian HEIs in their statements on the Black Lives Matter movement appear to “have succumbed to what many call “performative allyship” or “virtue signalling” — a symptom of social media activism” according to Sally Kirchen of VICE Media. The calls for change at the Canadian HEIs from BIPOC have been largely ignored or silenced by covert racism in academia.

In 2010, Racism in the Academy espoused what racism has looked like in the Canadian HEIs, even though they tout a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, their responses to BIPOC hiring is at best anaemic. The disproportionate experiences of institutional racism that have adverse outcomes for BIPOC as research demonstrates; they more likely to be on fixed-term contracts, they face significant difficulties in gaining access to the senior ranks of university management and are paid less.

A study conducted in 2016 by the Canadian Association of University Teachers revealed that there is a lack of diversity among faculties that fails to reflect the range of backgrounds and identities of students they teach. The study further highlighted that between 2006–2016 no change took place in HEIs to foster diversity, 96% of faculty are white, 2% black and 1.5% indigenous. This moment signals the need for fundamental change, however, University Affairs highlighted that “university administrators have done little to change their institutions beyond putting out the same carbon-copy Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) statements, and [check boxed] hiring EDI champions and then not properly supporting them” as I have experienced at my institution being the only black faculty in my department.

“Those who speak up against inequality are commonly silenced by others telling them that what they know isn’t real. Reality and facts aren’t up for debate.”

Yolanda Renteria

According to Dr. Minelle Mahtani, Associate Professor of Human Geography, University of Toronto, “this shows some important and disturbing trends in EDI at our public institutions; as these universities do not reflect the communities that they serve.” For BIPOC to speak up in the hallowed halls of academia about their experiences in a system that is emotionally taxing, is to risk job security, tenure and face white backlash or risk career suicide amidst our obscured presence. BIPOC have minimal expectations of university leaders, because their platitudes are not just inadequate, but actively offensive and their is inherent failure to listen. However, leadership in HEIs can fix this vexing problem, should they decide to do the deconstructive work, by listening, exercise will and become champions of initiatives where intent matter more than optics.

Pathways to Amplifying Change

There is a need for introspection, conversations and reconciliation by organizations and their leadership to reflect on their statements, platitudes and performative activism. The funding to support ‘knee-jerked’ initiatives to advance their cause, is not enough. By actively facilitating and fostering conversations with BIPOC on how intentional actions and concrete initiatives will be established and implemented is a start.

This work is not for the faint of heart, it requires more than allyship from white people, it involves deep work, culture shift and conversations they need to have amongst each other. These reasoned requests are crucial because at-a-glance governance and corporate boards tell of the genuine need for transformational EDI initiatives for BIPOC lives. This is a logical place for organizations and their leadership to start, engendering the harmonious co-existence of deconstructed white privilege with melanin magic.

Organizations like the collective societies they exist in are founded on ideals, that is postulated as vision and mission, which we revise, change and/or deconstruct to meet the challenges of our times. It is the spirit of our times, that we move from ideals of freedom and justice; to commitments, processes and actions to make equity, access and inclusivity for our collective humanity and liberty a reality. We no longer need facades, our humanity has been unmasked and the fault line has been exposed. We are now of the realization that ‘this is a crisis desperate for compassion and empathy. Equally desperate for men and women of action with their hearts and money, not just clever social media posts’ to heal the centuries of divisiveness and oppression to an open society where we unite to thrive.

It is time for solidarity and collective participation between white people and BIPOC who have been navigating the struggle for centuries to begin the arduous tasks of creating pathways to strengthen our collective humanity. One where there is a commitment to intentional actions to foster advocacy and activism for the dismantling of anti-black acts and legislation. In so doing, we can amplify transformational EDI policies, programmes and initiatives that outranks race. BIPOC experiences are invaluable to organizations when they are hired on merit and excellence, instead of tokenism and ‘check boxed’ proclivities. Thus, creating concrete actions that have an inclusive ethos, that honours and espouse their lives and voices, respectively.

Our humanity and our societies’ legacies are juxtaposed in a direction where our collective future embraces harmony not hate; wellbeing not wickedness; not racism but reconciliation and not bigotry but big hearts, where our determinant of life is amplified by our inalienable rights and dignity which becomes non-negotiable.

© 2020 Hugh Anthony, PhD | The New Humanity Initiative

About | Hugh Anthony, PhD, Contributor

Hugh Anthony is a storyteller, speaker and strategist, who believes ‘stories are humanity’s currency’ and shares his passion for people, places and the prolific experiences that intersect living, lifestyle and culture. He utilizes storytelling to help leaders create and curate their stories to deepen understanding, elevate their brand and amplify impact to move them from success to significance.

Hugh Anthony is Head of Strategy, Culture and Inclusion at The New Humanity Initiative, a social enterprise that builds on a collective mosaic to deepen racial equity and create inclusive organizations to inspire communities of learning. He holds a PhD from the University of Waterloo with specializations in leadership, culture and the management of service. Hugh is also a former teaching professor at the Toronto Metropolitan University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and has taught at the University of Waterloo, University of Technology, Jamaica and the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and served as Executive Director for a social service non-profit charitable organization. He resides in Toronto, Canada.

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