Performative Wokeness on the rise

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on July 10, 2020

Happy Friday. With any struggle against an oppressive system, when a movement becomes so loud that it can no longer be ignored, the institution in power will try to pacify the protesters with symbolic concessions rather than real change.

This kind of virtue-signaling is nothing new, and you don’t need to look further than every June when companies change their logo to include a rainbow flag, rather than donate to a LGBTQ+ friendly charity or publicly acknowledge their own complicity in institutional homophobia before the last decade. 

The most egregious examples of this “performative wokism” are happening day after day around us as major brands, sports teams, and governments take the smallest steps they can to rectifying a racist system they uphold without actually accomplishing anything meaningful.  Most, if not all, of these changes, should’ve happened a long time ago and it’s a good thing that they are happening now despite how late in the game it is, but we need to be careful that this isn’t the last step in listening to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the last few weeks, the most notable examples of symbolic changes that will have no effect outside of their internal companies include:

  • White celebrities will stop voicing black characters;
  • Streaming services are removing episodes that portray black face like in the sitcom the Office;
  • The NFL will sing the Black National Anthem before each game.

While these are all good changes, they aren’t even remotely what the protests are for and in large part, won’t change anything.  The NFL change is especially ridiculous because in a league that black-listed a player because he took a knee during their little military porn before the game, they instead decided they’ll play a second anthem for Black people.

Black people are just as much American as anyone else in the league’s corporate office and adding a second anthem implies that the first one isn’t for them, which is extremely telling.

Aesthetic changes like this are the most frequent examples of performative wokness because it’s easier for private companies to make a small change and act as if their jobs are done rather than take an active role in demanding reform (like Ben & Jerry’s).  On the other end of the spectrum are symbolic changes that on their surface look like they’re helping, but in practice are merely displays of support without any substance behind them:

  • Major cities painting a “Black Lives Matter” mural down the middle of the street;
  • Mississippi changing its horribly racist flag;
  • The Washington football team considering changing its team name to one that isn’t a literal slur.

Each of these examples are more complicated than the mere aesthetic displays above because the symbols they project are significantly more powerful.  Cities like D.C. painting a BLM mural right in front of the White House show a local government’s support for the movement.

Mississippi doing the barest minimum and removing a symbol of the confederacy from their state flag shows it’s ready to start dealing with its racist past.  The Washington football team even considering changing their wildly racist name shows that sponsors are finally willing to use their position to force racists to change their ways.  All of these steps signal a larger shift in the public consciousness and that the systems that came before will forever be changed…but that’s not enough.

After the D.C. mayor commissioned that mural, she announced she would not be amending the police budget and Dan Synder the owner of the Washington Football Team only came so far to “open an investigation about their team name,” which seems like an open and shut case.

These kinds of willful displays of ignorance and refusal to listen instantly reveal the intentions behind the people and organizations who make them.  It shows that they will use their public stature to appease as many people as possible as long as doing so will not upset the institutions that keep them afloat.  Whether those institutions be political parties, donors, or a large section of racists that make up their supporters, the institutions are keeping as tight a hold on these people as they can.

Some companies and local governments are actually backing up their symbols with the meaningful change, however.  The Minneapolis city council voted to disband their police force and cities around the country are reinvesting their police budgets into the communities that pay for it.  There is real change being done, but it only happens when institutions actually listen to the oppressed and the people that stand with them.  The BLM movement calls for several things, but chiefly among them is to defund the police and some in power are much better listeners than others.

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