Crimes Against Black Womxn and Performative Activism
This past Monday, American rapper Megan Thee Stallion was shot in both feet. The most surprising part of this story was not the shooting itself, but the way that people have been reacting to it: mostly silence, jokes, and victim-blaming. The majority-white population that has used her song “Savage” to get famous on TikTok expresses no remorse or even acknowledgment of the situation, even though many of them actively participated in spreading awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The shooting incident is shrouded in much mystery, and the true sequence of events is still unclear. What is clear, however, is the prevalence of performative activism within the Black Lives Matter movement. What is performative activism? It’s a term describing activism done to acquire social capital (or sometimes monetary capital) rather than express devotion to the cause itself. Now that #BlackLivesMatter and related hashtags have lost their “trending” status on social media, violence against black people is once again allowed to pass under the radar unnoticed. And as the incident involving an influential public figure like Megan Thee Stallion so clearly shows, performative activism is the most obvious when it comes to abuse and crimes against black womxn.
2020’s wave of BLM protests is trying its best to change that. “Since [the beginning of BLM], as we all know, #BlackLivesMatter has become much more than a hashtag, animating mass protest in the aftermath of the police killings of black men. But there’s another facet to this story, and it’s something new. Historically, black women have been pushed to the margins of our protest moments. This time black women’s activism is front and center,” says Karen Attiah of The Washington Post. We’ve begun to see the cases of Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, India Kager, Charleena Lyles, and others emerge under the new hashtag #SayHerName, which highlights the unjust treatments/killings of black womxn that have been largely ignored.
But most of these cases have been turned into memes instead of serious issues, a problem that Huffington Post culture writer Zeba Blay calls “memeification”. Twitter users include “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” in threads that include daily reminders such as washing your hands and wearing a face mask. Numerous public figures like Riverdale actress Lili Reinhart and model Duckie Thot posted eye-grabbing photos of themselves with captions along the lines of “Now that I have your attention, arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” Of course, many of these people have faced backlash for posting such things, but they fail to understand the reason why “memeifying” violence against black womxn is inherently counterintuitive to BLM. “Turning Breonna Taylor into a meme… risks turning the conversation around what justice looks like for her into a temporary fad. Other than the firing of one police officer involved in her killing, there have been no real moves toward rectifying the situation. And so, as ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ gets repeated over and over again, it becomes an abstraction, it begins to lose meaning,” says Attiah.
This “memeification” stems from a larger historical worldview that sees black people as less than people and excludes black womxn from being categorized as womxn. In her book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, author Andrea J. Ritchie recounts that In 1893 in Atlanta, black women were 6.4 times as likely as white women, and black girls 19 times as likely as white girls, to be arrested. Black women were painted as prostitutes, cruel to their children, and keen to recruit white girls into sex work — all of which served to reinforce the point that black women were “subjects outside of the protected category, ‘woman.’” So it’s only natural that when activists begin to bring attention to the unjust treatment of black women (especially black trans women), the public is unsure how to act. Many feel that they must jump onto the bandwagon of posting pictures and comments tagged with #BlackLivesMatter to maintain their online social standing, which is why performative activism is so widespread.
Many participating in the #ChallengeAccepted trend to denounce femicide in Turkey were previously silent when Breonna Taylor’s death occurred. Instagram users are slowly deleting the black squares that they posted for #BlackOutTuesday to mourn victims of police violence, while social media companies like Facebook experienced a rise in stock prices from showing BLM ads during the time of the protests. As #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor lose their spots on Twitter’s “trending” list and news companies publicize fewer protests, demands for justice are once again allowed to be ignored. The topic of police brutality is ultimately seen as just another trend for internet users to capitalize and discard, revealing that misogynoir and racism are deeply rooted in our societies. We need to do better.