Virtue Signaling and Performative Allyship Won’t Combat Systemic Racism
In early June, social media feeds were filled with black squares, as part of the Blackout Tuesday initiative. The intent was to ignite a national dialogue about racial injustice and draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. But there were two problems. First, many of the people who posted Blackout Tuesday squares did so with the Black Lives Matter hashtag, which drowned out important information about how people could support the cause or join local demonstrations. Second, the black squares were little more than a gesture. It was heartening to see so many people openly declare that Black Lives Matter, given it was anathema just a few years ago, but Blackout Tuesday perpetuated two troubling trends that have done little to fight racism — virtue signaling and performative allyship.
Understanding virtue signaling and performative allyship
Both virtue signaling and performative allyship are two sides of the same coin. On one side, virtue signaling is the act of sharing your opinion about an injustice online so it looks like you’re doing the right thing. A person whose virtue signals may speak out about the plight of marginalized people in a social media post but take no action to raise money for or support said, marginalized people. On the flip side, performative allyship is modeled when people participate in useless forms of activism. They may show solidarity in an empty way and receive praise or recognition for doing so, but their activism doesn’t actually help. The black squares are a perfect example of this — on the surface, they call attention to racism, but they aren’t linked to any fundraising nor do they provide tangible ways for people to take action. In this case, they actually buried helpful information that could have turned this campaign into something impactful.
Why empty activism doesn’t work
Neither virtue-signaling nor performative allyship involves action. If talking was all we needed to do to stop systemic racism, the problem would’ve been quelled decades ago. In America, and all over the globe, it takes a lot more than hashtags to make the world more just and equal for everyone. Fighting racism requires people and corporations to get uncomfortable and do things they’ve never done before.
Instead of black squares and statements on social media, companies can do one or all of the following steps to start undoing years of oppression:
- Start within your own company: So many companies have looked outward in recent weeks, pledging money to social justice organizations so that someone else can do the work. But many of these businesses need to clean up their own houses. They must acknowledge and study the policies and practices within their organizations that perpetuate racism among their ranks.
- Dismantle old systems: After you conduct your investigations, break everything down and start over. This could mean being intentional about enlisting the services of SME who are also URM diverse suppliers or dedicating resources to recruiting from new places, like coding camps or immersion programs.
- Get everyone onboard: Help employees at all levels of your organization understand the value of diversity and the roles they play in supporting inclusion and creating an atmosphere of belonging.
- Diversify the decisionmakers: Get URM in leadership roles, in key positions on your board, and on interview panels.
- Link diversity and inclusion to performance: Motivate executives and high-level managers to focus on change by incorporating it into their bonus structure.
- Focus training on solutions: Don’t just teach your teams how to spot racism — give them the tools and freedom to speak out and address it.
In many ways, the conversation about racism in America has moved further than it ever has before. But for this moment to matter, companies must do their part and that means turning talk into action.
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