Moving beyond virtual signaling and performative allyship

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:

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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Founder/Principal of Diversity Forward Talent Solutions and OutNSocial