In an article about performative activism, an illustration of a man and a woman with masks and blacked-out speech bubbles
Customers are demanding that corporations back up their words with action. (Illustration by Baz Pugmire, Michigan State University)

Companies Are Being Called Out for Performative Activism

Many brands are posting in support of Black Lives Matter, while hiding their own racist practices.

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In an article about performative activism, an illustration of a man and a woman with masks and blacked-out speech bubbles

Many brands are posting in support of Black Lives Matter, while hiding their own racist practices.

Consumers are calling out brands on their performative activism and telling them to back up their words with actions.

By now, you’ve definitely heard the phrase “Open your purse” aimed at celebrities and corporations. The phrase, popularized by TikTok user Adam Martinez, urges companies and individuals to put their money where their mouth is and donate to the Black Lives Matter movement, instead of just posting about it. But it doesn’t stop there. Consumers all over the country are criticizing companies for having racist work environments while simultaneously offering statements of “support” for the black community.

In an interview with Vogue, writer Latham Thomas defined optical allyship or performative activism as “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally,’ [that] makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress.”

With the unrest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, brands that have historically discriminated against black people have published statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, consumers are calling them out for their performative activism, which allows them to appear socially conscious while their actions show otherwise.

Actions — such as multimillion-dollar corporations simply posting a black square on Instagram with the caption “muted. #BlackLivesMatter” — are no longer enough to express solidarity with the movement. Oftentimes, the statements do more harm than good. When companies post support for Black Lives Matter and have a history of discriminating against black employees, they are exploiting black people and their movement for commercial gain.

In this day and age, social justice sells. When Nike used Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback whose contract was terminated after he famously kneeled during the national anthem, as the face of their “Just Do It” campaign in September 2019, their stocks rose by 5% in only two weeks. Now, consumers are calling on brands to express solidarity beyond words.

Reformation, a brand that roots itself in social justice through sustainability, was recently called out for their toxic and racist work environment. On May 31, Reformation made an Instagram post stating that they will be donating to various causes such as Black Lives Matter and the NAACP and urging their followers to do the same. In the comments, Elle Santiago, a former assistant manager at their flagship Los Angeles store, shared her experiences with discrimination while working at Reformation and with the founder, Yael Aflalo.

She said, “Working for Reformation deeply traumatized me. Being overlooked and undervalued as a woman of color who worked and managed their flagship store for three years was the hardest. I cried many times knowing the color of my skin would get me nowhere in this company. Yael never looked at me. She would walk pass me and never spoke to me. But would tell white associates that they were pretty.”

Less than a week later, on Thursday, June 4, Santiago listed in detail the discrimination she experienced while working at Reformation in a now viral Instagram post. She mentioned one incident where Aflalo was shown a potential black model, to which the founder responded, “We’re not ready for that yet.”

Aflalo apologized publicly on the brand’s Instagram, and on June 12, she stepped down as CEO of the company. Reformation’s president, Hali Borenstein, took her place immediately. Despite the apology and change of leadership, many former fans of the company are not buying the shift and are urging customers to buy from black-owned sustainable businesses instead.

The NFL has also faced criticism for its performative activism. In a video posted to social media on June 5, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”

Many fans and NFL players have called this statement from Goodell and other NFL executives performative and insincere, considering the fact that Kaepernick still has not been signed onto a football team since his peaceful protest against police brutality in 2016.

In an interview with the Daily Beast, former NFL player Michael Bennet said the statement from Roger Goodell “is almost like a slap in the face.” Bennet went on to say that the NFL’s actions must match their words. But what will it take for the NFL to show that their statements are sincere?

According to Seattle Seahawks running back Carlos Hyde, one way would be signing Kaepernick. In a press conference on June 8, Hyde said, “If they sign Kap back, it’ll show they are really trying to move in a different direction, because Kap was making a statement four years ago about what’s going on in today’s world and the N.F.L. didn’t bother to listen to him then.”

NFL executives’ refusal to explicitly acknowledge Kaepernick, let alone sign him to a team, shows that changes must be made if they truly want to move in a more positive direction.

Reformation and the NFL aren’t the first brands to be called out on their performative activism, and they definitely won’t be the last. According to a report conducted by Sprout Social, a social media analytics company, 66% of consumers take a company’s political statements into account when purchasing. Consumers want brands to reflect their beliefs.

However, consumers can also tell when a brand is being insincere. Companies that clearly trivialize social movements for economic gain will be called out. One notable example is Pepsi’s 2017 commercial that appropriated images from the Black Lives Matter movement to sell their product. Consumers criticizing brands for performative activism shows a new era of consumerism, one where corporations can no longer stay on the sidelines when it comes to political issues.

The message is clear: It isn’t enough to say black lives matter. It’s time for brands to act like it.

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