Moving Beyond ‘Slacktivism’ to Create Lasting Anti-Racism Change
By Gina Rubel and Sarah Larson
As anti-racism protests and movements have gained steam over the past few weeks, many supporters are grappling with their next steps. What can we do next to work to create lasting change and make the need for such protests obsolete?
For some people, this is a new and maybe somewhat frightening question. Taking a public stand on a social issue can expose you to everything from criticism or harassment to death threats, such as in the case of writer and civil rights activist Shaun King. The FBI is now investigating death threats made against King, a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, by former Long Beach police officers after he spoke out about police brutality.
But change – real, lasting, transformative societal change – will require more people to speak out and, more importantly, take action.
Read: Creating an Anti-Racism Plan: Communications, Policies, and Actions Amidst Protests and Pandemic
Who is an activist?
A supporter approves of and encourages a movement. An activist, meanwhile, actively addresses an issue by challenging those in power. Given that those in power typically do not like to be challenged, activists often put themselves, or their reputations, at risk.
“Activism is not easy,” says an article on Medium. “It often requires a strenuous time commitment and you could face dangerous public backlash — which is why it’s important not to confuse the minimal efforts of a supporter with the activists who put themselves at risk for social change and equality.”
Activists are dedicated enough to their cause that they are willing to participate in discussion and dialogue and work directly to influence social change through action, such as attending protests, calling their congressmen, attending town hall meetings, raising or donating funds, running for office, providing pro bono services, and more. Some activists even speak out against their own employer, if they feel the organization’s culture or operations contribute to the issue about which they are passionate, which is why we advise clients to think through and develop a policy to address employee activism.
In a TEDxYouth@Biddeford talk, Anjali Appadurai shares her definition of activism. Born in India and raised in Canada, Appadurai began to explore ideas of social justice while in high school. Passionate about youth engagement and civil responsibility, she asks young people to question the definition of activism and to apply the interpretation that speaks to them to create the world they want to see in the future.
What is slacktivism and performative activism?
True activism stands at odds with “performance activism” or the derisive term “slacktivism,” which refers to easily taken actions performed to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause. Often performed through social media, slacktivism involves very little effort or commitment and rarely is backed up by any real action.
A recent example of performative activism was the posting of a black square on one’s social media profile, particularly Instagram, to acknowledge #BlackOutTuesday. Though one of our team leaders initially did this, a teammate at Furia Rubel advised her to take down the posting; the driving idea behind #BlackoutTuesday was to cease Instagram’s noise in order to make space to amplify the message from Black Lives Matter leaders and activists. The flood of black squares, however, drowned out the real discourse the movement was trying to elevate. Once our team member pointed this out, the team leader deleted her black square and went silent on social media that week in order to read, listen and learn. Since then, she has committed two to five hours per week in continued diversity and anti-racism training.
In an opinion piece on #Blackout Tuesday for the Missouri State University student-run newspaper, The Standard, Paige Nicewaner wrote, “It’s too easy to fall into a ‘slacktivist’ mindset of posting one black square to your Instagram with three red heart emojis and never addressing the cause again. I know because I’ve been that person before. It takes conscious effort to be an activist, and for a lot of white people it means getting uncomfortable. It means acknowledging we have contributed to a racist society, as well as putting in the effort to help dismantle it.”
Other examples of slacktivism or performance activism include:
- Wearing a certain color on a given day and never doing more for that cause.
- Sharing content on social media only to express your allyship.
- Putting a frame on a Facebook profile photo for a cause you don’t support in any other way.
- Changing your corporate logo to include the rainbow for Pride Month without doing anything else to serve as an ally, supporter, advocate, or activist for LGBTQ+ rights.
- Claiming that you are committed to corporate diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism without committing measurable time, resources, and energy to making change.
- Saying you stand firmly for a cause and then patronizing (instead of boycotting) companies that oppose that cause.
From a corporate communications perspective, if your company is going to make a public statement about a cause, it is imperative to follow up the statement with real, measurable action.
Read: Cultural institutions need to stop the empty gestures and performative activism — it’s time to do the real work of anti-racism
Committing to Creating Lasting Change
If we wish to be less performative and more effective change-makers, we must match our words of support with real action. Many people, however, are new to activism and are not sure where to start. Regarding the racial justice movement, an article on UpWorthy shares four concrete things that everyone can do to dismantle racism. They are:
Manage yourself. Commit to self-awareness. Commit to educating yourself and be willing to reduce your defenses. Your ego will take a hit; accept that you’re going to find out that you’re wrong about things you’ve professed as truth. You have to be okay with sitting with some discomfort.
Manage your immediate sphere of influence. This means your household, family, spouse, friends, and children. Think about how to convey the message of “we all have to be in this together in order to dismantle racism.” Encourage those around you to vote and to raise anti-racist children.
Wield your power. If you have decision-making power at your job, church, or civic organization, you have to use that power to create room for people of color. Aren’t sure where to start with that? Ask yourself a few questions. Who runs things? Look around the room. Does everyone look like you? Think about what you can do to make sure that the policies and climate is such that marginalized people feel like they can win.
Exercise compassion. People of color are exhausted, but we don’t have a choice but to be compassionate for wherever our friends are right now. It’s a part of their everyday work to help us get to our highest potential.. If educating yourself is as far as you can go, great — do that. Because it will touch everyone you come in contact with. It is important to demonstrate compassion and grace when dealing with ourselves and others. Assume positive intent from everyone.
Read: Racial Equity Tools’ Individual Transformation
Guiding Leaders Through Next Steps
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, nationwide protests renewed a national discussion about race that quickly spread to include businesses of every size and industry. As crisis and communications strategists, the Furia Rubel team reached out to each of our clients to see how we could support them.
In the days and weeks that followed, additional conversations addressed deeper questions about how each organization operates and how it communicates its values through its actions. We asked our clients a series of questions, including:
- What programs do you have in place that support diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-racism?
- What training do you have in place (or need to begin) to support diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-racism?
- How have your employees or team members responded to the national discussion about racial justice?
- What will you be doing differently, moving forward?
- How are your actions measurable?
- How are your actions sustainable?
- What resources or team-members do you need to help support your company’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-racism?
Other steps that we and some of our clients have taken include:
- Researching the companies by visiting goodsuniteus.com before making purchases. The site reveals the influence, politics and power of the leaders of major brands “to empower people to become political consumers to put an end to corporate political donations.”
- Donating funds to nonprofit organizations that are working towards systemic change. We are advising clients to give without fanfare. These donations can and should be included in an end-of-year giving summary or on the organization’s anti-discrimination, anti-racism, or pro-bono website page, but skip the traditional PR.
- Form a book club to read a book on anti-racism or the legacy of racism and talk about the ideas, or a movie club to watch and discuss documentaries or films about racism.
- Get involved in your organization’s diversity efforts.
Join an Industry Alliance or Coalition Focused on Anti-Racism
For professionals and agencies in the public relations industry, consider joining the Diversity Action Alliance. It is a coalition of PR and communications leaders joining forces to accelerate progress in the achievement of meaningful and tangible results in diversity, equity and inclusion across the profession. The Diversity Action Alliance brings together leaders of the world’s top public relations organizations in pursuit of an urgent and critically essential goal: to achieve continuous improvement for under-represented groups as measured by recruitment, retention and representation in management.
The Diversity Action Alliance will:
- Drive high-impact change toward shared goals
- Measure the profession’s progress with consistent, comprehensive metrics
- Provide regular progress reports to stakeholders
Furia Rubel joined the Diversity Action Alliance and is committed to doing its part as a member. Our commitment is to provide content, experiences and communications that represent and authentically connect with the diverse America we seek to engage. The way to ensure we are doing this is to have diverse perspectives and voices at the table. Our goal is to ensure that the representation in the room mirrors the markets and the people we serve. With ethics and integrity at the core of what we stand for, this is a moral imperative and much as it is a business one.
For attorneys and professionals in the legal industry, there is the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance. Its charter states its purpose is “To leverage the resources of the private bar in partnership with legal services organizations to amplify the voices of communities and individuals oppressed by racism, to better use the law as a vehicle for change that benefits communities of color and to promote racial equity in the law.”
More than 125 firms across the U.S. that have joined the alliance, which has been featured in several publications, including Lawyer Monthly, Above the Law, The Global Legal Post, and The American Lawyer.
The Law Firm Antiracism Alliance’s (LFAA) action items include:
- Host a summit of key stakeholders to prioritize the Alliance’s work facilitated by experts in the areas of racial justice and systemic project design.
- Listen to and be guided by experts (including legal services organizations) and affected communities.
- Blueprint a Systemic Racism Legal Inventory.
- Charge the law firm pro bono professional community via the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) with the organization and advancement of the LFAA.
- Commit law firm leadership to continued action through the LFAA.
- Develop Systemic Racism Legal Inventory: a catalogue of laws, rules, policies and practices that result in negative outcomes for people of color, with priority focus to tackling anti-Black racism as determined by affected communities and policy experts.
- Implement legislative and regulatory advocacy strategies to change laws, rules, policies and practices identified in the Systemic Racism Legal Inventory.
- Initiate high-impact litigation as required to effectuate reform identified in the Systemic Racism Legal Inventory.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the LFAA through regular convening of stakeholders.
Other coalitions include:
- Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition
- European Network Against Racism
- Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE)
- World Alliance of YMCAs
Commit for the Long-term
For business and community leaders who are serious about being or becoming anti-racist, expect to make a lifelong commitment to those ideas and actions. Updating or reinforcing your policies is not enough. An important part of this commitment is putting those policies and beliefs into action.
For those of us who are white, that requires being vulnerable and being willing to be corrected. It requires unlearning a lot of things you thought you knew and relearning with open eyes. This is not an easy transformation; to help guide us here at Furia Rubel, we have been compiling and sharing a list of anti-racism resources, which we update weekly as we continue to read, listen, watch, and learn.
And as we learn, we keep in mind the words of the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who said “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” As we learn more, we can do more, and do it better. We have a lot of growing to do too, but as a team, we are learning and evolving together. We welcome you to join us.
For more DE&I resources, please visit our Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Anti-Racism Resource Center.