Our Skin is Not a Trend

A look at performative activism and how to avoid the brands that practice it.

By Stacey Coles
This is a portion of an article that originally appeared in Sesi’s Winter 2020 issue. Subscribe here to stay up on our current editions.

It was only a short time ago that #BlackLivesMatter was the hottest wave, and our timelines were filled with Black models, black squares, and ally declarations from major brands and corporations. Now, it’s hard not to notice how things have returned to the regular programming we’re used to.

This, my good sis, is what we call performative activism — a superficial announcement made or action done supposedly in support of a cause that’s actually done for clout. But our Blackness isn’t a trend; it’s not something we can take off at the end of the day à la an episode of Lovecraft Country. And the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others aren’t something to profit from.

So, how can you tell which companies are putting on a show and which are doing the necessary work? We sat down with four teen activists to find out.

Elsa Mengistu is wearing a blue sky-patterned top with a cross necklace and other gold chain jewelry. Her hair is pulled back and a pearly barette adorns one side. Here, she discusses performative activism.

Elsa Mengistu

Nineteen-year-old environmental justice activist Elsa Mengistu is dedicated to getting the world to see environmentalism as a Black social issue.

“If we talk about the environment, it’s critical for us to use the environmental justice definition. [Editor’s note: The standard definition of environmental justice is the right to a safe, healthy, productive, and sustainable environment for all, where ‘environment’ is considered in its totality to include the ecological (biological), physical (natural and built), social, political, aesthetic, and economic environments. ] That’s because it’s more holistic and it includes places … like our schools, our homes, our grocery centers, where we worship, where we sleep, the type of public transportation [we] have. Those are all environments that can be polluted socially [think: over-policing] or physically [like toxic waste],” she says. “The environment is literally connected to every, single aspect of our lives: [our] health, our spirits, our well-being, the food we eat, the access we have to literally anything.”

A student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Elsa is a founding member of Generation Green, an organization of Black environmentalists focused on the ways Black liberation and people’s surroundings are tied together.

“We just lived through a series of uprisings where, if you’re Black, essentially, we’re out protesting for our lives in the middle of a pandemic that is taking lives. And in the middle of those protests, tear gas is being used. So, it’s attacking our respiratory system and our health from multiple layers,” Elsa says. “Something that we say at Generation Green — our podcast title, actually, is Black & Breathless — [is] to be Black is to be breathless from multiple angles.”

To figure out whether a brand or organization is all cap or really down for the cause, Elsa recommends looking at its history. Have they always held it down in the social justice area, or nah? Why did they start? What have they done? She also suggests looking to see which businesses are curtailing Black voices to fit their own agenda and which are truly uplifting them as a whole.

Black-ane-white photo of Jamison Scout. She's wearing a turtleneck, and her hair is in side cornrows, pulled back. Here, she talks about performative activism.

Jamison Scout

When 14-year-old model Jamison Scout isn’t in front of the camera, she’s fighting against bullying in schools and working with Sources of Strength, a program that serves as a safe space for students experiencing tough times at home or in school. Given her modeling aspirations, this teen activist couldn’t help but notice the influx of Black models on her Instagram during the height of this past summer’s protests against racial injustice.

“I knew [some brands] were doing it just for a trend, but it did kind of help because my whole ‘For You’ page was just all Black models, and #BlackLivesMatter, and Black hair care, and stuff,” Jamison says. “Now, it’s transitioning back into [where] nothing’s Black Lives Matter, nothing about the protests.”

If you want to suss out a company’s true motives, Jamison suggests looking at the type of people who work for the business and the type of audience it attracts. For example, there could be hella Black people as the face of their products, but how many Black and other POCs have actual seats at the table? How many are on that decision-making tip?

Photo of Stephanie Younger. She's standing outside and wearing a face mask, blue top, and gray sweater. She's also holding a microphone. Here, she talks about performative activism.

Stephanie Younger

Founder of the blog Black Feminist Collective, 18-year-old Stephanie Younger has been providing a platform for Black activists’ voices since 2017. “It’s an intergenerational, online collective for and by Black womanists and Black feminists who advocate for the liberation of all Black folks,” she explains.

Her activism journey kicked off in the summer of 2016 after she saw a number of news reports regarding the murders of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and other Black people at the hands of police. After spending some time writing and performing her own spoken word as a way to cope, she received the opportunity to volunteer at an independent film festival where Angela Davis was speaking.

“There was a whole screening about her proactivism and the Black Panther Party, from the Black liberation movement and her work for abolition [of prisons] and feminism and Black feminism, specifically,” Stephanie recalls. “That really [pushed] me into creating Black Feminist Collective and organizing towards a world without prisons and police.”

Stephanie defines performative activism as something that is “opportunistic” and exploitative of “the grievances and the trauma of the people [brands] claim to be fighting for.” On the other hand, she believes that authentic activism shows itself through intentional action. When checking a brand or business for authenticity, she looks to see if they’re also doing the work offline by representing themselves at protests or redistributing their wealth.

Headshot of Marie Tagbo, her hair is in locs.

Marie Tagbo

“I don’t necessarily consider what I do activism. Activism, to me, is a self-proclaimed title … my work with activism is a lifestyle,” Marie Tagbo,19, says. “In my social media, my work goes across everything from talking about self-confidence to anxiety to the struggles of being a Black woman who comes from a rural state. My favorite new project is BLM | The Journal, a short film where I talk about my experience going to my first protest and the reality of intersectionality — how being Black and a woman affects my day-to-day experience.”

After struggling to break into the acting industry, a journey she began at the age of 15, Marie decided she wanted to make a difference and be an inspiration for girls with similar aspirations to hers.

“When I looked on the screen, only in one out of every hundred movies was there a Viola Davis or a Kerry Washington. According to the media, we were nonexistent,” Marie says. “I auditioned hundreds of times; I got told no hundreds of times. But [then], I started booking acting roles in film and television. I [also] started a YouTube channel, seeing myself as a beacon of hope for other young girls with dreads or dark skin who wanted to get involved in the industry,” she continues. “In my book, How I Became A Teen Actor, mentioning and encouraging Black women became a huge part of my platform [and] Colonize This is a podcast I do. It features only women of color, and the topics span from intersectionality to performative activism to social media to LGBTQ+-related issues.”

For her, the tokenism of summer 2020 was not it. “All of a sudden, companies were acting like Black Lives Matter was a new movement that they had just discovered,” Marie says. “But BLM didn’t just emerge … the Black community has been talking about representation [for years]. But, it was only when representation became a trend to capitalize off of … that [it] began to be utilized … In terms of real change, it feels empty.”

Brands that not only rock with the culture but also support the people behind it, come through with receipts. To start, their businesses rep people of all shades and backgrounds, and they don’t get down with white saviorism.

Main Image: BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy; white embellishments: Jamie Yu


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