By Sanaa Ali-Mohammed, nonprofit research & inclusive program design
Some time ago, staff from a nonprofit I had no prior engagement with reached out and requested I share my experiences of racial discrimination with a journalist, to support an initiative they were working on.
The framing of the request didn’t sit right with me, and I ultimately decided not to lend my voice to the organization’s work. It took me some time to identify precisely why I was so uncomfortable with the request.
Why does performative activism in the sector matter?
Right now, we are witnessing a surge in institutions and leaders co opting language and reinventing and marketing themselves as “antiracist,” “inclusive,” or “equitable.” But many have been and will continue to engage with important issues in performative ways.
We know performative activism occurs when those with power wish to give the appearance of supporting members of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities — but aren’t willing to transfer power and transform organizational cultures, policies, practices and behaviours.
We also know those engaged in performative activism often do so reactively, to avoid being called out on racism, or are motivated by benefits they can derive from appearing to be antiracist — for example, increasing profits or brand recognition — rather than a commitment to a more racially just world. But why should we care about performative activism in the sector?
Secondly, according to numerous scholars and experts, performative activism leads to new and insidious forms of oppression for Black, Indigenous and racialized people. Performative institutions distract from the real issues at stake and also create additional labour for the Black, Indigenous and racialized people who end up collaborating with them. This can take a toll on our emotional and physical health.
It’s time to ask tough questions
Too often, it’s white-dominant institutions assessing the credentials, experience, and projects of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people for alignment with their missions and visions. But what if we flipped the script and asked them to demonstrate their alignment with our objectives too?
I spoke to antiracist leaders, advocates and workers in various industries to see if there were commonalities that could help identify those engaged in performative activism on racial justice. It turns out there are several signature behaviours that indicate you have a performative institution on your hands.
Here are 7 questions we think everyone should be asking to help identify and avoid them:
1. How do they treat Black, Indigenous, and racialized workers who speak out about white supremacy and racism?
When I spoke to Habibah Haque, a Tkaronto-based human rights advocate and project manager with Hijabi Ballers, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting inclusion in the sports industry, she pointed to an internal “culture of privileged behaviour” at many nonprofits, which allows bias, favouritism, and tone-policing to flourish.
“[At these institutions,] leaders tend to favour the ones who make them feel comfortable, who aren’t asking the organization and leadership to do better,” said Haque. This disadvantages workers who are vocal about discrimination.
Yet simultaneously, these institutions “will put out equity-based programs for members of racialized and underrepresented communities to build their [institution’s] reputation,” said Haque.
Many institutions also devalue lived experiences of racism as a form of expertise, and subsequently do not compensate workers for labour that leverages this expertise.
Nawal, who works in the tech industry, told me how a previous manager characterized the educational activities on antiracism she organized for her then-employer as “fluff” that would not be considered in her annual performance review.
“I did all of that on top of my day job. The event was attended by over 200 staff nationwide, and I received a lot of recognition from VPs [at the company], but my [then] manager said, ‘I don’t know why you’re bringing this up’ [during performance review], ” she said.
In her subsequent job search, Nawal asked questions about prospective employers’ approaches towards allyship with Black, Indigenous, and racialized workers to get a sense of their competency in the subject.
2. How do they approach internal interventions?
I also spoke with Tanya Hannah Rumble, CFRE, a racialized settler of multiethnic origins living and working in Tkaronto who wears multiple hats. Not only is she a professional fundraiser, she also leads a philanthropy and equity community of practice for white allies and those with visible identities. She noted many institutions and leaders prefer a “warm bath” approach.
“[They] shy away from training and conversations about anti-racism, instead preferring to speak about equity, diversity and inclusion. However, you can’t have equity if you’re not dismantling oppression and talking about anti-racism,” said Rumble.
Anisa Jama, a Tkaronto based nonprofit manager, human rights organizer, and public policy graduate student (she’s a hustler!), concurred. She believes institutions must go beyond “surface level training … and dig deeper” to consider “conversations about white supremacy, because it is the root of systemic racism which is being circumvented.”
I also chatted with Eaman Fahmy, who provides antiracism and anti-oppression consulting to nonprofits. Like Tanya and Anisa, she believes the unwillingness to center race indicates where an organization is in its journey. In addition, she said, performative nonprofits often adopt a “checkmark” approach of “let’s do training, so we can say we’ve done training.”
As someone who provides antiracism training and consulting, I’ve noticed this in my own practice too. Sometimes leaders who subscribe to the checkmark approach will also stipulate that training needs to be completed within an hour or two, instead of approaching it as an ongoing process of learning and self-reflection.
But anti-racism work is not just about training, Fahmy observed. It’s also about shifting culture and policies embedded across all levels of an institution, which requires allocating the time and resources needed to do so effectively.
3. How do they quantify their commitments and measure progress?
Leaders and advocates noted that statements without targets describing exactly how institutions will challenge the racial status quo are of limited utility.
As Rumble explained, “For a sector [like fundraising and philanthropy] that has become so good at quantifying things, that organizations don’t have measurable outcomes [especially for addressing anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism] is concerning.”
In my conversations with Aseefa Sarang, Executive Director of Across Boundaries, a mental health centre serving racialized people in and around Tkaronto, she noted the absence of clear targets results in limited progress, and funders may fuel this approach. While certain funders are now asking grant-seekers to submit “equity plans” as a prerequisite for funding, the question remains what they are actually measuring and what plans are being measured against.
“It’s very easy for organizations to fashion them [equity plans] to make it seem like any kind of work is equity work,” said Sarang. “[This does not] result in any real or meaningful outcomes for marginalized communities and certainly does not address the root issues of racism, anti-Black racism, or other forms of oppression.”
As someone who has seen a lot of questionable “equity” plans in my practice, I couldn’t agree more.
Jennifer Chan, Tkaronto-based CEO of a national nonprofit, described her experience with a funder that “put out a call for proposals … prioritizing applications from Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.” She later discovered, of five funded projects, only one was led by a person with a visible (racialized) identity.
“So when you say you’re prioritising Black, Indigenous and people of colour and equity, what does that mean?” she asked.
4. How are mistakes, oppression, and harm acknowledged?
Haque believes that without acknowledgement of harm caused and apology and reparations to those who have been harmed, institutions and leaders cannot form authentic relationships.
Rumble agreed, telling me that in philanthropy, “People don’t necessarily want to acknowledge their donors and their work has been built on racism.”
Nikki Chau, an abolitionist organizer based in Seattle, on Coast Salish territory, and co-founder of Gathering Roots, a healing centre and collective, adds that failure to address the source of harm makes any acknowledgement meaningless. They cite American immigration reform as one example of performative activism, “[It ] doesn’t change the fact that our bombs are destroying their [refugees’] homes in the first place,” said Chau.
This highlighted for me that performative leaders and institutions will often fail to acknowledge or challenge the broader systems — like imperialism, capitalism or settler colonialism — that lead to specific instances of oppression, and will instead focus on the resulting symptoms.
5. Do they demand trauma porn?
Multiple leaders described how performative institutions demand Black, Indigenous, and racialized people’s stories of overcoming pain and adversity, in many cases in exchange for access to resources like funding.
Chan sees this often in grant applications and believes the practice opens up wounds while providing limited returns and support to Black, Indigenous, and racialized people.
“Even when groups do get shortlisted, and get glowing remarks, they still might not be successful in getting funding. There is a lot of labour involved, and … how do you not leave them broken?” she asked.
Similarly, in the case of the nonprofit I turned down when they asked me to go on record with my experiences of racism, I remember feeling underwhelmed by the unequal nature of the exchange. My participation would have allowed the organization, with its questionable history, to grow its credibility in the antiracism space and access further public funding.
6. Do they recognize the complexity of Black, Indigenous and racialized people’s experiences?
Performative institutions often mask internal issues of racial discrimination through tokenism, which relies on the idea that all Black, Indigenous, and racialized people are interchangeable for one another.
According to Sarang, many of these institutions will engage Black, Indigenous, and racialized people to front for dialogue on antiracism or anti-Black racism. This allows for buy-in from marginalized communities but is superficial. This misrepresentation perpetuates racism and does nothing to eradicate systemic issues while maintaining the status quo.
As Jama and Chan both said, performative institutions privilege model minorities, who benefit from white supremacy.
“[These are often] elite Asians, people who are backed by whiteness or white people approved,” said Chau.
Chau argued that within performative institutions, “the class aspect [especially] is collapsed,” which
gives institutions the opportunity to install “[an] oppressor who looks like me. We [as a society] are preoccupied by needing someone to look like us, but [more than that] they also need to have the policies that will liberate us.”
Fahmy added that while “more diverse voices and diverse leadership” are needed, ” we have to be careful if we categorize it that way because people of colour can also internalize the characteristics of white supremacy.”
7. Are they taking risks?
It’s important to recognize that authentic allies are willing to take risks to interrupt oppression.
This means, “[They’re] speaking out about [otherwise overlooked] human rights issues even when others are not,” Jama told me.
Fahmy added that performative leaders and institutions will often avoid naming and addressing particular forms of oppression when doing so has a cost, such as losing power.
Aziza, Jama, and Fahmy’s comments, for me, evoked the concept of retroactive allyship theater, evident in several institutions developing an interest in the work of Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities now that the risk-taking moment has passed. Their interest coincides with the “trendiness” of the work and the opportunity to reap benefits like public recognition. In most cases, the risks involved in taking action on these issues have already been absorbed by the people who experience the greatest oppression in society.
My conversations with leaders and experts illustrated that performative activism on racial justice is constantly evolving. It shows up in complex ways and is prevalent in the nonprofit, charitable and philanthropic sector.
The reality is, many of us may still be forced to collaborate with performative institutions in the sector for pragmatic reasons. However, the knowledge that an institution or leader is performative can help us protect ourselves by limiting the energy we expend in our collaboration and inform how we allow them to leverage our stories and voices.
End note: I’d like to acknowledge and thank all the experts quoted who contributed their knowledge, time and labour to this piece.
Sanaa Ali-Mohammed (she/her) is a proud Muslim woman, community researcher and program design consultant based in Dish with One Spoon Treaty Territory. She has nearly a decade of combined experience in policy advocacy and the nonprofit, charitable, and philanthropic sectors. Sanaa sits on the Board of Directors at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and is an incoming PhD student planning to explore policy solutions to #performativephilanthropy in Ontario. You can find her on Twitter @snarkysanaa and LinkedIn.