Following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement became more powerful than ever. The country reached its boiling point: the streets were pulsing with protesters, and social media was flooded with radical literature and declarations of support.
But among all these demonstrations, there has been an influx of performative activism—especially from white people.
When I say “performative activism,” I’m referring to the people who suddenly started filling their social media accounts with posts about institutional racism, but didn’t seem to be weaponizing this newfound anger in their day-to-day lives.
I realized that these were the same people who maintained relationships with racists and felt as if reporting those friends’ behaviors to me was somehow redeeming. What they failed to recognize was that staying friends with racists reinforces white supremacy.
In a Huffington Post article entitled “Yes, You Should Speak Up If Your Family or Friends Posts Something Racist,” Elizabeth McCorvey—a clinical social worker and therapist who offers anti-racism courses in North Carolina—stresses the importance of white-on-white conversations. More specifically, people of color “need [white people] to talk about what it means to be Black in America and, more important, what it means to be white. People of color have historically depended white-on-white conversations happening in the home and still are today.” As she puts it, “the conversations with family might be annoying to you, but they’re traumatizing, harmful and invalidating for me.”
By keeping these relationships, you’re inherently stating that it’s not a big deal to be a racist. To you, justice and anti-racism aren’t important enough for you to let go of this relationship. You’re literally surrounding yourself with racism and, in turn, showcasing your disregard for marginalized groups. There’s an implication that your friendship with this white person is more important than justice for said marginalized groups.
Being aware of a person’s racism isn’t enough, and reporting their racism to a friend of color is also not enough. We don’t want to hear a story about when someone said or did something problematic and you stayed silent. That’s not comforting at all. In the same vein, trying to excuse these friendships by proclaiming that you yourself aren’t racist is—to be blunt—incredibly flawed logic.
We need you to see the sheer hypocrisy in having relationships with racists while your social media is plastered with support for anti-racism. The nonchalance and ignorance you radiate by keeping your microaggressive, racist friends around cannot be balanced out by posting #BlackLivesMatter before three glossy pictures of you having brunch or tanning at the beach.
You aren’t an activist or an ally just because you reposted a petition link or documented the one protest you attended. You become an activist through listening to the communities that need your help, by reading up on the origins of police institutions (spoiler: groups of cops were first organized to control immigrants and catch runaway enslaved persons), and figuring out how to leverage your privilege for good. You can’t really do all this when you’re still friends with racists.
Calling out and cutting off racist friends is one of the first steps you can take to work on becoming actively anti-racist. Asking yourself why your friend’s racism isn’t a deal-breaker is a pretty good start, too. The people with whom you surround yourself within your everyday life shows who you are. Your social circle is a much better reflection of who you are as an “activist” than your manicured online accounts. As cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah put it in The New York Times, “what most effectively discourages the expression of backward views isn’t rational argument but social sanction. A loss to you could ultimately be a gain for others.”
By continuing friendships with racist and problematic people, you’re sending a message—whether you like it or not, and whether you intend to or not. You’re saying that, despite your claims of being an ally, it’s okay to hang out with someone that doesn’t agree with my right to exist, as long as they’re a fun time.
To me, being in any kind of relationship with a person like this would be painful, something I couldn’t possibly support. To you, their microaggressions and racist behavior are merely an annoyance, a source of discomfort, a small downside to your friendship. It’s easy to let racist behavior slide when you’re not the target.
So do better. Cut off your racist friends. Doing so will send more of a message than your social media presence ever could.
And in the meantime, open your pockets for these organizations:
By Aarohi Sheth
Illustration by Julia Tabor