Since the very moment modern society came into fruition, activism has come hand in hand with its much uglier sibling – performative activism. Performative activism is best described as someone who feigns involvement in a greater movement in order to present a fallacy of concern for marginalised communities, with no clear goal in sight apart from virtue-signalling and ego-boosting. Historically, examples of thus include ‘voluntourism’ which feeds the first world’s ego and furthers the white saviour complex.
- a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.
Voluntourism is dangerous in more ways than one – not only does it turn POC majority countries into a place for middle-class teenagers to visit to boost their university applications, it can end up plunging areas into a perpetual cycle of poverty. The work done by voluntourists is more damaging than it is helpful – they offer no lasting change and instead alienate the locals, who are puzzled by the westerners who come to their homes just to teach them basic English for two weeks and set up one clean toilet for the whole village.
The lack of any clear objective to eliminate poverty and help these communities flourish and progress is for a clear reason – the West requires these countries to stay derelict. Without a chokehold on their economy and the ability to appear helpful without offering much, how else will the West remain the civilised population helping the poor, underdeveloped third world? Voluntourism feeds directly into neo-imperialism, as the locals are provided with no useful skills in order to continue development on their own – the impoverished are made dependent on western help because instead of being taught to fish, they’re given the fish.
The term white savior, sometimes combined with savior complex to write white savior complex, refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner. The role is considered a modern-day version of what is expressed in the poem “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling.Definition of ‘white saviour’ (Wikipedia)
Voluntourism doesn’t just perpetuate poverty – it dehumanises its victims. Voluntourists often speak of how humbled they are by their experience in these communities, and speak very little of the locals they use to ‘better’ themselves – living in squalor alongside people of colour is seen as something that makes themselves stronger rather than an eye-opening experience about the West’s treatment of the third world.
Furthermore, the voluntourists often pose with young locals, using black and brown bodies as props as they do not have a personal relationship with them, and share the images online without consent and with their personhood entirely removed. Voluntourists and their perspectives of the third world are entirely reductionist – they see helping the poor as an opportunity for self-improvement and a way to pass time in the summer in ‘Africa’, showing plain disregard for identity in the non-Western world.
More topical examples of performative activism include those on social media who posted black squares on #BlackOutTuesday and shared no real resources and petitions on non-governmental sites with no specific aim (i.e. petitions calling for the end of famine in Yemen) on petition sites that simply want your data. But what is becoming more and more apparent is the need to compare grief and guilt people into following a movement due to their involvement in others.
Why is comparing atrocities an issue, you may ask? Firstly, it cheapens your perspective and makes you appear as though you have ulterior motives for showing support. Secondly, it is just plain disrespectful to the communities you wish to help, as you have made the implication that their worth is determined via comparison to others’ misfortune.
A popular example is the constant comparison of the Holocaust to the persecution of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, China. Not only does it belittle the grief of the Jewish community, but it also removes individual personhood from the Uyghur people and minimises the importance of this abuse as a stand-alone issue, as well as opens the door to misinterpretation of facts and false news.
The rise of this irresponsible activism on social media has led to a surge in sharing posts made online with no clear sources indicated and that use both inflammatory and partisan language. In a time where social media continues to grow in usage, we all have to be much more responsible in how we both relay and consume information. It’s all too easy to fall prey to fake news when it fits your narrative, and so along with this issue of performative activism, there is the epidemic of false information. These very things are the reason for the birth of The GrassRoute, and we’ve come full circle.
Please be responsible, and don’t use the pain of others as a prop. Respect always, and always seek out education and betterment at no-one else’s expense.
- The White Savior Complex: The Dark Side of Volunteering, Kayley Gould
- Performative Wokeness, T1J
- More on Voluntourism
Written by Sammy Yasmin
2 replies on “Volunteering and Activism: Doing Good or Feeling Good?”
i found this article through a comment you left on ig and i’m so glad you did this was a really good read. thank you
thank you so much!! thought it was a long shot to promote on a meme page but i guess not :)) always glad to have some positive outreach x