Work of reconciliation and anti-racism held back by performative action

Hill Times July 27, 2020

It’s been five years into reconciliation and there’s been a lot of talk and not enough action. It’s time to start naming performative action as the barrier to real change.

Performative action is doing just enough to avoid recrimination but not enough to affect real change. For example, the federal government has expressed superficial support and public hand-wringing over missing and murdered Indigenous women, but has no plan or work to affect change. That’s performative action.

Performative action is doing the easy work for the public accolades, but without undertaking the harder work that leads to change. Performative action is when governments and organizations support Black Lives Matter in public, but don’t put money into hiring Black employees, executives, and board members.

Performative action fills the space with white Canadians’ transitory outrage at racism, but doesn’t force real change and nothing really happens after it. This is not about your outrage, Canadians. This is about the risks that Indigenous people face in driving while brown, walking down the street while brown, shopping while brown, being sick while brown. We don’t want yet another study on racism, which will cost who knows how much time and money and no action. This is the most offensive kind of performative action.

When challenged on performative action, the performative actor is able to claim that he or she really did something. Performative action is like apologizing for a conflict of interest or repaying the money just before a Hill hearing, therefore giving one the ability to claim that some redress is done. But it’s not enough, is it? Performative action is never enough.

The complexity of performative action is that the same action could be a step in the right direction if it exists within a larger consistent pattern of acting to fix the problem. Outrage at the problem of racism is expected but it has to lead to something. Support for Black Lives Matter is needed but then things need to change so Black Canadians can feel safe walking to work. Commitment to reconciliation is required, but action is required to change systems so Indigenous people are valued in this country. But performative action fills the space with moral outrage without action. Performative action is smothering the work of reconciliation.

What does authentic action look like?

Authentic action is putting serious money towards the problem, including hiring Indigenous and Black Canadians in governments and organizations. It is certainly about damning the myth that policymaking and HR are colourblind when we can count, on one hand, the number of Indigenous people and Black Canadians in executive positions.

It’s calling out people in real time when subtle or blatant racism occurs. Use your voice, and name it as racism. If you are against racism, then act on it.

It’s ongoing learning about one’s own values and beliefs and how they align with your actions. If you believe in equity and inclusion then learn how to do better, even when an Indigenous person or Black Canadian calls you out on unconscious bias. Choose to learn.

It’s hard work. It’s about acknowledging white privilege and choosing to use it to elevate those who have less privilege. An example of white privilege is not needing to have “the conversation” with your kids on how to survive an encounter with police.

Authentic action is about changing ourselves. This change is not done “on others” through policy or program. This change must happen within governments, large health organizations, corporations, tribunals, and police forces.

Authentic action will include the public recognition that Canada is built on legislated racism, and the significant work to do better. We can’t have one without the other.