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Sports Psychology

Performative Activism in Fitness—What Is It, How to Avoid It

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Performative Activism in Fitness—What Is It, How to Avoid It

Reading Time: 4 minutes 51 seconds

Performative activism, also referred to as performative allyship, is a pejorative term referring to activism done to increase one's social capital rather than because of one's devotion to a cause. It is often associated with surface-level activism. 

Following the murders of George Floyd, Aumaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and, among others and an increased resurgence in the BLM movement due to police brutality, folks were rushing to the pages of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) wellness professionals suddenly interested in anti-racism and to “amplify” Black voices. While this was a pivotal and important movement, many anticipated that the attention would be short lived and the interest was performative in nature. 

Unfortunately, many folks were quick to get back to ‘business as normal.’ Speaking of this phenomenon, Ilya Parker, founder of Decolonizing Fitness, an online resource that teaches you how to free yourself from toxic fitness culture to create more inclusive and affirming practices, stated, “My comrades and I witnessed masses of people flood our social media pages, DMs, and websites a couple of months ago, eager to “support Black people.” Many of these folks have since disappeared. This is why I will continue to say invest in our work in ways that are sustainable, with or without Black folks trending.”

Performative activism often manifests as individuals taking shallow actions to appear as though they are engaging in taking initiative to correct a particular injustice. However, correcting injustice is never done by easy action that can be outwardly displayed. In fact, the work of anti-racism is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will always require difficult and challenging effort and sacrifice. 

The work of anti-racism and dismantling white supremacy is not work that you pick up and put down as it’s convenient for you. BIPOC don’t have the ability to take off their skin to avoid discrimination or oppression when it’s too exhausting. The work of creating a wellness and fitness industry that is anti-racist and diverse, inclusive, and equitable isn’t business strategy. It takes real work and a commitment for actual change within the industry. 

5 Steps to Ensure Your Allyship Is Not Performative in Nature

Collectively, we can change the landscape of the fitness industry, but it requires that we show up authentically and with a commitment to engaging in the work long term. Here’s how to make it happen.

1. Stay Engaged Year Round

While it is understandable that many of the recent events have drawn more attention to the need to have ongoing conversations about the state of race relations in the United States and globally, the reality is that none of these realities are new for Black and Brown people and racism is not a new phenomenon. 

It’s tempting to be outraged when the newest injustice gets national attention; however, we must remind ourselves that these are not new occurrences and they occur every single day, even if it isn’t getting national attention. Racism occurs on a spectrum, ranging from very overt racism like the KKK to everyday racism such as microaggressions. That being said, we have to stay engaged in the work of anti-racism year-round, not just when it’s getting a lot of media attention. 

2. Commit to Actual Action Steps

Social media activism, which is one way to do activism work, requires a lot more than just posting a black square on social media in solidarity supporting Black life. The reality is that posting a black square on Instagram does little to change systemic racism. While bringing awareness to issues and sharing information via Instagram stories has its merits, real change takes a lot more action than that. 

In an effort to ensure that we are not engaging in performative activism, it’s important that we commit to actual action steps beyond just posting and sharing on social media. This could include activities such as donating to Black organizations committed to doing the work of anti-racism, calling your local and federal politicians to demand change, examining the ways in which we have been complicit in our own lives, and holding ourselves and those around us accountable. 

3. Educate Yourself and Those Around You

Perhaps a lot of this information is new to you or maybe you're just beginning to broaden your understanding of racism and white supremacy and how it shows up in all areas of life, even the wellness industry. If you haven't been having these conversations or even considering the intersection of racism and wellness, this can all feel a bit overwhelming. But the wonderful thing is, there are so many ways you can begin to educate yourself independently.

In her book, Me and White Supremacy, author Layla Saad, encourages everyone to "create the change the world needs by creating change within yourself." As a wellness practitioner, to truly understand the implication of racism and health, you also need to examine the ways in which you're engaging in racism or being complicit within the system of white supremacy. 

Additional books that will help you along your journey include So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

4. Do the Work Without Feeling The Need To Post About It

One of the best ways to ensure that you are not being performative in nature is to take action without feeling the need to post about it. You can make donations without posting about it. You can protest without posting about your participation, especially if you are a white person. You can continue on your journey to unlearn your own implicit bias without looking for praise or kudos from your peers. 

The reason that we are engaging in this work is not to feel better about ourselves. We are doing it to create a better world for all of us. We are not doing it to ‘help’ marginalized communities. We are doing it for collective liberation. As such, the focus can’t be on centering our own actions.

5. Don’t Be the Expert 

It’s a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing racism. If you are a member of the dominant group, be mindful of the privilege that you hold. As you are engaging in education regarding racism, be mindful that you don’t attempt to become the expert, particularly if you don’t have lived experience. It can be tempting to teach others, but instead of taking that approach, I encourage you to share resources, books, and webinars from BIPOC who have been doing anti-racism work well before the recent resurgence in anti-racism. 

The work of dismantling racism and white supremacy belongs to everyone, and we all have our part to play, but avoid white exceptionalism, defined by Layla Saad as, “the belief that you, as a person holding white privilege, are exempt from the effects, benefits, and conditioning of white supremacy and therefore that the work of anti-racism does not really apply to you.” If you are a white person learning about anti-racism and striving to complete a more inclusive fitness space, be mindful that remember to remember that the information applies to you just as much as anyone else and point to BIPOC as the experts. 

Want to learn more about how you can help build a more inclusive space within the fitness industry? Read Chrissy King’s story about Equality and Body Positivity in Fitness

Chrissy King

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