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The Dangers of White Liberalism and Performative Activism

By: Ali Siddiqi

“We think it would have been best if you had lost.” Those were some of the first words I heard when I was announced the winner of my high school student council presidential election. The campaign had been a little divisive, and my running mate did not win the vice-presidential election. Over the course of the day, I heard statements such as “he only won because all the non-white students voted for him because he was the only non-white candidate,” “he isn’t experienced enough,” and “our school is doomed with him in charge.” Across this country, many minority students are hearing the same rhetoric by their white peers, and are being silenced by said white peers when calling them out for their privilege—this does not only come from stereotypically conservative individuals, but also, critically, liberals.

Almost immediately after hearing those words, I felt a rush of imposter syndrome. Yes, I wasn’t as involved in student council as my opponents, but I didn’t expect to be attacked immediately after winning. The same people criticizing me for my lack of experience refused to help me during the very beginning of my presidency, either ignoring my pleas for help, or responding with statements such as “you’re the president, figure it out.” After the all-school student council meeting, a meeting in which I made plenty of blunders, a colleague came up to me after I had joked about the blunders I made, saying “it could’ve gone a lot better if another candidate had won,” reinforcing my imposter syndrome.

It didn’t get any better. Some of my colleagues were resistant to any of the planned changes I wanted to make: refusing to help, criticizing me openly during meetings, and giving me menacing glares. It didn’t help that the school administration disliked my ideas because of my goal to completely change the school’s environment. They were apprehensive about any of the planned changes that I had promised during my campaign, such as recognizing other clubs at our school rather than sports teams. There were even times when the administration would refuse to meet with me, citing “scheduling problems.” Additionally, they refused to even grant me the honor of giving the high school graduation speech for my “divisive rhetoric,” even though it has been tradition to give the only graduation speech to the student council president.

I should’ve known better than to expect first-class treatment. In high school, I wasn’t perfect either. I was a loud-mouthed, obnoxious, anxious, hyper-leftist (and, I must admit, was a little bit of a drama queen as well).

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in heavily Democratic Illinois. My high school was dominated by upper-class, white, conservative boys, and upper-class, white, liberal girls. The gender divide in politics at my high school was as stark as day and night. I was a Muslim man who identified as a leftist. To be viewed as a leftist at my high school was to be weak, effeminate, and not a real man, according to the conservative boys who were relentless in their teasing. As a result, I kept my beliefs to myself until I reached my upperclassmen years.

I recount all these past memories as I now think how the conservative boys were at least honest about their beliefs, and would say them upfront. Their honesty was refreshing, when I now think of how hypocritical the white liberals were at my school.

White liberals would post on their Instagram stories the benefits of multiculturalism, yet would simultaneously gossip if someone dressed in their native clothing or brought native food.

They would post anti-racist messages and promote BLM on social media, yet would ignore the racism perpetrated by their partners, or a racist sentiment shared by a friend or colleague.

They would post “wear a mask,” and talk down to whoever wasn’t wearing one, yet post pictures of them having extravagant proms, and enjoying themselves at crowded parties.

They would seemingly acknowledge that white privilege exists, yet get offended when a BIPOC person dared to call out how they or their friends benefited from it. They seemingly pretended that they were immune to such privilege.

The list goes on and on.

The hypocrisy among white liberals does not just pertain to my school, but extends to the flaws of white liberalism as a whole. We see such flaws in social media, where white liberals believe that by posting something, they automatically become a self-proclaimed “activist,” or by assuming a white savior complex—talking down to members of the BIPOC community about race, believing that only they, by virtue of their race, can help the BIPOC community, and then silencing any dissent or criticism from the BIPOC community.

Such performative activism was on full display during the summer of 2020, when celebrities and large companies posted pro-BLM messages, only for their supposed “activism” to gradually die down as the summer came to a close, often turning askance from the very real racial problems occurring in this country. Many of those who criticized Colin Kapernick in 2016 as “un-American” for his refusal to stand during the national anthem are now applauding him without acknowledging their hypocrisy.

This form of performative activism is dangerous as it not only silences and ignores the concerns of the BIPOC community when their white peers assume the mantle of a white savior complex, but also makes support of groups, such as BLM, just a trend. A trend in which posting messages of anti-racism and raising awareness of police brutality for a short period of time may seem to be enough, when it is clearly not enough, instead harms the racial justice movement even further.

To me, it is not enough for white liberals to post a black square. It is imperative that such activism extends beyond social media. Phonebanking, canvassing, organizing, even contacting local representatives would be enough to satisfy my definition of activism, but why stop there. I understand if people argue that they lack time to engage in the aforementioned actions: that is why I make it clear that these actions satisfy my definition of activism, albeit to the bare minimum. I argue that for my white colleagues who do have the time, they should actually do their homework on the subject, and instead of just reposting a post on their instagram story, to do much more concrete actions to help the racial justice movement, if they wish to be perceived as an ally to it. It is essential that our white peers work with the BIPOC community, not talk down to them in a way that seems and feels condescending.

I reflected on my past high school memories because I needed to come to terms with my past. I would often stand back and stay silent as my white peers would make racist, homophobic, ableist, and Islamaphobic statements. My silence gave them free rein to make such comments, and when caught, they would often use me as an excuse by saying, “I’m not racist, I have a Muslim friend.” I fell into the old trap that, by remaining silent on racist comments, and appearing “chill” and “cool,” I would be accepted into the white liberals’ friend group and be recognized as an equal. I realized too late that such friendship would never be the case.

Aside from school projects, I was never asked to hang out, nor was I ever invited to my white “friends” homes. I compared my treatment to that of their white friends—some of whom were known to make racist statements, and at times were only new acquaintances—who were treated with more respect than I could ever achieve. I thought that by being student council president, I would obtain the respect of white liberals. Instead, I received cold glares and deep resentment. As I mentioned before, I was betrayed by them when the administration deemed me “too divisive” to give the graduation speech, as all they did was simply watch and nod. When a group of white students emailed the administration asking that I not deliver the speech—as I was supposedly creating a “divisive atmosphere” at the school—they complied, and refused to let me speak, instead giving the slot to someone else.

This experience left a deep impact on me. I vowed to never seek office again, or to seek anyone’s approval, white or not. Moving forward, in contrast to my time at high school, I have made excellent friends at A.U. who share my beliefs, and who have treated me with more respect as a Muslim man than white liberals ever did to me at my hometown when I was putting on an act to garner their approval.

At American University, however, I see the same sort of performative activism repeating itself all over again. Make no mistake, I prefer American University over high school any day, but there have been incidents that are similar to what occurred to me in the past.

Many BIPOC students who have used social media to promote their views or their ideas have been met with criticism or silenced by their white peers. For example, recently, an AU student posted on Instagram about their experience with white activism and the selfish actions surrounding their activism. Instead of acknowledging the post, many white students gaslighted this student when they argued that Ziad Ahmed (who wrote BLM 100 times on his college application’s writing supplement, and got accepted into Stanford), did more harm than good. This also applies to the transphobia and ableism that has been long occurring at this school.

Many of the so-called activists that preach inclusion and diversity, when confronted about not using gender-neutral language and/or not including disabled people in their activism by members of the disabled or LGBTQIA+ community—instead of listening to their viewpoints—have taken to blocking them. When these students are gaslighted or blocked, it not only prevents their viewpoints from being listened to, but is also extremely inconsiderate, and makes them feel silenced in their activism. Furthermore, some students at AU have been defending a recent French law that has disproportionately negatively affected Muslims. Paradoxically, they argue that the law will apply to all French citizens evenly, even though law enforcement stop and frisk French Muslims at a higher rate, and given that the French police have infamously “burst into homes, terrif[ied] children, and thr[o]w[n] Qurans on the floor.” When confronted, they do not engage in respectful conversation, but rather childish, petty remarks such as “get a grip.”

Performative activism makes sensitive topics, such as racism or police brutality, an act—an act to garner approval for a limited amount of time, and present themselves as saviors to garner approval from minority communities. I see such activism and its harmful effects among white liberals when they post news threads or anti-racist platforms, yet couldn’t be bothered to become politically active, as they believe they are above politics, or simply ignore little actions such as when one of their white friends makes a racist or insensitive joke.

Therefore, it is my stern belief that political activism on the ground is far more consequential than activism on social media. White liberals in the Midwest offered me friendliness, but never friendship. As a consequence of such a lack of genuine friendship (and substantive allyship), years of gaslighting followed when I had concerns about their activism. If this trend continues, then minorities will be silenced and ignored by their white counterparts on the left and the right, throwing all their efforts out the window—let’s try our hardest to prevent this.

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