What Is “Performative Wokeness”?

Students have been reaching out for really interesting 1-on-1 conversations about what many people are calling “performative wokeness.” People are asking what they should post on social media right now (for example, one question I got is, What can white ppl post right now that won’t take away from the revolution? Should we even be on social media rn?), and they’re talking about what they see other people post that they think is terrible (e.g., a pic of what someone is having for dinner with the caption “Justice for Breonna Taylor”)

Your essay should be answered: What do you think performative wokeness is. How would you define it? What are examples? What do you think about it — is it unethical? Is it fine? Is it annoying but not the worst? Is it dangerous to society? Explain your thoughts/opinions!

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One thing to keep in mind is that I, as a performance scholar, really dislike is when people use “performative” in a pejorative way, to mean “fake,” “inauthentic,” “not-real.” As if there is the performative and then there is what’s true. This is a very old prejudice, that scholars call “the antitheatrical prejudice” (Jonas Barish published famously on this in 1966 but it goes at least as far back as Plato and Ancient Greece), that is really invested in this idea that there’s an underlying TRUTH to reality that escapes performance, that performance distorts and twists or lies about the REAL. But performance theory holds that EVERYTHING IS PERFORMANCE, things don’t happen if they’re not performed, performance means putting things into the world, nothing happens without performance. I often quote Victor Turner’s famous saying “Performance is making, not faking.” So, I cringe when I read “performative wokeness” — but maybe I shouldn’t? Maybe I should understand the pejorative “performative” to be different than the neutral (or positive!) word “performance”? OR is there another term you can come up with for “performative wokeness” that doesn’t rely so heavily on the anti-theatrical prejudice? (I have a similar distaste for the term “political theater” which is always negative.)

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