Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The problem with performative activism

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(Collegian File Photo)

The human element of poverty is one that cannot be reduced to a single symbol or event, and cannot be tokenized in the name of social activism. However, despite this notion, there has been increased sentiment for ‘sleep outs’ on college campuses nationwide, including the University of Massachusetts, with little direct opposition.

Documented as a practice used by activist groups, a ‘sleep out’ is an event that specifically involves students pitching tents and sleeping outside to raise awareness for homelessness and poverty. While their intentions are pure, I can attest to the danger of this type of performative activism. It trivializes the situation these groups advocate for. As a low-income and homeless student, I affirm that an event such as a ‘sleep out,’ while lacking malintent, damages the realm of social activism and makes a mockery of those who truly have lived in these high poverty situations, all the while providing an illegitimate understanding of the experience.

This event is problematic in the way that it attempts to force a singular image on a situation that does not accurately apply to every survivor’s reality. There are varying experiences of those who fall under the umbrella of poverty and homelessness: lack of shelter, instability of constant relocation, persistent hunger, lack of access to healthy food and growing mental illness. The aforementioned attributes are in no way a complete nor universal list of the consequences that arise in the wake of financial instability, but they provide an insight into the many facets of this issue.

I was fortunate enough to have not experienced living out in the elements, despite coming close many times, but instead I transitioned between hotels and shelters with my family for six ongoing years. However, I lived with food insecurity and the resulting social outcasting. I have lived through instances of my family being taken advantage of while in such a vulnerable position. Now, I live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The nature of my story in this situation is one that cannot be represented by a group of tents on a lawn, occupied by likely privileged college students who, at the end of the day, can return to their own safety cushion. A tent cannot signify the pain and struggle that those in poverty survive every day, going above and beyond to overcome challenges that some may not even be able to fathom. Even more so, beyond placing the tents in a public area, organizing an event that demonstrates homelessness through this symbol does nothing more than trivialize it. When a student acts out the suffering of homelessness from the comfort of their own privilege, it makes the situation out to be almost a tourist attraction. It has been observed that some even take “selfies,” to demonstrate how much of an activist they are to their loyal Instagram followers – yet another side effect of this dangerous form of performative activism masks personal pursuits.

This outright mockery has not escaped UMass’ notice. In 2002, there was a ‘sleep out’ event organized by MASSPIRG in front of the Student Union. At the event, students were, “in sleeping bags and cardboard boxes and dressed in trash bags” in order to “convey what it is like to be homeless.” Instead, they – rather successfully – perpetuated the stigma of the situation itself through the reinforcement of common stereotypes and the failure to inform students on the intricacies of the issue. Similarly, in 2011, MASSPIRG again created a ‘sleep out’ event – this time at Salem State University – in an attempt to start a conversation on the issue during the National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness week. One student, who had been homeless prior, chose not to participate “because she had been homeless before and did not want to go through it again,” which reinforces the effect that it could have on those who have experienced it; the demonstration acting as a trigger to provoke feelings of trauma.

While I will not discredit that this form of activism is rooted in an innate desire to make a difference, it only furthers the problem through a lack of understanding and fosters a probable unintentional trivialization. The movement to push for greater support and knowledge of the plight that those in poverty face is not something that can be represented by a single event or experience. On the contrary, a successful social movement is a slow series of small victories that may not be aesthetically marketable or concrete. This can be done without using the homeless experience as a stage and backdrop. Educational panels, information sessions, lobbying efforts and simple direct outreach are means of activism which achieve the goal without imitating an experience that cannot be singly represented.

The ‘sleep out’ shows the dangers that performative activism can create, and is a largely misunderstood and understated problem. The way that my experience in poverty and homelessness has forever changed me and my experience is not to be depicted through stereotypical renditions. By removing the human element from an experience such as this and trampling over the reality of those who have survived it, the purpose is lost and unintentionally furthers a deeply ingrained problem. Homelessness is not a single play; it is time that we stop trying to translate the experience onto a stage with an utter disregard for the experiences within.

Timothy Scalona is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “The problem with performative activism”

  1. Colin Scanlon on November 29th, 2017 12:59 pm

    Excellent job Timmy!

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.




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