Performative activism: Where is the line?

Angel Baikakedi, Columnist

In 2016, The Wire posted an article titled “College to Choose New Mascot,” highlighting the college’s vision to change the Missionary mascot and the process it took to get there, which was quite relevant. However, what continues to stand out to this day are the comments under the article which highlighted a common theme in the public’s reaction. The new mascot was either doing too much or too little, and in essence, did not account for any activism whatsoever. 

While the mascot was ultimately changed and the conversation surrounding that decision is over, a question still remains. What steps must Whitman take when it comes to activism and the decolonization of Whitman College?

The term “performative activism” is a term used to refer to “activism that is done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause.” There has been a lot of debate around what constitutes performative activism, especially in an era like the one we are in, where social media plays a role in quite literally everything. However, social media is not the only place where performative activism exists, and in the case of Whitman College, it is impossible to measure how pure an organization/individual’s intentions are.

I believe that Whitman changing its mascot from the missionary was a step in the right direction, but how many more steps in a similar approach would it take to “completely” decolonize the school if that’s even a possibility? There have been suggestions that—to erase the colonial history of the school and have it walk the social justice and liberal talk—a good thing to do would be to change the name of the school as a whole.

For me, a name change would be an excellent step by the administration to rid the school of its colonial history, but what matters most is the intent behind the decision. Additionally, such an act will only count if the administration continues to make an effort to commemorate and educate everyone about the history of colonialism in the region. Otherwise, a name change on its own would be entirely performative.

I like to think that any action that makes progress towards change is better than inaction. The school’s effort in across-the-board activism, be it sustainability or race, however small, can make a difference on a much larger scale than Whitman or even Walla Walla itself. However, the line between performance and real change must be drawn. 

Additionally, from what I have seen during my first year here, the attempts and responses to real life global crises on campus have been genuine. Again, this is not to say that there’s no more work to be done, particularly in terms of the school’s colonial history. Being the collaborative community that we are should help us reach our goals towards the deconstruction of colonialism. There is no such thing as having done enough activism ever, and that’s a message that needs to be continuously spread.