Social Justice Theater: What It Is, and How to Do Better
Beware of committees and ‘baby steps’ — empty promises further traumatize Black employees
Consider some of the things that have been done in response to the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department:
- Destruction of confederate statues and monuments
- Renaming and rebranding our favorite sports teams and products
- Painting streets to honor Black Lives Matter
To be clear, these are all positive moves. But they’re symbolic. Symbols are powerful and significant, but the danger is when they take the place of real change and give a false impression that real change is being enacted. They can remove the pressure on leaders while doing little for the affected groups.
Further, symbolic gestures may not reflect the severity of the oppression around us and the invisible systems that enable it. Eventually, these gestures can become an end unto themselves — mere social justice theater. When this happens, organizations need to remember who they’re making change for and why change is needed in the first place. To realize the equitable future our organizations and communities deserve, we must focus on restorative justice, which entails accountability for past misdeeds and repairing the harm caused by them.
The benefits of social justice theater — for the powerful
In the corporate world, there has been a flurry of actions in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, including signing racial equality pledges and establishing anti-racism panels, committees, and book groups. This activity may seem promising, but when it’s not connected to painful self-reflection and bold action, it becomes social justice theater (SJT). This is worse than useless — it actively causes further trauma to marginalized employees while benefitting only the performers.
Consider the benefits to a company with shallow social justice efforts: positive PR, increased social media engagement, and talking points for cultivating clients, partners, and recruits. As tragedy becomes trendy, companies can get all these benefits without significant structural reform or…