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 tangible outcomes. SJT can also obscure corporate America’s history of discriminatory hiring, using financing available only to an elite few, and operating out of cities with infamous segregation and redlining policies. Companies must face this history with humility and take responsibility for dismantling the oppressive systems they’ve benefited from.
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 benefiting only the performers.
In fact, companies benefit more from small, incremental change than they would from doing something truly impactful. Meaningful actions would disrupt the established way of doing business and accountability at the company’s highest levels for past inequities. Incremental changes, on the other hand, allow companies to position themselves as the good guys. They’re the heroes of the story, regardless of the outcome. Even if they fail, at least they tried. Their heart was in the right place. Incremental changes take the heat off leaders. We’re asked to feel encouraged by baby steps, with the idea that every little bit helps. But who is it helping?
How to recognize social justice theater
If you wonder if your company’s equity and diversity efforts fall under the category of social justice theater, here are some of its other hallmarks:
- A not-so-subtle implication that the company’s already doing the right thing and expects an A for effort a year from now — regardless of actual results.
- An emphasis on gestures that pay an immediate dividend in good feelings and positive PR.
- Over-celebrating “wins” that don’t move the equity needle.
- Settling for extracurricular activities instead of integrating equity work into core business practices.
- Not making leaders accountable for equity metrics.
- Publishing diversity reports that praise the company’s efforts but fails to address its shortcomings.
- A vast misrepresentation of what’s possible.
- Expecting employees to settle for incremental reform for things that should have been corrected a long time ago.
- A “listening and learning” phase that’s extended indefinitely and ultimately doesn’t lead to action.
We must listen to the activists who brought this moment about. When millions of people filled the streets this past summer, in possibly the most massive movement in the country’s history, the calls were for systematic reform and further investments in our communities. There was a notable lack of signs demanding symbolic efforts and incremental change.
When the justice is theatrical, the trauma is real
Again, let’s consider the effects of SJT on Black employees. Because it’s focused above all on the good of the company, Black people become an afterthought. Not only is their energy sapped when a year has passed and it becomes clear that nothing will change, they’re thrown back into despair. Hope for change is aroused only to be smashed in front of them. It’s psychologically violent and abusive to acknowledge that a work environment is not equitable openly but take no serious steps to fix it — all the while expecting Black employees experiencing this intense stress to perform at the same level as their peers.
If I’m a Black employee who has put in extra hours in equity work that turns out to be SJT, I will have just exhausted myself working against my own interest. Every second wasted in the equity space is not just a professional setback — it’s deeply personal. For those of us who are on the receiving end of an unjust system, the stakes are higher and the efforts are more draining.
Company leaders might not be consciously aware of this dynamic. In their minds, they are responding directly to employee frustrations. But focusing their actions on this frustration — pacifying and deflecting it — is ultimately self-serving. The whole endeavor becomes a matter of perception. It’s also important to acknowledge that frustration is not in itself a negative thing — it’s fuel and a tool for those pushing for change.
How to do better: The three P’s
So what does meaningful, non-theatrical change look like? If a company’s actions do not impact one of the three P’s — power, pay, and policy — it’s probably not providing the meaningful impact your employees so desperately need right now.
Bestowing power means ceding some of your own. Real power doesn’t reside in newly created titles like Chief Diversity Officer unless these roles come with a significant budget and the authority to create disruptive, uncomfortable change. The same goes for volunteer anti-racism committees. If these committees lack clear goals and a charter to enact change, they have no real power. Lacking power, they become consumed with the minutiae of logistics.
To do better, be intentional about identifying your company’s Black leaders of tomorrow. Give them time to develop a vision of the future of work. Take the time to understand that vision. Give them what they need to execute that vision. Be open-minded. It will most likely look a lot different than the current state of the company. There’s an incredible opportunity for companies to distinguish themselves by taking these steps to become equity leaders of tomorrow, even if there’s no immediate dividend of good feelings and social media fodder.
Corporate America plays a significant role in our country’s massive wealth gap problem. It’s time to take the lead on fixing it. Part of this should entail incentivizing equity work and community building. It is often Black employees themselves who are expected to provide the labor for these efforts — on top of our regular job duties. Stop expecting people to do it for free. Justice shouldn’t be a volunteer effort undertaken out of the goodness of our hearts, even if it is deeply personal for us. Create a billing code for equity, diversity, and inclusion work.
Make equity work part of employees’ career journeys and professional development. Make equity impact a KPI for raises and bonuses. It’s exactly the position argued for recently by Tom McMullen of the consulting firm Korn Ferry: “Some experts say that pay-for-diversity plans, if they are going to work, need to focus on creating pipelines — targeting lower levels of the company, incentivizing mid-level managers to recruit and develop high-potential diverse talent.”
Real equity policy can’t be bolted on to your existing business model. It must be central, integrated into how you do business. Real policy change will acknowledge how you’ve fallen short in the past and address it with deep, systematic change. Don’t ask your employees to accept bland assurances that you’re doing the right thing. A way to do this is to regularly issue DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) reports on hiring and leadership disparities and progress made toward stated goals.
One challenge is leaders who think they already “get it.” We can’t take for granted that leaders actually understand what systematic injustice and oppression look like. It will require humility, time, and study. There are many excellent books and other resources available, but the Dismantling Racism Workbook is particularly useful in its specificity and focus on removing bias from policies rather than people. (To be clear, bias should be removed from people as well, but to get effective results, we must first focus on policy and outcomes rather than individual character.)
It may feel as if the world is on fire. We know that employees are in pain. Taking real, needle-moving action will mean recognizing efforts that are primarily for show. Making your company a place of hope and change for your employees will mean getting very real, very fast.