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Black History Month Activism Is Too Performative

At the beginning of February, for the fifth year in a row, Target released their “Black Beyond Measure” clothing line for Black History Month. The line consists of clothing pieces preaching sayings like “Radiate Black Joy” and “Noire Icon.” 

While the sentiment is most definitely there, these T-shirts and sweatshirts blasted on the front of their website are just that — items of clothing with no substance behind them. This is not uncommon. 

As Black Lives Matter and calls for racial justice have swarmed social media, companies like Target have filled their shelves with products celebrating Black culture. However, these efforts are ultimately heartless, for these products aim to make money from this celebration more than anything else. 

Black History Month performative activism is rarely backed by sufficient diversity and genuine racial justice efforts. While the faces that fill our magazines, newspapers, and social media pages may reflect the Black community, rarely is there any hint of true racial diversity behind the scenes, nor a substantial effort to enact meaningful change. 

Some may question how Target could possibly enact racial change. This notion, however, ignores that racial inequity lives on in every facet of our lives. The corporate world is largely undiverse and the same goes for magazine and newspaper editorial boards. Thus, how can a company preach that Black lives matter when they fail to put Black workers in positions of power? 

Even as companies move towards diverse leadership, customers cannot expect that to be enough. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge what is often painful to think about. It’s the easy road to consider performative activism sufficient, to avoid learning about how racism impacts all of our lives, no matter your race. If we decide that T-shirts plastered with Aretha Franklin lyrics are enough, the fundamental goal of this month is lost.

Yes, Black History Month is about celebration. It’s also about honoring historical figures who made sacrifices more than it is about selling merchandise. It is about acknowledging that racism exists in our lives more than it is about posting an Instagram infographic. For Berkeley High School (BHS) students in particular, Black History Month is an invaluable opportunity to recognize the Black history on this very campus. 

In the 1960s, the BHS Black Student Union demanded several administrative changes to the school, advocating for a Black-focused curriculum, increased teacher diversity, soul food in the cafeteria, and more. What they got was the first and only high school African American Studies Department in the nation, run by Richard D. Navies. The first and only to this day. 

The efforts of Navies and the Black Student Union are the reason students can take African American Studies classes today. Spencer Pritchard, Dawn “Doc Dub” Williams, and all the teachers running the African American Studies Department allow for students to take engaging, enriching classes that acknowledge Black history and culture year round.

The work of Mama Naomi Diouf, who in the 1990s revived what was the Afro-Haitian Dance Program, brought beautiful African dance to the stage every year. After Diouf’s retirement, Williams and Tanzia Mucker — known as Ms. Shorty — run the program, continuing Diouf’s legacy.

Irma Parker’s relentless volunteer work with the Parent Resource Center has supported Black and Brown students for decades. Her work has brought historically detached Black parents into the conversation at BHS. In addition, she’s supported unhoused and struggling students, helping close the achievement gap one student at a time. 

BHS still has a long way to go in terms of racial equity. The racial achievement gap and self-segregation on campus are impossible to ignore. Still, during the month that celebrates the achievements of Black people, we cannot ignore the strides that Black people have made for this school. Too often, the impactful work of those who are Black is overshadowed by companies’ performative activism to prove their “wokeness.”

The next time you pass by the Black History Month section in Target, think about not only Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but about Irma Parker and Mama Naomi. If you really want to understand what this month is about, take the time to learn about what has been done by Black people in your community, and what is still being done to this day. That’s what matters.