First, an explanation on what virtue signaling is. As journalist Mark Peters wrote in the Boston Globe in 2015, when the phrase was beginning to be used widely, “This newly prominent phrase sums up actions (mostly online) that send the message ‘I’m a good person’—though they might not be accompanied by doing anything good at all.”
In 2019, however, two psychologists expanded upon the understanding of virtue signaling by putting forth the idea that feigned outrage (virtue signaling) and authentic outrage were not mutually exclusive. Prior to publishing their research on the concept, Jillian Jordan, PhD, and David Rand, PhD, wrote in The New York Times, “This theory [that genuine and strategic outrage are separate] may be intuitively compelling, but new research suggests that it is wrong. Psychological studies reveal that a person’s authentically experienced outrage is inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation. In other words, even genuine outrage can be strategic.” Specifically, their research showed “that even when people are unobserved—and thus have no incentive to signal their virtue—their sense of moral outrage is influenced by their desire to be seen positively by others.”
What does this mean for the posts in support of Black Lives Matter that are flooding your feed? They’re likely a form of virtue signaling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re put-on. However, they must (all-caps MUST), be followed by action. Otherwise, they remain hollow and performative.
For a few ideas to be an effective ally beyond virtue signaling, find expert-sanctioned ideas below.
1. actually use the resources you’re sharing
Maya Siegel, social media manager of intersectional feminist collective Gen Z Girl Gang, says she often challenges herself to really follow whatever she and her organization is sharing. “It’s great to have a resource, but if you’re not using the resource—if you’re not educating yourself, if you’re not practicing what you preach—then it doesn’t matter, in my opinion,” she says.
So whether you’re sharing a list of Black-owned businesses to support or reading materials to absorb, you can move beyond virtue signaling by buying from or donating to those businesses and actually reading those books.
2. Educate Yourself
“An ally should always take it upon themself to stay educated on the issues they care about,” says artist, designer, and activist Uzo Ngwu. “You can post about the harms of racism all you want, but we won’t achieve much unless we engage with resources that help us understand how to dismantle those harmful and oppressive systems.”
“You can post about the harms of racism all you want, but we won’t achieve much unless we engage with resources that help us understand how to dismantle those harmful and oppressive systems.” —activist Uzo Ngwu
Following Black educators and organizations and taking online courses are wonderful places to start. Just don’t expect your Black friends to keep you abreast of any microaggressions you may be committing. It’s emotional labor on their part, and it’s also not their job to be a 24/7 ambassador of race relations. Take responsibility to do the work for yourself.
3. Check in on your Black friends and loved ones
It’s a safe assumption that the Black people in your life are processing deep feelings of turmoil, so see if there’s anything you actually do to help. And if you know of a specific way you can to do, go ahead and offer it.
“Social media is an amazing way to increase awareness, but it doesn’t substitute being there for your community,” says Siegel. “You have to be there day in, and day out. You have to be asking your friends and challenging yourself to take away the biases you might hold and just being there as a friend, regardless of if they’re going through something or not.”
4. Remove your commentary when it’s not needed
When you’re reposting a beautiful image on Instagram, are you crediting the artist properly with a tag and illustrator credit? Or are you writing a diatribe about how the riots are affecting you, personally? Being an effective ally means knowing when to pass the mic, and crediting others for their labor, art, and ideas.
“A lot of resources ask that allies decentralize themselves from an issue that doesn’t pertain to them,” says Ngwu. “An ally could practice what they preach by being intentional about whose words they share. Are they just sharing whatever they find? Or are they seeking Black voices in the movement to amplify and uplift?”
5. If you can, donate
While donating isn’t always the best or even a viable option for someone, if you can, do put your money where your mouth is. “It’s one thing to share links to donate money, but it’s another thing to actually donate money yourself,” says Ngwu. “With this particular cause, a lot of people want to see others paying it forward.”
Several national organizations accepting donations right now include The Bail Project, LGBTQ Fund, Black Lives Matter, and Democratic Socialists of America. Bail Funds highlights local options for donations, as does ActBlue.
6. Accept criticism
“Sometimes you’re going to say or do the wrong thing,” says Ngwu. “As an ally, when you mess up, you should accept criticism with an open mind and open heart, forgive yourself and move on. Even if someone comes to you in anger, don’t immediately get defensive. Reflect and ask yourself why they might be angry and what you can do to fix it.”
7. VOTE, and not just in november
In a recent statement published on Medium, Barack Obama pointed out that protests raise awareness about corruption and systemic inequality, but policy change is ultimately made by making your voice heard in elections.
“And yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it,” Obama wrote. “But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”
When it comes to being a good ally, there are a few cornerstones we lean on: Knowing when to speak out and when to listen; take action and be accountable; and work to dismantle the problematic political powers of our society. So if you would like, do share your black square in solidarity, but know that alone is not enough.
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