Ask Mandisa 66: Performative and Substantive Activism

by | August 17, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas, a native of New York City, is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black Nationalism, and Islam. As a child she loved reading, and enjoyed various tales of Gods from different cultures, including Greek and Ghanaian. “Through reading these stories and being taught about other cultures at an early age, I quickly noticed that there were similarities and differences between those deities and the God of the Christian Bible. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this God so special that he warrants such prevalence today,” she recalls.

Here we talk about performative and substantive activism in 2020.

*This was conducted July 13, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Okay, so, Mandisa, there are two types of activism. One is substantive. The other is performative. What irritates you? What bugs you about performative activism?

Mandisa Thomas: Performative activism is when people have a tendency aggrandize, and to appear to be doing more than they really are. Because activism is often perceived as public protesting and speaking, it is way too easy for others mimic via their personal platforms. Which irritates me greatly. The people who are behind the scenes are doing much of the hard work, and when you have some who come on the scene talking big, yet doing little to nothing else, it takes away from away from those who are truly dedicated the cause(s).

Jacobsen: Now, the people who tend to work behind the scenes, who tend not get as much play. We see this in the secular communities. We see this in every other community, typically, as a rule of thumb. We see more women doing the groundwork. I mean, we see this in the black church. It is the black church, as has been said, which was built on the backs of women, black women in particular. So, how does this diminish the legacy efforts, the intergenerational efforts? Because these things take time of a lot of the women and some of the men who are behind the scenes doing the hard work and making the emotional, financial, and physical sacrifices to make things move forward.

Thomas: There are a couple of factors that we need to consider here. The first is that we are still in a patriarchal society where women are still fighting to get proper compensation and credit for our work. Secondly, there is a gross assumption and expectation that changes happen overnight – which has never been the case, and never will be. I am well aware of the hardships that those who came before me faced, and give the utmost respect. It is easy for activists now to offer critiques about what used to happen back in the day, or what people may have endured. Not that it should be exempt from critique, but I can acknowledge that I may have been unable to deal with it as they did.

For many others, there’s a disconnect to the history. So, while the future generations shouldn’t be required to be mired in it, the struggles that our ancestors faced had tended to be lost on them. When people look to what happened in the past, they tend to generally think that it was so long ago. Because they’re not dealing with those issues so much now, so, it gives the perception that things are over. However, on the other side of that disconnect, there’s still a lot of the same rhetoric being spewed today from back then.

And while we understand that there’s still a long way to go, there HAS been progress. But there does need to be a more education and information available, so that more young people truly understand what it took to get here, and how it also needs to be maintained for future generations. This, along with showing humility and respect, can make a huge difference.

Jacobsen: What do you note as some of the issues of the younger generations when going out and attempting to move the dial a little bit more towards a just and fair society? And I should note to those who are potentially tuning into this series for the first time, the community organizing and the hospitality industry work for you. So, you’ve had to deal with people and people’s problems for a long time. What are some of the issues that you’re noting from younger generations of activists when they’re having to come across people and people problems in intense situations for the first time in their lives, potentially?

Thomas: Yes. So, I see that there are some good things happening, and some other things that need improvement. With the technology being more advanced now, it is easier for people, younger folks in particular, to communicate. What tends to get lost is formality, and people understanding that they must still maintain common courtesy and respect for others, whether online or in person, but especially in person. There are some people who think that the more education they have, that they may not necessarily have to exhibit those people skills as they should. That’s definitely something that I see is lost on the younger generations.

But the good thing is, they’re not falling for the old “fire and brimstone” tactics. There’s a lot of younger folks that are doing away with religious beliefs, and they are not going to be forced into silence or complicity. Which has always been the case for younger people in movements historically.  Also, if we can strike that balance between understanding the older generations and vice versa, then it will create a better team-building opportunities, and remain objective and balanced while working towards the future.

Jacobsen: Mandisa, thank you so much. It is always lovely.

Thomas: Thank you.

*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

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Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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