Performative or Substantive?

At CT3 we commit to support real change — internally and externally — in the anti-racist movement that is well overdue in our country. We provide our Juneteenth 2019 statement to our partners and larger network of educators as a guide for many, if not all, of the decisions we make to support our team and how we shift our work with our partner schools, districts, and organizations. We are also very critical of how we engage folks — and who we engage — in our work, paying close attention that we are being substantive in what we have to offer and contributing to the “how” of anti-racist education. Being substantive on our journey has delayed our approach and contributions to the field but has allowed us to be more deliberate and intentional. We advocate for both concrete, structural, and measurable differences in the communities our partners serve, and for capacity building in those communities to lead that work.

But how can one vet partners and colleagues for substance in anti-racism (ongoing, deep, deconstruction of racist behaviors, policy, structures, and actions) and not performance (saying what aligns with popular national attention around racism or dealing with the output and not the roots of racism)? The critical difference between substantive and performative action is that one leads to discomfort and real change while the other looks like a newer, shinier area of focus that often doesn’t lead to real, if any, change. 

We enter this space with humility and by honoring the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand — people who were anti-racist before it had a name and who put their lives on the line to fight against racism. We admit openly that we don’t know everything and that our learning path has no natural end. We recognize that if in our anti-racist work we’re not making ourselves — or others — uncomfortable, we’re probably not doing the right work. We are also careful to note that if a commitment to anti-racism does not interrogate policy or implement new actions to support the unlearning of racist mindsets and structures, that commitment might be a performative move. 

If you are supporting your own team or vetting a partner who claims to be anti-racist, we offer the following questions from our learning journey to assess whether the commitment may be substantive or performative:

Question(s) to consider Likely substantive Likely performative
Representation How is the global majority represented on the team and across leadership? At least 50%? More? Less than 30%?
Communications What serves as the foundation for the communications of the org? Who authors the communications? The needs of the global majority? Members of the global majority? The needs of the business?

White authors (mostly)?

Stance prior to May 2020 What does their work, research, writing, narratives historically denote? A clear focus on equity and the interrogation of structural changes to support communities placed at risk? A distance between public statements about equity and what is actually happening in the organization?
Leadership Who on the team is responsible for delivering on the org’s commitment to anti-racism? Everyone? Only the global majority? Only White people? Only the “director” of equity?
“Othering” How deeply does the focus on anti-racism work start within? A clear focus on what WE need to do to be more anti-racist? A clear focus on what OTHERS need to do to be more anti-racist?
Voice How does the focus on anti-racism create opportunities to affirm and challenge you, regardless of where you are on your path toward anti-racism? Regardless of where you are on your path to anti-racism, do you feel affirmed AND challenged? Regardless of where you are on your path to anti-racism, do you feel as if the push is too easy or doesn’t require much change on your part?
Challenge How does the focus on anti-racism include structural changes that dismantle racism from the ground up in order to rebuild? Does the focus engage you to look across all your behaviors, policies, and practices with a new lens? Does the focus include external changes to right historical wrongs (in lieu of dismantling the systems that created those wrongs in the first place)?
Support How does the partner describe what needs to happen and provide support for the how? Does the partner engage you in a rigorous assessment of the current state of your org, of your practices, conversations with team members, etc. to inform the what and the how of what you need to do on your anti-racist journey? Does the partner share what needs to happen, without speaking to members of your team, leaving it to you and your team to figure out the how?

While certainly not exhaustive, this list of questions can support your decisions on partnerships and your internal practices to ensure you are working with organizations who share, support, and challenge your work as anti-racist educators. Please help us continue the conversations in the comments section. What additional questions do you find helpful to interrogate your work in your organization? Do you have any additional thoughts/questions you could offer for interrogating possible partners/vendors?

Additional resources to support your learning of performative vs. anti-racist structures:

By Nataki Gregory, Ed.D., CT3 CEO & Kristyn Klei Borrero, Ed.D., CT3 Co-Founder
Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families.
Category: Anti-Racism, Leadership, Culture