On FB, someone posted a beautiful statement celebrating the life of an activist and a cry of justice for their death. All these beautiful condolences from strangers started pouring in. Someone, who knew the person, thanked everyone for their beautiful heartfelt messages and said that the pronouns for the deceased were “they/them”.
All hell broke loose. It was as if a light switch was turned off. People went from love to hate in an instant. Sweet condolences switched to raving critiques, mean comments and inappropriate questions. Because of their pronouns, their death no longer mattered. The grief of the friends and family members no longer mattered. The post was no longer a celebration of life but a denigration of one. The deceased was no longer human. Their family was no longer worthy of the space to grieve.
The group showed that their love was conditional and performative.
This performative love is also why Black people cry, “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police”. We know that as long as we are acting the way that “good” White people deem as worthy of life, we are okay. This might be fine if the standards that deem White people worthy of life were the same. However, The rates of White people getting killed for talking back to a cop, selling cigarettes, or eating ice cream in their underwear don’t appear to be the same.
Just two words, “they/them”, took away the worth of a White person’s life. If they didn’t stand a chance, what chance do Black people, who were deemed so unhuman that it was cool to rape, torture, and enslave them for 400 years, have? Two words and a few seconds made their family no longer worthy of condolences and their life into something that should be debated and commented on. In two seconds “they” became “no one”.
Performative and conditional love is insidious and is a big reason why hate in this world is allowed to continue. When someone is called out for racism, it is often met with phrases like “they are a good person” , “they didn’t mean it”, “their best friends are Black”. In all of those situations and examples, the person was practicing performative love, love that is based on the person behaving in a way that they deem acceptable. This love is more for the person who is giving it than the receiver. Performative love makes people feel like they are “good” and not like the “others”. It signals their own self virtue and takes away any need to look any deeper. “When I don’t like those Black people, it is because they are bad not because they are Black. I love Black people. I am not racist”.
I knew a White man, married to a Black woman, who had kids with a Black woman, who called his wife a nigger during a heated fight. She was no longer behaving the way a good Black woman should. She was now a nigger and worthy of whatever niggers should receive. Imagine being a mother to a mixed-race child knowing that your daughter can go from the apple of their father’s eye to a nigger all simply because she drew on the wall, broke a vase or talked back. If her dad could change his mind that quickly, what hope did she have with a strange White racist cop 20 years later?
Most abusive relationships are based on performative love. “Look what you made me do. If dinner was ready at 6PM like it is supposed to be, I wouldn’t have needed to hit you!”. This is the same sentence as “if George Floyd would not have had drugs on him or wrote a bad check, he would not have been stopped by the cops and subsequently shot.” Meanwhile, we all know that being shot is not the lawful consequence of bad check writing any more than getting your teeth knocked out is the lawful consequence of serving dinner at 6:05 PM instead of 6 PM. White America has been in an abusive relationship with Blacks for hundreds of years.
The fight for gender non-binary equality is not the same as equality for Black people. However, the inclination to dehumanize someone for the purpose of being able to treat them with hate is shared. In those commenters’ eyes, “They/Them” transformed a fragile White female, worthy of protection and mourning to someone for whom abuse was okay and expected. People want to believe that, if they lived during slavery or the holocaust, they would have been a part of the underground railroad that helped slaves escape or the network of people who hid Jews in their homes. However, if you can cut your love off that quickly and with that much hatred, you would have been a part of the problem and not the solution, exactly like you are now.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.