The reality of student walkouts

Rebecca Khoury, Junior Editor

For social justice warriors and angsty teenagers living in the nation’s capital, nothing is more exciting than a protest. Political demonstrations provide a unique opportunity for people to simultaneously skip school and assert their own wokeness. The Jackson-Reed GSA’s most recent walkout against legislation passed in Florida shows how performative high school protests can be. 

While the walkout was initially organized as a way of standing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ youth who have been affected by Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law—which prohibits schools from teaching about sexuality or gender identity—its goals later became muddled. What started as a legitimate act of queer advocacy became a chance to leave school early and camp out in Chick-fil-A.

The majority of Jackson-Reed’s student body would claim to reject this performative brand of self-serving activism. Nevertheless, the walkout demonstrated that our commitment to genuine advocacy might not be as resolute as we think. For me, this provoked questions about the nature of performative activism: is it good to garner support for social and political movements, even if that support is superficial? Or is it better to call out performatism when we see it?

Performatism allows “allies”—many of whom may be completely disconnected from the movement in which they are participating—to capitalize off of the suffering and oppression of marginalized groups. For instance, many of the students who participated in the walkout took advantage of the very real harm being done to queer youth to skip their afternoon classes. Additionally, performative participants frequently appropriate social and political causes, watering down the message to one that is centrist, stagnant, and ultimately self-serving. 

It should be noted that this issue is, at least in this case, completely avoidable: there are a number of non-performative ways to address the consequences of the “Don’t Say Gay” law. For example, individuals can call or email local legislators in other Republican states to voice their concerns about similar bills.​​ Those with the means to do so could also donate to organizations that are legally challenging the law or providing support to queer students in Florida. Unlike the walkout, all of these actions are tangible and targeted ways to get involved.

As much as I love the concept of student-led mobilization, school walkouts just aren’t appropriate ways to address regional legislation. Unlike the climate crisis or police brutality—issues that exist on a national (or even global) scale—homophobic laws in solidly Republican states will not be affected by small-scale protests in DC. 

My skepticism of these protests should not be taken as apathy: taking some kind of action is still better than doing nothing. However, if you care, there are ways to allocate your time and resources that will mitigate the performative nature of your involvement and maximize the impact of your support. •