Activism today: a personal account
Rupali Naik takes a positive stance on activism from seemingly superficial platforms: are we changing the nature of social media?
Last week, one of my close (white) friends messaged me about her recent Facebook arguments surrounding #BlackLivesMatter. She was telling me about how she and some of my other home friends have been in dialogue with people from their old school in the comment section of Facebook posts. Since her and I were in college together, I’d heard tales of boys from her secondary school who’d said racist comments, and by the unfortunate sounds of it, not much has changed. In our conversation, she exclaimed that ‘If I was frustrated, then how do black and brown people feel?’. This made me chuckle.
I thought back to when I first entered the virtual-social world, at the age of thirteen. Being a woman of colour, you are undeniably prone to the attack from the dual-edged sword of sexism and racism (with added large, poison pincers if you fall under any of the terms among the LGBTQIA+). I remember having arguments from such a young age with people around the world. And, after years of both watching from afar and being in online arguments, you begin to see what they can quickly evolve into: draining factoid shouting competitions (as I’m sure you’ve seen too). The chuckle that rose from me was one of endearment; I had flashbacked to the countless times I had cried out of frustration for people’s ignorance; for their apathy. My laugh was one of relief and wisdom. I am thankful that I have white allies in my close friendship circle and on my Facebook feeds now. And although online activism can feel draining, if there is a chance you can make one person think differently or show them new information, then your efforts are rewarded. I write this article in hope to share some wisdom and ease surrounding online activism.
During the first week of rioting, Twitter was an eye-opening hub of videos
Since the death of George Floyd, social media has erupted with #BLM in the past three weeks. I was recently watching a cut live-stream by American comedian and producer, Noel Miller, who was openly discussing with his audience about the recent protests (it’s an excellent listen and helped me find my feet, I recommend it). He argues that, ‘The quarantine has removed the distraction of… the machine, that we’re all caught up in – forty hour work weeks, two hour commutes, this, that and the third… so… the country is faced with this issue and the only thing they got is the internet.’ And I agree. In a recent interview, Angela Davis even remarked that, ‘This moment holds possibilities for change we have never before experienced’ and this is due to online activism. I remember weeping when Dylann Roof shot up a black church in Charleston in June 2015. I remember Sandra Bland being hung in her jail cell a month later. Although I am glad that this movement has caught such national attention, it feels late. And I imagine for other POC activists like myself, it is a fight we’ve been tirelessly fighting for years. Rinse and repeat conversations. So, to my POC brothers and sisters: take your breaks, remove yourself from the online world and feel present. To my white allies, you may feel burnt out from arguing or seeing these conversations. I thank you for your efforts. But I remind you POC have had to deal with this for 400 years. I’ve had to have these conversations all my life and will continue to have them. Take your time too. But think of us.
Unfortunately, though, virtue signallers, photo opportunists, those posting for the sake of evading scrutiny and social media influencers who have remained silent on the matter have come out the wood works. There have been a plethora of videos that exhibit social-media narcissism of so many, which is both tone-deaf and deplorable. Is calling out these people futile, then? Are we just stuck, each alone, in our trappings of social media? Can we ever make real change?
No, no and yes. Life, death, and everything in between, is what you make of it. Personally, I truly believe, we can make effective change over the internet. I have seen it – been a part of it. Though I must clarify, I do not believe in cancel culture. Cancel culture is unproductive and deepens divisions. When I say, ‘call out’, it must be done with love, understanding and means to educate. Not to guilt or shame. Often than not, I see people say ‘unfollow/unfriend me if you think [BLANK]’. This is also counterproductive and dividing. I understand people’s anger, but to shut off so many people without any dialogue perpetuates this antagonising of both sides of any debate.
When I post something political, I will always follow up with a conclusion urging those with a different view to freely talk with me in private, if they so wish. Be that so we may educate one another or to recommend additional sources to broaden our awareness of the subject. I find this is much less hostile and no means to impress for bystanders likes. It’s face to face. I also tend to use voice notes because I find it allows for a more real, flowing human conversation. I’ve genuinely found greater progress in my online debates, and I highly recommend it. It’s much less draining because you can trust that you’re both listening to one another. Overall, the language we chose to use is integral. These issues are very personal and there’s a lot of emotion there so please don’t silence that. Home in on it, learn to carry it. I’ve learnt to stay much calmer when faced with ignorance and to use my words more productively than I did as a thirteen-year-old. It is a true toll on the mind for POC to have to both experience racism and then must explain it to those who are indifferent. Your anger is valid, and I hope whoever you come across online will one day respect that.
Being online can and should forever be meaningful.
Almost by the natural tides of the universe and just before George Floyds passing, for my online Feminist American Art class, I picked a reading on social media to present on: Lianna Pisani’s Women and Selfie Culture: the Selfie as a Feminist Communication Tool (2015). Pisani places importance on the hashtag with its never-seen-before far-reaching ability to connect those across the globe on shared concerns or interests. As she highlights, the 2015 coloured armpit hair trend had primarily originated in China and spread to the United States. It made me appreciate all the fruitless arguments I have had, because at least I’ve had them. It reminded me of how privileged we are to have social media or smart phones at all: think of the voiceless refugees, the homeless, the factory workers making your Urban Outfitters crop top for 2p a day. It reminded me that being online can and should forever be meaningful.
With #blackouttuesday, I imagined how the flood of black posts spread awareness for #BLM would disrupt those who are apathetic to the cause. During the first week of rioting, Twitter was an eye-opening hub of videos, such as, showing how the police were inciting violence and rioting to pose the #BLM protestors as barbaric. In recent years, I’ve questioned my relationship with being online. How can I maintain my earnestness amongst the superficial? But with the upheaval of the such posts from influencers and seeing the flood of support, information and conversation surrounding #BLM, it finally feels like a place where we are connected. Where we are using our voice and privilege. Where we are doing something worthwhile. And I hope this has changed people’s relationship and perception of social media too. I hope we never lose this momentum and I hope we can all have a more meaningful and mindful experience of the online world. Take your time. Harness your energy. Find your facts. Write from the heart, for the voiceless. And rest.