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The Glamorization of Activism

When you hear the word “Activist” or “Activism” what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Do you see images of people marching down highways with large signs calling for the end of oppressive systems of injustice?

Do you recall July 2, 1964, the day that President Lyndon. B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into official U.S law, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights activists looked on?

Do you envision large crowds of thousands with fists raised high while a speaker shouts emphatically the need for all of us to stand up and use our voice to disrupt racism and anti-Blackness in every area of society?

Or do you see hashtags and memes trending on social media, seeking to bring much needed attention to the gender wage gap, highlight and seek accountability for systemic islamophobia, statistics on police brutality, mass incarceration and other important issues?

If you imagined any or all of these things, I want to take the time to affirm for you that these are indeed images of activism that represent much of what it means to be an activist. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, an “Activist” is defined as

a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue”

The images mentioned above, of laws being signed, large marches and big social media campaigns inspire us and remind us how important it is to take direct action in the face of oppressive and unjust systems that comprise the world we live in.

All that being said, I would like to get something out into the open for everyone to consider: there is more to activist work than protesting, marching, social media campaigns and triumphant moments of signed laws and instant success.

I have been involved in activist work, specifically anti-racist work for more than three years now. I am by no means an expert nor have I been fighting this fight the longest, not by any means. But as the world was rocked this summer by worldwide protests for Black Lives Matter, for equality calls for the end of white supremacy both nationally and internationally, I have been noticing a strange sort of glamorization of the term “activist” and “activism” in general.

Back in June, when the initial protests for George Floyd began, it seemed like everyone wanted to take to the streets, put up #blackouttuesdaty on their IG accounts and call themselves an activist. And while this was not reserved to any one group in particular, as a Black woman, it particularly rubbed me the wrong way seeing so many white people slap this term on themselves all because they went to one protest (if that), bought a BLM shirt and threw up a black square on June 2. I saw tv networks and popular magazine try and make activism into something they could market as “cool” “trendy” and “fashionable”. The memes created around Breonna Taylor’s murder, cradled in puns and glitter and pastel colors at first seemed liked a good idea but after awhile they seemed to do more harm than good. Back in July I woke up to a Tiktok of two white girls who put together a “BLM Activist Riot Wardrobe” complete with accessories and BLM earrings. They posed and took selfies giggling with a fist raised for the camera.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love glitter and pastel colors as much as the next person, but I was starting to get the feeling that the term “activist” was being used by some as more of a fun fade rather than a life-long commitment to justice.

This was confirmed for me even among members of my own Black community who would be so eager to protest and march but have yet to educate themselves on the importance of community organizing, attending city council meetings, writing proposals, setting up meetings with leadership, helping to actually plan and organize said marches and protests as well as running through the other more administerial tasks of activism work.

I get it.

Writing up proposals for better forms of accountability regarding police use of force, writing emails to our mayor and state representatives to push for change is not exactly an adrenaline rush.

Planning demonstrations and reaching out to community members to ask them to get involved, only to be told that they’re too busy or something’s come up or being met with outright apathy is disappointing.

Starting petitions and coming up with short term and long-term goals for addressing systemic racism in our school system and then having that petition be ignored at the school board meeting is frustrating.

Campaigning for months on end through letter writing and phone calling in order to push for the end of qualified immunity both in our own communities and nationally is not sexy or exciting and doesn’t yield an immediate response.

But it is still activism and it is also necessary work that should not be dismissed nor downplayed. Revolutions are made up of not only marches and media covered victories but of late-night meetings, phone calls that go straight to voicemails, losses and burnouts. Fighting for human rights is good work but it is also exhausting and oftentimes thankless work. Most people who do it are not paid for it, are mocked and degraded and receive death threats for doing this work.

As a Black activist, getting attacked by police at protests is awful but what’s also awful is the daily threat of burnout, the thousands of emails written that go unanswered and the onslaught of white backlash that comes when you choose to constantly speak truth to power. It is not always glamorous and not always thrilling but activism is necessary work and it is not measured only by the work that is seen but also by the work that goes unseen. This is not to negate the need for those who hold privilege in certain areas to be engaging in loud and direct opposition to injustice, but it is to say that in this fight for liberation, we must be careful not to forget that activism comes in many forms. Whether protesting or proposal writing we must all strive to fight for true justice, even when activism is no longer considered “trendy”.

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