How does selling items related to a movement such as t-shirts, buttons, hats, and other trinkets with slogans add or take away from the cause? For example, does the fact that one can buy a t-shirt that says “Black Lives Matter” on it further empower the phrase or trivialize it? I took the time to attempt to analyze the implications of the commodification of activism discourse, specifically related to the Black Lives Matter movement (because activism is a broad subject). The commodification of the language of a cause is not always helpful to the cause. While there are positive aspects to the buying and selling of activism merchandise such as raising awareness and building community; the negatives include misuse/ misappropriation, trivialization, and exploitation. So… what should you do with your t-shirt?
CONTEXT AND CORPUS
In 2012, a 17-year-old black boy named Trayvon Martin was the victim of a racialized murder in Florida, and then was posthumously put on trial for his own murder, while his killer was acquitted and rose to fame. This incident, not the first of its kind and most certainly not the last, sparked a movement called Black Lives Matter; founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza. This movement aims to respond to anti-Black racism in America in a variety of domains.
Following this movement, and due to the nature of today’s society, a flux of politically-centered and Black empowerment merchandise has hit the markets in all types of forms. These range from t-shirts, mugs, and hats, to pins and backpacks. What does this merchandise say? A variety of coined phrases such as:
Black lives matter
Stop shooting us
No justice no peace
I can’t breathe
Say her name
WE ARE ALL MIKE BROWN
STOP MAKING US LEARN NEW NAMES
THE SYSTEM IS GUILTY
AM I NEXT?
HANDS UP DON’T SHOOT
Respect Existence OR Expect Resistance
These exclamations and plenty more like them have developed either in reaction to a particular anti-Black occurrence (like “I can’t breathe” and “Say her name”), from history (like “no justice, no peace”) or just from a witty turn of phrase. Before they were commodified slogans, many of these phrases originated orally in protests as calls-to-action or to raise awareness of an issue or event. In addition to using these phrases to make up my corpus for research, I also took into consideration other terms that fall into the category of “activist jargon” such as intersectional, micro-aggression, and privilege. While not specific to Black Lives Matter, these are terms often applied in the context of the movement, and that have also seen some type of noteworthy commodification.
The article “Pittsburghese Shirts: Commodification and the Enregisterment of an Urban Dialect” by Barbara Johnstone speaks on the commodification of the dialect of Pittsburghese and how it is both helpful and harmful to the community that the speech originates from. In this article, Johnstone states that “a linguistic variety or a set of varieties is commodified when it is available for purchase and people will pay for it” (161). This is not inherently negative. In fact, in a capitalist society, it would take a very conscious effort to try to not commodify something. When it comes to activism, this principle does not change.
Money is needed to keep organizations alive and people working for them. Scholar Tatiana Tatarchevskiy explains this well by detailing that “While non-profit charity and advocacy organizations use various means to maintain a constant stream of revenues, such as government contracts, venture capital or partnerships, perhaps the biggest battles for funding take place on the symbolic front, as they devise ways to make social justice and welfare marketable” (Tatarchevskiy 301). Since 2012, Black Lives Matter paraphernalia has not only become marketable, but trendy. Why did this happen? What makes activism merchandise such a hot commodity? In her article, Johnstone employs Appadurai’s (1986) description of the “commodity situation,” which outlines three qualities necessary for some “thing” to be successfully commodified. I will thus apply this framework to Black Lives Matter, incorporating this model from Johnstone:
- Commodity phase: When and how did Black Lives Matter merchandise acquire the potential for commodification? What gives it economic value?
- Commodity candidacy: What makes something like activist phrases a potential commodity? What is the larger cultural framework in which it makes sense to people to buy and sell Black Lives Matter merchandise?
- Commodity context: In what ideological and material contexts can activist phrases be a viable commodity?
I will now elaborate on what makes the commodification of activist discourse possible by briefly answering these questions, and then analyzing some other forms of commodification that are more than just merchandise.
Commodity phase. I have already discussed the origins of Black Lives Matter in 2012. Is this the first movement to have t-shirts? Not at all. Though there has definitely been an influx in the popularity of activist merchandise and paraphernalia in the past five years, the feminist movement and the gay rights movement have bought and sold for a while now (it is hard to find data on exactly when this began). Perhaps it is just that technology has made it that much easier to create and distribute in bulk, that it was inevitable for Black Lives Matter to hit the market right after conception. But what makes these phrases worth buying? The answer to this could have something to do with what Devitt (2004) calls a “discourse collective.” These are people who come together around a shared interest. Buying this merchandise allows people to physically buy into this collective, showcase their beliefs and feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Commodity candidacy. In today’s society, anything can be purchased and sold. It is not shocking that an organization would create merchandise to capitalize or fundraise, and it is not shocking that people would buy it. However, Black Lives Matter has often been criticized for being “too loud,” especially in comparison to a similar movement, the Civil Rights Movement (Miah 2015). While it may be a stretch to say that there were no elements of commodification in the Civil Rights Movement, activists then fundraised primarily from donations from partners and selling newsletters. Would they have sold t-shirts had it been easier to do so? We do not live in a time that is more political than any other, nor more economically focused. Perhaps we just live in a time where it is easier to make buttons.
Commodity context. The phrases on the merchandise are viable commodities because of their relevance. The midst of a social movement is the perfect context for this to occur. For example, the slogan of a popular site for activist merchandise, wickedclothes.com, is “wear your politics with pride.” With all of the social change and activism today, any belief is political and marketable and people want to feel represented.
POP CULTURE AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Merchandise is not the only way that this discourse is commodified. These phrases and ideas are also used/ exploited in pop culture and on social media. Some examples of this are in songs and videos like Beyoncé’s “Formation,” the rise in popularity of politically themed movies, political stances taken by athletes, and in advertisements by companies such as Pepsi and Heineken.
Since Black Lives Matter, musicians and artists have been truly capitalizing and commercializing its discourse. Also, not necessarily negatively, taking advantage of the political climate. Many Black artists like Beyoncé, Solange, and Kendrick Lamar are being heralded for incorporating the discourse into their songs. For example, even though the lyrics to the song “Formation” have very little to do with activism, the visuals in the video for it are political; circulating around images of police and Black people. Towards the end of the video, there is a graffitied wall painted with the phrase “stop shooting us.” This begs the question: did Beyoncé subliminally take a political stance or is this the commodification of Black Lives Matter discourse for personal gain? And, even if it is the latter, does it matter where and how the discourse is used as long as it is reaching an audience?
We may be able to answer this question by comparing “Formation” to a more conscious use of these phrases, such as the WNBA protests of 2016. After police officers murdered two Black men (Philando Castille and Alton Sterling) in the same week, players for the Minnesota Lynx arrived at a game wearing t-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter,” “Change Starts with Us,” and “Justice and Accountability.” This inspired more WNBA players to don similar shirts to practices and games. These players were reprimanded and fined by the league for wearing these shirts and taking a political stance, but they found ways not to back down and to make their point. The use of these slogans affected something and had no evident personal gain to the players. In fact, they experienced financial loss.
Large companies are also trying, some more successfully than others, to buy into this discourse. Pepsi recently released an unsuccessful advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner, in which a tense protest was mitigated by giving a police officer a Pepsi. In the 2017 Heineken ad titled “Worlds Apart,” three pairs of people who have drastic political differences are brought together and encouraged to talk out their differences over a beer. While these ads may be well intentioned, the use of activism discourse in selling a product can serve to belittle the actual issues that are behind the phrases in the first place. These commercials make it seem as though there is a simple fix to the nation’s problems, and does not address the fact that seemingly innocent rhetoric can cause a person to lose their life. As Tatarchevskiy (302) puts it, “creating a brand out of a social problem may, in fact, stifle the political and critical debates on the issue, as King (2006) demonstrates with the example of the breast cancer movement.”
The commentary on social media has a similar effect. Anyone can log on to a site and post their opinions about Black Lives Matter or post a rant and receive a lot of recognition for it. But this adds nothing to the actual cause. Stated simply, “even contentious messages do not have a particular addressee; their sender is irrelevant, their content is not important, their main purpose is not to elicit action but to add to the existing circulation of messages” (Dean, 2009: 26). Social media is another way that these phrases are commodified, and the use of them gains many people popularity. At the same time, the constant throwing around of these phrases and terms causes them to eventually lose meaning. For example, the phrase “stay woke” originated in this social context to encourage people to not believe everything they are told and to seek out the truth. But this term has been co-opted by social media and pop-culture so much that it is now meaningless, and real activists now want to avoid its use (fusion.net).
So what does it really mean that anyone can buy and sell activist discourse? Besides the trivialization of real issues, a major problem is that it is unclear who has claim to and who is profiting from this commodification.Think about all of the BLM merch sold on the website Etsy.com. On this site, anyone who makes anything can sell it. That being said, it is hard to know exactly who you are buying from on this site and where the money it going. I clicked on one seller with the username thewomenstore and saw that next to a shirt that read “Black Lives Matter” was a shirt that read “Tequila is Gluten Free.” While this is not a problem, it does serve to illustrate the nature of this commodification. Are these phrases, priced the same, equally as important? Did this seller simply add a Black Lives Matter shirt to her collection because she knew it would sell?
On that note, who has claim to this discourse? A noteworthy story in reference to this is that of Flavia Dzodan, a woman who came up with the phrase “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” After she posted an article with the use of this phrase, people (of course) began to use it without her permission, eventually putting it on merchandise for profit. Of this she states:
“It was bizarre to see my name in pink fonts, being sold as a commodity when the entirety of my work has been against the commodification of feminist ideas and the misuse, appropriation and subsequent lack of credit of feminism of color. There is irony in the fact that I have written thousands of words about capitalism and its role appropriating emancipatory movements while simultaneously realizing that someone is trying to sell a coffee mug with my name on it.”
While this is not specifically Black Lives Matter, the principal still stands. It matters who profits from the commodification of these phrases and it also matters that the phrases are not turned into messages that do not represent the intention of the original speaker.
When done intentionally, commodification can have extremely positive effects on a movement. Seeing someone don a shirt with a phrase you have never heard before may encourage you to go look it up and learn more about the cause. Also, conscious purchasing can allow this to be a valid way for activist organizations to raise funds. For example, Glossrags. The mission of this company according to their website is that “GLOSSRAGS is committed to conscious consumerism by creating critically crafted designs that are a catalyst for social activism & discourse.” Their proceeds go to an organization in support of Black Lives Matter, which means they are using consumerism to help the cause they claim to represent.
Additionally, the commodification of a discourse can build solidarity in a community. Having material representations of one’s belief system unites one with others who do the same or can spark conversation. Because of capitalism, commodification also tends to legitimatize a group or a movement by giving them claim to a physical thing. When a Black Lives Matter related protest occurs, this merchandise is given a purposeful context to exist in and bring people together without them saying a word to each other. Hordes of people wearing shirts with the same phrases makes a statement. Context, like profit, is important.
The market for Black Lives Matter merchandise has increased exponentially since 2012, and many people from crafters, to artists, to company owners are buying into it for various reasons. The commodification of this discourse is multifaceted and, when done without intent, not always helpful to the cause. Commercializing what people say at a protest can end up trivializing it or taking it out of its original context at the detriment of its purpose. However, commodification is unavoidable in this society, so it is important to try to make it beneficial to affecting real change. Incidences such as the WNBA protests have shown that commodification can serve to raise awareness for Black Lives Matter, take a non-violent stance, and build solidarity in a community. Point is, before you buy or sell… think.