Woke Wars: Why Comparing Activism Hurts More Than It Helps
Let's get together. literally.
Social media and activism have become synonymous in the 21st century; from organizing events to hashtagging awareness. Millennials live stream and post pictures of marches for our friends and family to “like” in solidarity with us. Activists of all ages use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to encourage one another to fight the good fight and “stay woke.”
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But what happens when encouragement and agreeance transform into judgment and shaming? We see it all the time with celebrities. In 2014, Nelly was called out for not actively protesting immediately following the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown. More recently, T.I. used YouTube to call out Steve Harvey and Kanye West for their interactions with then President-Elect Trump, and Black Twitter demanded they both turn in their black cards at the next family reunion. Many women wondered if Taylor Swift’s absence at the post-inaugural women’s march was cause enough for her reign as feminist supreme to end. And we all witnessed Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi fiasco…
The vast majority of social media users are likely not mind-readers nor clairvoyants. No one knows exactly why Harvey and West met with Mr. Trump. No one knows what Jenner was thinking as she shot the misguided advertisement. Furthermore, no one truly cares. We don’t know these people. We do, however, know our super woke friends and family members whose timelines are flooded with wordy criticisms of their associates’ activism.
Though those closest to us know our hearts, our fairweather Facebook friends may question why we’ve not had more to say about everything from the slaying of unarmed black boys and men, to global warming, to every instance of cultural appropriation ever. So, in haste, we rush to our devices and pound out some militant sounding declaration that begins with “Dear White People” or some other equally shocking opener. We follow that up with ill-conceived complaints and disorganized efforts to avoid being the town Tom or Tomasina, or just another one of "those people".
The next thing you know, we’re all engaged in the Woke Wars- a series of flagrant arguments born not of legitimacy, but fear. Fear that we will be outcast and ostracized by the good guys. The wars seep seamlessly from the Internet into the real world as battles pop up in progressive workplaces and across academia.
A dear friend of mine and I discuss the Woke Wars on a regular basis. She is a petite, preppy, pretty blond white Southerner, Ph.D. candidate and committed ally to the black community. Her scholarship examines and scrutinizes privilege and she hopes to make a difference by teaching nontraditional and low-income students. Despite her best efforts, she admits “sometimes I feel like my activism isn’t good enough or isn’t acceptable to other activists...I feel the most discouraged on social media or around other academics. I feel the most crippling inadequacy.”
Movements meant to bring people together are repeatedly splintered and well-meaning people are forced to act beyond what is wholly beneficial. Your brand of activism may involve traveling to Standing Rock to stand with our Native American brothers and sisters. Perhaps you are a startup founder who addresses the negative effects of gentrification. Or maybe you commit to praying daily for those standing on the front lines of social change.
Whatever we decide to do, when we do the most within our personal capacity with pure intentions, how dare we shame someone for not fighting the same way that we fight? Isn’t the point to do good whenever and wherever possible? If so, let’s stop calling each other out by comparing the ways in which we care. Let’s put an end to the Woke Wars and form a truly united front to affect positive and lasting change.