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Weekly Musings: What Makes an Activist?

I’ve always been quite a romantic when it comes to life. Grand ideas, courageous acts, and fairy-tale endings have always been my game. For this reason, I’ve always had a huge admiration for anyone who is an activist. I idealized people who dedicate their lives to helping others and stand up and speak for those who can’t, no matter how inconvenient it is for them. I have always wanted to be and simultaneously doubted I ever could be one of these people, for many reasons.

When all of social media erupted in support of Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd, I too felt the need to express my support. It felt important and necessary – it was hard to ignore. In the coming weeks after posting and donating to the AACP, I struggled with a lot of internal questions and concerns over my public support, my donation, and the concept of activism as a whole.

I was not struggling with questions of whether my support was justified or the “right” thing to do. Not once did I think, actually, maybe I don’t think all Black lives matter or that racial profiling and violent arrests are a problem in the police force.

Instead, I was struggling with questions like why have I never posted about this before?

Were my actions performative?

What does it mean to be a good advocate/activist/ally?

How do I choose what causes I speak up about?

Do I have to agree with all parts of a movement to be a true ally?

How do I support marginalized people without becoming political as a journalist?

Where is the line between being a good activist and preserving your own mental health and boundaries?

These are questions that have become part of my daily repertoire – they rattle between my ears while I brush my teeth. They spin in circles and wrestle in my head as I drive to the grocery store. My journal pages are filled with thoughts and even more questions stemming from these.

The many questions that I had never asked myself before were weighing on me in all their seemingly unanswerable glory.

Why now, white people?

The question of why so many white people were posting in support now when they never had before, was a widespread one. Many accredited it to performative activism or “white guilt.” Without a doubt, that was the impetus behind many posts. However, I definitely don’t think “white guilt” can be applied as a blanket cause of increased support from white people.

I think that for some white people who had previously supported the movement, just not vocally/publicly on social media, it was an awakening not about racial justice but about the amount of people who still disagreed with or did not understand the Black Lives Matter movement.

For others who previously supported the movement, I largely think that the newfound pressure to “prove” your support on social media led to as many people feeling that their activism wasn’t enough if it wasn’t public as people feeling pressure to post a black square on their feed, which became seen as the most performative of “activist” actions.

It became difficult to tell the difference between people who cared and people who were just posting a black square. We are too accustomed to thinking we see people’s entire lives based on what they post on social media. Social media, for better and for worse, is not the truth. It is not real life.

Why did I post?

For me personally, after much reflecting and questioning, I think I posted because, ultimately, I want to be clear about the fact that I care about the lives of other people, regardless of their race, religious affiliation or any other criteria. I had never before felt that I needed to state or make clear that I want my spaces online to be inclusive. I thought that was a given, which may just be my ignorance as a white person showing.

While not the main reason I posted, I do honestly think that social media pressure played a role. My initial post was much more a result of individual thinking. However, after that, I did feel a lot of pressure to “prove” that I was educating myself, thinking about these issues and continuing to support. I felt that people would think I was someone who forgot about the issue after posting on Instagram once if I wasn’t showing them what I was doing.

Ultimately, I had to decide not to share a lot of things. If it isn’t something I would have shared before this happened – I wasn’t going to share it now.

I wrote a reflection on reading White Fragility, a book that while on my list prior to these events, admittedly got bumped up very quickly, which I felt was not performative.

It’s a book I read and my reflection aims to be honest about the book. I made sure to talk about the good and the bad because this is what I would have done before. While learning to ignore external social media pressure, I still had to prove to myself that I was not sharing for personal gain or perception.

When should I speak up and be an activist?

Discrimination, violence, genocide, poverty, famine, war, inequality and disease happen all over the world every single day.

There is no end to the list of causes for which you can be an activist. There is however an end to the hours in the day, the energy you have, and the money in your pockets.

How do I pick which causes get my donation? Which ones do I help educate people about on Instagram?

I don’t think I will ever have an answer to this question. This is the kind of question that truly keeps me up at night. I feel very small and the world feels very broken when I think about this question.

Is activism always political?

Can saying that someone’s life matters really be political?

As someone going into the journalism field, my political leanings and public opinions are something I need to be keenly aware of. The last thing I would want is to be seen as a non-credible journalist because of a social media post.

I have beef with the idea of “neutrality” or “objectivity” for several reasons.

One, I don’t believe that journalists need to be neutral. In fact, I don’t think objective people truly exist. I believe that reporting should be as neutral as possible – no extraneous adjectives that are not attributed to describing physical situations accurately, describing the emotions a source says they felt, or when writing a purely opinion/commentary piece. Journalists are human too. We have opinions, we vote, we want to advocate for people who need our support or help.

Two, at the very least, when it comes to the livelihood of people, I don’t think it’s political. It is not political to say that you don’t want more Black people to be unjustly killed by excessive force. The same way it is not political to say that I don’t want children in Syria to die from famine or any other humanitarian crisis. I will not share my opinions about protests, calls to defund the police, or anything else like this, because that is political. I will, however, always advocate for every person’s right to live, if nothing else. That’s just basic human decency.

Where are the boundaries for an activist?

Something I have been working on in general, is setting up boundaries. We all have our limits. As I mentioned, I’ve always admired people who dedicate their lives to helping others. This requires so many sacrifices – sacrifices that I am not sure I could make. No matter how much you choose to advocate for causes, it’s important to keep your sense of self and your boundaries.

You cannot pour from an empty cup.

It is a huge privilege to be able to turn your eyes away from the things wrong with the world. That does not make it wrong for you to do so. Reading a book for pleasure in between days of educating yourself is okay. Posting about something that does not have to do with activism is okay. Allowing yourself the grace of not having to be an advocate for every cause you see on Instagram is okay. Ask yourself, how were people being advocates before social media? It’s probably true that many people were less aware of issues. However, it’s also true that people were still advocating, volunteering, protesting, educating and donating in support of causes.

You cannot do it all.

If like most people, you think too much about what other people think of you, it’s very likely you will feel pressure to do it all and to do it publicly. You can be doing a lot and learning a lot without telling everyone about it.

So what makes an activist?

I used to think of an activist as a Mother Teresa-type figure. An activist had to give up their own pleasures and families in order to serve others. For the most part, that’s not the world we live in anymore.

Mother Teresa’s will always be appreciated, but the connectedness of the world means that it is possible to be an activist in so many small ways. There will always be someone doing more than you – that doesn’t make your acts of activism less important.

Caring for others and acting on that empathy, whether in the form of educating, donating, protesting, volunteering or whatever else, is activism.

Activism is for everybody.