Written by Funto Omojola
As I woke up to a flood of images on my social media platforms featuring thousands of men and women clad in pink pussy hats with signs proclaiming fundamental women’s rights to challenging the presidency of Donald Trump, my immediate reaction was not one of pride and comfort, but one of instantaneous guilt. This guilt, in response to my lack of attendance at the 2018 Women’s March, was an all too familiar sentiment, one etched in feelings of inadequacy based on what I refer to as “Activist shaming.” At the center of such judgments is the increasing association of merit as an activist with outward expressions of involvement and organizing.
As I attended the ShiShi Rose talk at Bard College Campus at the end of last semester, I grappled with similar sentiments surrounding the current culture of “activism.” Invited to discuss the importance and power of weaving activism into our daily lives, and perhaps most well known for her previous work with the 2017 Women’s March, ShiShi is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, New York. During the talk, she discussed her own practice of daily activism in the sense of being keenly aware of moving through space and living a deliberate life in relation to her engagement with political and social issues that surround and embed her.
Such discussion regarding the engagement with deliberate and daily forms of activism become crucial in our consideration of activism/activist shaming for a number of reasons. The fact of the matters is that it is after demonstrators and allies alike have cleared the streets, that the real work begins. Behind the posters, behind the pussy hats, are black and brown marginalized people that must wake up everyday and ‘carry the cross.’ Equating activism simply with acts of grandiose that hinge on public showing of “being on the right side of history” does the work of erasing and not accounting for the daily activism of black and brown bodies, who’s mere existence necessarily equates to activism. It is not a choice to show up to these marches nor is it a fad that allows for a chance to post on social media. The effort is continual. The pain is continual. Black and brown bodies, simply by existing, are constantly showing up every day.
Further, in light of the recent presidential election in the United States, in our supposed post-racial and colorblind society, it is apparent how increasingly crucial it has become to understand the inner workings of whiteness and the reality in which it serves to maintain historical structures of oppression, power, and hegemony. Thus, while for some, the Women’s March elicited feelings of power and progress, for others, it was a reminder of the repeated marginalization of so many in this continued fight for agency. The 2017 March garnered much criticism regarding the exclusion of issues relating to police brutality against black women, violence against black transgender women, migration, in addition to an array of healthcare issues that mainly affected low income, transgender women. While the organizers this year made efforts and improvements in tackling intersectional feminism, the march still centered around ‘cis’ white women and a continual erasure of intersectional issues. Thus, discussions regarding how those that are privileged can continue to assert their titles as ‘activist’ in a manner that not only ends at a desire to be seen at the frontlines, but also includes self-reflection, and a willingness to learn and unlearn, become increasingly more important.
This is not to say that protesting, organizing and having loud displays of resistance are not critical and viable within the larger context of activist work. In fact, history points to the importance of such work in effecting legitimate change. Yet, it is in the intentional focus on those that are constantly and continuously marginalized, even at the front lines, that I call a particular attention to. Thus, the importance lies in the accepting and non-dismissal of the other ways in which one can “show up” that do not always involve marching and organizing. This is not a new concept by any means —the act of daily activism— yet as marginalized people within our society are more than accustomed to, the burden of asserting and re asserting our right to just breathe, continues to fall on us.