Leaving Our Heroes for Dead: Why We Can't Have Nice Things
"How many leaders you said you needed, then left ‘em for dead?"Mortal Man" is my favorite Kendrick Lamar song; it's the only one of his that's truly capable of leveling me to tears for various reasons, from his choice of music sample to verses like the one quoted above. But I think what truly sells the song for me is the urgency in his voice, an emotional combination of devastation, exasperation, and awe.
Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red?
Is it Martin Luther, JFK, shooter you assassin
Is it Jackie, is it Jesse, oh I know, it’s Michael Jackson"
- Kendrick Lamar, "Mortal Man"
"Mortal Man" comes to mind now because in an online private discussion, I learned that some former fans of a couple of beloved activists (who I won't name individually) were deeply upset with them, going so far as to accuse them of things like misogynoir.
I just can't help but recall a particularly eye-opening article by a trans woman of color, in which she explains how social justice language can be used to abuse people. Now, I bring this up because over the past few years I've noticed this really annoying tendency on news and activist sites where readers who get deleted, banned, or have a request/suggestion denied, lash out with sociological terms. They're accused of things like misogynoir, homophobia, and self-internalized racism.
Kai Cheng Thom, the writer, uses her own experiences to explain how she felt these words were the only weapons she had to defend herself when she felt scared or angry. So if a White, cisgender boyfriend was breaking up with her, she could always call him a transphobic racist. If he tried to get her to calm down, she could say he was tone-policing her. Now, in Thom's case, she's describing intimate relationship situations. But her overarching theory about the potentially abusive aspect is not only sound, but applies to online interactions as well.
First of all, sociological terms are not the cool new slang. Just because a they turned up in a hashtag over the past couple of years doesn't mean they haven't been around for years, and haven't been repeatedly dissected, discussed, and debated by scholars with advanced degrees. They are not here for angry readers seeking payback or self-loathing POC seeking a pat on the head. And when the commenters don't even know what the words mean, they still use them in hopes of sounding smart and credible, but instead end up looking really fucking stupid.
Words like misogynoir, transphobia, transmisogyny, and fetishism (to name a few), are serious terms for serious social disorders which often result in life-and-death consequences. To invoke them carelessly is to spit on the victims of those consequences.
Second of all, a lot of people who follow activists are really just thirsty fans. They find some activist they enjoy reading or watching or listening to, and since they can technically reach that figure with a click of a mouse, they think they have some sort of personal connection with them...especially if that figure responds. The fan then assumes So-and-So is their "friend" and then demand the BFF treatment. When it doesn't come, suddenly, that blogger, or vlogger, or activist they loved nine seconds ago is Public Enemy #1.
Now, I don't know who broke some of these people or why they're so needy, but clinging to an activist (and strangers in general), and demanding that they be all you want them to be is not healthy behavior. They are a human beings. Some have spouses, kids, day jobs. They make the best decisions they can with the information they have at hand. Their are entitled to their opinions and beliefs. They are not always going to be 100%, and they are going to get some things wrong, because it wasn't too long ago that they were just like their readers. They just happened to be a good writer or speaker who decided one day to get online and try to do something right.
Activists are not rock stars; they live in a different scene. And by just being as visible as they are, they're risking their lives on a daily basis. The ones who are successful at creating a vast platform online use that platform to promote causes and shed light on problematic issues. Like it or not, they are the voice that some people will never have.
Tearing down any activist who speaks out against oppression only favors the oppressor. It was a White guy who shot Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but the hands who took Malcolm X* were Black - that didn't do Black people any favors. So if you're the type to get mad over being deleted, banned, disagreed with, or not even responded to, go fawn over an actual rock star. Go join a fan club with millions of other fans and indulge your inner lunatic to your heart's desire. Because the activist scene is clearly not for you.
The fight against white supremacy does not need doe-eyed fans who just want to know what their favorite activist's thoughts are on the latest tragic headline. The fight requires vigilant, socially aware, mature individuals who are willing to march, donate, advocate, and self-fucking-educate. Are you a student? Can you stage sit-ins or hold rallies or volunteer? Do you work full-time? Can you spare $5 or $10 when the Lakota are bravely trying to defend the environment or the ACLU is hurriedly trying to get Muslim 5-year-olds out of handcuffs? Are you 18? Do you vote? Did you vote in 2016 presidential election (if you were legally able to)?
I attended every inter-faith vigil on my campus when the Towers went down. When the Bush Administration declared war, I went out and protested with my fellow students. When a clan of right-wing closet cases tried to demand that all secular student meetings and legal proceedings begin with (Christian) prayer - while calling the ACLU the Anti-Christ Lesbian Union, mind you - I attended every debate, panel discussion, and protest against that bullshit.
Now as an adult stuck in a day job, I donate. Even when the bank account is running low, I donate. And I encourage others to donate. And I have zero regrets about every dollar spent.
On Election Day, 2016, I dragged myself out of bed before the sun came up, and was the first person at my precinct. I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton. I had voted for Barack Obama before her, and John Kerry before him.
This is what our activists need from us. Not comments on their pages and thirsty messages in their inboxes. They need hella more than for us to like and repost their vlogs and blogs. They need us to donate to the struggle, march for the struggle, to start and frequent businesses owned by people of color, to bank Black, bank Asian, and bank Native.
If that's not your thing - fine. But at least have the decency to shut up and go away.
*And for fuck's sake, people - Islam is a religion, not an ethnicity. For the Black people online I see railing against Muslims, many of you are descended from African Muslims brought here in chains and forced at gunpoint to convert to Christianity. And for those of you wondering what Muslims have ever done for Black people, I suggest you start with Malcolm X himself.
Education, people. Let's make that our #1 priority in 2017.