Reassuringly Restless 4: seven types of activists to avoid
This blog post has been inspired by experiences I have witnessed, heard about and have directly experienced. Nothing is from my imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons or actual events probably is correct (but I won’t be too obvious with it, because I don’t want to get sued).
1. The ones who can't see past their own experiences / who dismiss yours
I am tired of talking about myself in parts: one day as a Black person, then as woman, then as a personal living with HIV. I am a Black woman living with HIV. Often though, people with overlapping marginalised identities are seen in parts, we are seen as too messy to talk about in our entirety.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe when a person/group of people face overlapping points of exclusion and marginalisation from society, because of their identities. In her incredible and insightful TED talk, she spoke about how sexism and racism compounded and results in the erasure of Black women’s experiences.
If an advocacy group calls upon person/group(s) to talk about themselves in parts, they are not intersectional. And that’s not good. Operating in an intersectional way goes beyond merely writing it in your twitter bio, it is about humility, it is about constantly unlearning and it is about giving up space and stepping to the side to people with more marginalised identities than you. It is about listening to people with different experiences from you and responding to those differences.
I promise you that you are not being “divisive” by simply pointing out how an approach won’t work (or is compounded) for other people with your lived experience. Instead, it is the organiser is not being inclusive, intersectional and is probably just focused on only serving the needs to people who experience life the way they do.
2. The ones who don’t support you in your learning
Being ‘intolerant of intolerance’ isn’t anything to be proud; there’s a risk that it can lead to constantly being in an echo chamber (and only being with people who think like you). Easy activism.
To be clear – I am not saying that anyone should engage in a debate about their own humanity. I don’t believe it is my responsibility to directly engage with racists and sexists, as a Black woman, to educate/debate them. I do think however, that I have a responsibility to engage with people whose views I don’t agree with (and whose views don’t directly invalidate my humanity) – this is something I struggle with because I am intolerant of intolerance. Being ‘intolerant of intolerance’ isn’t anything to be proud; there’s a risk that it can lead to constantly being in an echo chamber (and only being with people who think like you). Easy activism.
3. The ones who speak for their ‘community’, but always seem to be fighting with their ‘community’
I put ‘community’ in inverted commas because I don’t agree with how racialised communities are presented as the singular, but that’s blog post for another day.
Oh, lordy, lordy. People who are better received by the people they are not representing, but seem to alienate those they (supposedly) are representing - incredibly problematic. A person/group that does not listen to the feedback from those they are supposedly representing is dangerous. Please don’t let social media numbers be the measure of credibility. Too many have gained them by antagonising their own people. That’s how they’ll (eventually) lose followers and credibility too.
“All my skinfolk ain't kinfolk.” - Zora Neale Hurston
4. The ones who are academic activists
I wrote an article for Black Ballad, about this last year. My view is largely unchanged. Use of inaccessible language, looking down on language/theory once it is popularised are all signs of an academic activist. To me, an academic activist is able to theorise any situation, but is of no practical use in the actual situation. Or worse: consciously recreates the dynamics it critiques. For example, an institution known for being ‘radical’ and dissecting inequalities and producing theories, whilst recreating the same problems in its employment structure. Writing research papers on racism and sexism, whilst having an ethnic and/or gender pay gaps in their place of work or subcontracting roles that are mainly held by Black and Brown people.
5. The ones who are bullies (or use oppressive practices)
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the ends do not justify the means. Activists/advocates are human beings. Human beings can be fantastic, but they can also be terrible. I know of a few exploitative, manipulative and abusive advocates that clear of in the HIV advocacy scene.
Here’s the problem: (most) activists are very good at pointing out societal problems without properly acknowledging that we live within this society. Without actively being introspective and actively anti-oppressive, we risk recreating the same isms and phobias within our own work.
As someone who works in the youth advocacy space for several years, I have witnessed (and experienced) older/more experienced HIV activists use undermining and bully tactics to manipulate younger and newer activists. I promise you, you can hold activists at a higher standard and not tolerate their behaviour because of the purpose of their work. You do not and should not tolerate transphobia, classism, ableism, nationalism, homophobia, ageism, sexism and/or racism from our ‘comrades’. It is not the price any of us should have to pay to see a better world.
Maybe not avoid, but approach with caution...
6. The ones who are always reacting
I think these people have good intentions, but constantly pushing against something, rather than pushing towards something else, can leave your movement stagnant.
Every day (especially if you are on social media) there is something to react to. The reason why this is a tricky position to occupy is because it can lead you to constantly firefighting, as opposed to planning for change. You could end up feeling like a hamster in a wheel going around... and around... and around. And around again. Fast track to burnout.
7. The ones who operate from a point of trauma
This one is tricky and I actually feel a bit guilty adding this to my list. I do not think that advocacy should be used as a tool for healing. Many advocates may become so because of their own experiences, that is completely understandable. I too am one of those people, so of course I would think it is fine and understandable). I do think there is a level of healing/processing that needs to happen before advocating on behalf of others though.
There is a risk that the person may retraumatise themselves (when telling their story) and be less focused on solutions (because they are still experiencing their pain). They may also expect you to approach your activism in a similar way, look after yourself.
Can activism really change the world? I think it’s the only thing that ever has, but we need to be strategic with it. This is the fourth of a monthly blog series. If there is anything that you would like me to discuss in future blog posts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bakita Kasadha (aka BAKITA:KK) is an HIV activist, researcher, facilitator and writer. She is the Chair of the Global Network of Young People Living with HIV. She is interested in self-care, ethical engagement and power dynamics within social movements.
Through this blog series, she aims to share some insight to navigating activism and advocacy spaces, for those thinking about it and for those figuring it out. All opinions are strictly hers.
Artwork by thecamru