Hashtag Activism, Silencing, and Sacrificial Lambs of the New Media Movement
One of the most dangerous byproducts of this age of new media is apathy. In this era, far too many people underestimate the power of social media. Conversely, far too many others abuse it. There just isn’t enough people floating in between. And, when it comes to what many call “hashtag activism” – better known as just plain old activism – social media has been the weapon of choice for many heteropatriarchal anti-acitivists seeking to stifle the grassroots work mainly led by women of color.
We have seen several attacks on women of color this year at the hands of virtual bullies and anti-activists. Namely, Suey Park – best known for creating and amplifying the hashtag #CancelColbert – and Jamilah Lemiuex – Senior Editor of EBONY Magazine.
Suey Park, Gendered Hatred, and “Twitter Activism”
I first came into contact with Suey Park via her “hashtag activism.” Seeing her work on Twitter drawing attention to the sociopolitical inequities for Asian Americans and Indigenous Americans immediately broadened my personal understanding of the complexities of anti-blackness and interracial animus. I wanted to interview her specifically about her opinions on Asian and African American coalition building. That interview fell through but ended up happening just a few days after her #CancelColbert hashtag went hyper-viral. In those few days, I watched be Park threatened with rape, murder, and other physical violence. I saw some of the most vile Orientalism epithets in her mentions. And, I watched as Park fended off psychopaths whose commitment to white male satire outweighed their humanity.
She handled it impeccably well. She changed her avatar to a white male which actually lessened some of the genderized hatred she was receiving. This, underscoring precisely the senselessness of the criticisms she was receiving and further spotlighting the fact that it wasn’t just her efforts to hold Stephen Colbert accountable to correcting his production and media staff when their “jokes” create collateral damage, it was the intersection of her race and gender which emboldened social media loving anti-activists in the worst of ways.
One the prime critiques of Park from writers around the Web was that she was nothing more than a “Twitter activist.” This term was coined simply to demean and undermine the work that happens when people get together where they are and start a movement. I got the chance to talk to Park about another one of her hashtags – #DecolonizeSAAM – shortly after the Colbert dust-up.
According to Park,
“The ‘Decolonizing Sexual Awareness Month Movement’ is really all about understanding how the state has actually created gender violence…it’s going to be led by people who are not these so-called ‘Twitter activists.’ They are community organizers. They’re academics. They are people who have actually learned what’s productive, have found these resistant tools for organizing and now we’re using social media to kind of have these larger conversations hoping that people don’t keep those conversations just online but implement them into their own communities. “
In other words, while some of Park’s work reaches the masses via social media, it is never intended to stay there. So, being a Twitter activist isn’t really a bad thing. And, given the fact that pretty much every online news outlet has taken notice of the hashtag trend, it must be working, right?
Jamilah Lemieux and the Tweet Heard ‘Round the World
Now, Jamilah’s trolling happened (and happens) for a completely different reason. I have no desire to rehash the ordeal, but in summary, a mixed race conservative fellow turned up in her mentions demanding that she alter her worldview on black race issues specifically for him. When Lemieux mistook him for a while male – then immediately apologized – all of the Republican hellfire was released upon her. Hell, even Reince Preibus, head of the RNC, himself penned an open letter to EBONY. Frankly, she definitely pissed them off.
What was most disheartening about the ordeal was the way in which many white males attempted to skewer Lemieux. They began demanding that she be fired from her job and even questioned whether or not EBONY should exist as a print magazine anymore. It prompted an apology from them almost immediately. Lemieux, in her letter to her #StandWithJamilah fans, addressed the gravity of her exchange and the double standard with which she was becoming an unfortunate victim.
“I want to affirm, for any who may doubt, that I have very strong feelings about how my words were twisted to fit the agenda of others. (This is not new territory—ask Shirley Sherrod, Melissa Harris Perry, Anthea Butler…I suppose I should take some pride in now being counted among this principled group.) But, right now, this isn’t about my feelings. Even though so much of this seems like it is about me, Jamilah Lemieux, it most certainly isn’t. This debacle is largely a commentary on the evolving concept of being an employed individual on social media—and the ever-shifting line between public and private. It highlights the importance of employees being mindful of such at all times, whether that feels “fair” or not. This is not about the First Amendment, this is about corporate ethics and the challenges that face those of us who represent major media brands.”
All it took was a single Twitter exchange and a racial mix-up. Her offenses were almost unnoticeable except for the pile of white men jumping on them. She quickly became yet another sacrificial lamb in the social media movement.
But, is it Really Sacrifice?
Part of me just thinks this new double consciousness is simply unfair. Having to always censor, tip-toe, pussyfoot, and second guess one’s public persona just because it might piss off white people is certainly no way to live. Actually, it sounds more like a way to slowly kill yourself and others in America. But, it has become a new reality. It doesn’t feel great and it leads to using the “block and report” function far too frequently on Twitter. But, I am starting to see a silver lining here.
It was Socrates who deemed himself a gadfly to Athenian elites. His inability to conform and accept the status quo, believe in the bull shit art of sophistry, and swallow the homogeneity of thought in Athens ended with him becoming a martyr. While this is true, Plato’s accounts of him have become the bedrock of political thought for democratic nations and philosophers ever since. He may not have been appreciated much then but his sacrifice eventually paid off.
I posit that Park and Lemieux are in the same vein. When the elite white heteropatriarchal monolith deems you an enemy of the state, it means that they are taking note of your work and influence. Efforts to minimize said presence are just employed to keep blinders on those who have the potential to be swayed by enlightenment.
Women of color have always been primed for this opposition. Being systematically objectified and perpetually marginalized has trained this social group that living on the periphery is the status quo not the anomaly. And, where isolation worked quite well in days past, social media mechanisms like hashtags have now paved routes for kinship that are virtually inaccessible forwould-be detractors. In essence, new media has become the large cathedral standing prostrate next door to the white heteropatriarchal Ivory Tower.
I can’t help but see that as a good thing. While it is painful – both as a supporter of these women and an activist woman of color myself – I almost feel it is a necessary evil, perhaps the prologue to a really beautiful story. Happy endings may be uncertain for now, but these women are writing their narratives every single day. Personally, I’m here for that.
You can watch my full interview with Suey Park below:
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