Shonda Rhimes Says Hashtags Don’t Help, She’s Wrong [VIDEO]

shonda_rhimes_dartmouthI am a fan of Shonda Rhimes. I have loved her since the 1999 biopic “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.” And, while I grew weary of Private Practice, pretty much hated every moment of Grey’s Anatomy, and semi-swore off Scandal after the gratuitous, cheaply written rape scene, I still deeply value her contributions to television. Beyond that, I think her presence is changing things for the better. But her recent remarks against “hash-tivism” make me wonder if her intentions and predilections are in alignment with the awe she inspires from the black community.

Rhimes gave the Dartmouth commencement speech on June 8th. She graduated from the Ivy league university in 1991. She later attended the USC Film School (Fight On!) and has achieved immense success over the years since graduating. I can only imagine that – as a black woman in an industry dominated by white males – her career “ain’t been no crystal stair.” But, while giving Dartmouth grads a few life lessons in her “Fireside Chat,” she went in on hashtag activism in a way that rubbed quite a few people the wrong way.

Here’s what she had to say:

“Oh. And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething

Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show. I do it all the time. For me, it’s “Game of Thrones.”

Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week. Some people suggest doing this will increase your sense of well-being. Some say it’s good karma. I say that it will allow you to remember that, whether you are a legacy or the first in your family to go to college, the air you are breathing right now is rare air. Appreciate it. Don’t be an asshole.”

Jump to about minute 14:00 so that you lead into the context of her statement above.

Now, I can’t say that I disagree with her sentiments and intentions here. For many graduates of Ivy League universities, race and class privilege allot them special stations in society primed for philanthropic and social activism. And, when folks have the means to do so, they should certainly work to find movements, agendas, and causes which they can get behind. But, sometimes it isn’t what you say but how you say it that gets you in trouble. The line “a hashtag is not helping” alone denotes this. But, let’s start at the beginning.

We are all aware of the structural barriers people of color face in this world. Typically, race and class intermingle with institutional racism to ensure that lower class brown and black folks will stay in poverty, isolation, and deprivation. For these groups – in many ways the antitheses of Rhimes’ audience during her talk – achieving political efficacy, and acknowledgement can be nearly impossible. These folks don’t typically have lobbyists, allies, and resources at their disposal to draw the positive attention they need from those in power. But, Rhimes wasn’t talking directly to these folks. Instead, she was talking to children of upper class, elite whites who are virtually immune from the impoverishment of the lower classes (though this assumption in and of itself implies that Ivy Leaguers are a monolith which is problematic, but stay with me here).

In many cases, those isolated and excluded from the mainstream use alternative methods for political involvement. Those nontraditional methods include social media like Twitter, the home of the hashtag. For these people, hashtags do make a difference, they are most certainly helping, and they are often the only way these people can join any movement.

Without discussing the merits of hashtag activism – because I think that conversation has been had elsewhere – there are two other quandaries presented when an elite black woman tells elite white young adults to abandon the political medium of the lower and middle classes.

For one, Shonda Rhimes is black. And, while every black person does not represent or speak for all black people, we know that black folks in prominence are often tokenized and called upon to be the spokespeople for all of us. Rhimes must know that she is skinfolk and fictively related to black women who often make monumental efforts to activate others via hashtags and Twitter activism (re: Mikki Kendall‘s #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and #FastTailedGirls or “Cocky McSwagsalot” defeating the juror attempting to cash in on Trayvon Martin’s shooting, death, and the George Zimmerman trial). In many ways, her assertion that hashtags don’t help implies that these efforts acheive/d nothing. I, personally, find that hard to believe.

Some will say, “oh, well she wasn’t talking to them.” Well, that’s kind of what she said when she responded a few days later.

I see there is some drama about what I said about hashtag activism. Which makes me think some of you who are upset did not actually read or hear my speech (I invite you to watch it — the link is here). I was very clear. That speech I gave? Was for the 1100 or so students graduating from Dartmouth on Sunday. If you were receiving the privilege of breathing the rare air that comes with getting an Ivy League degree on Sunday, I was talking to you. I was talking to those to whom much has been given and I was reminding them that much is expected (Robert Kennedy) Hashtags are amazing for raising awareness. But I was telling them to go beyond that and do more. To actively try to give back in a hands on way. If you were not receiving a degree from Dartmouth on Sunday? I was not talking about you. I wasn’t even talking to you. I love that so many people saw and responded to the speech. But as I said in my speech, I was having a fireside chat with my Dartmouth peeps, remember? 

Have a lovely day! (Am going back to my hiatus and my Orange is the New Black Watching)

But, she is actually completely wrong in her rebuttal here. There are plenty of folks with Ivy League educations who still do not enjoy the race or class privilege to simply give back in a “hands on way.” Many folks in the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities have no choice but to join movements via Twitter due to personal safety concerns and physical limitations. While Rhimes may also not have been talking to them, she most certainly was talking about them in a very material way. And, to the mainstream white elite, her words sound less like a call-to-action for her “peeps” and more like the same tired elite disparaging of the “Poor Man’s Activism.”

Second, Rhimes’ cajoling of predominantly white elites that hashtags don’t help as much as hands on work presents the two as mutually exclusive. Her words imply that activists on Twitter and other social media sites do nothing outside of their own homes or couches (as she describes). Her stereotyping of internet visible activists as snack-chomping, TV watching, lazies undermines much of the work these folks do in real life. Meanwhile, it gives in to the already damaging perception of activists and community organizers as jobless losers with nothing but free time.

Lastly, and perhaps the most dubious, Rhimes’ core argument is that the “1100 or so” students leaving Dartmouth have more, receive more, and are inherently special. So much so, they are necessarily better than hashtag activists. They can do so much more. This notion is dangerous because it encourages self-segregation in activism and social movements. By presenting hashtags as the entry-level activism, Rhimes is asking her “peeps” to operate in a dimension which doesn’t include those whose activism necessarily must include hashtags like people of color and folks in the LGBTQ community. Because these minorities typically find themselves in, well, the minority,  hands on opportunities might be difficult to find. And, when they are available, they may not address the multifaceted needs of their own diverse communities. Should elite whites avoid activism which serves these marginalized communities just because they have privilege? I don’t think so.

The idea that elites are called to a different style of activism makes me wonder when activists graduate to “hands on” status. At what point should activists abandon awareness campaigns and recently informed participants in the name of self-aggrandizement?  According to Rhimes, it’s the moment they graduate college.

Maybe Rhimes should have told her “peeps” to find out what marginalized groups were using hashtags for before she railed against them altogether. Maybe Rhimes should have opened her speech to acknowledge the lack of diversity within the cohort to which she was speaking (and how the lack of inclusion can be dangerous to any movement). Maybe Rhimes should have just not taken the tangent on on hashtag hating at all.

There are a lot of things Rhimes maybe should have done. So often we ask whites to pass the microphone only to – sometimes – have it handed to a politically correct pseudo-ally. In this instance, I am honestly disappointed.

I am still pulling for Shonda. I am still a fan. But I can admire her critically. Hopefully, she begins to do the same of herself and of her limiting views of modern activism.


Click to view the full transcript of Rhimes’ speech.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.