Activism versus advocacy: Praising victims while enabling abusers only promotes racism, sexism, performative activism
Even after the birth of the #StopAsianHate movement, white guilt and performative activism continued to keep many from understanding the message behind personal stories of Asian Americans, hindering the path toward societal change.
Jun. 23, 2021
In mid-March, during the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shooting on March 16 at the height of anti-Asian hate, I wrote a column about my fetishization as an Asian American woman, and my fears, which I’d never had the courage to share before.
I was met with an overwhelming amount of support from friends, family and acquaintances. I was also met with ignorance and insincerity from those who read my article, but lacked a fundamental understanding of my main point.
At first, the messages of support filled me with hope; I’d lost sleep wondering how my article would be perceived. Comments flooded in. The people closest to me shared my guest column across social media. Some gave me their kind words. Others congratulated me.
Some of the messages felt insincere. Some of these people knew my story long before I voiced it to the world. Many cared when I shared it with them, but some didn’t. A few of the messages belonged to people who disregarded me when I first brought up my pain, and had even enabled the actions of those I spoke against.
Many told me my article was powerful. But as I read my messages, I wondered: how powerful could my story be if some of the people congratulating me couldn’t recognize my call to oppose their friends, the racists, misogynists and abusers?
Enablers of racism and sexism in my story play into a larger problem, one that is controlled by white guilt, performative activism and white feminism. This takes shape as romanticizing protests, as if they are simply trendy parades and not a continuous fight for justice. It looks like supposed solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement through posting black squares on Instagram, which changes nothing systemically. These issues can even show up as true change, but only for a privileged few: a feminist mindset is not inclusive if it upholds the stories of white women without acknowledging the connection between racism and misogyny.
Asian Americans are still being murdered in the streets, with women attacked 2.2 times as often as men. In my column, I spoke of how I gripped my pepper spray whenever I walked alone, fearing I’d be targeted not just for my gender, but also my race.
Performative activism also shows false allyship: the difference between activism and advocacy. While activism works outside the system to create change, advocacy is used to work within the system. Although those who practice both may have good intentions, there is a stark distinction: by working outside of a system that supports systemic racism and sexism, activism upholds the voices of marginalized groups. Through working within the system, advocacy inherently upholds white privilege by speaking over underprivileged voices.
In many cases, people performed the latter. It was easy for people to claim they cared about the experiences of Asian Americans, especially during the start of the #StopAsianHate movement and the onslaught of anti-Asian attacks. However, the lack of understanding regarding my column showed how easy it is to give kind words and congratulations without fully grasping the concept at hand.
To those who congratulated me without internalizing my message: did the experiences of Asian Americans only matter when it was timely? Was my story just something to read and forget?
For a few, my story may have provoked feelings of guilt. White guilt heightens the importance of white feelings over the actual needs of Asian Americans and other marginalized groups. It can promote the idea of white redemption, motivating those with white guilt to support social justice issues in order to redeem themselves from their inherent privilege rather than help people of color.
True change does not occur like this. By reading my story, you did not complete your activism quota for the day. You do not get to convince yourself that you are less of an accomplice to white supremacy. You do not get to pat yourself on the back for taking into account a perspective other than your own, not when you completely missed my point.
I read through my messages. I answered some of them. I couldn’t say what I thought or felt, as I was too shocked at the ignorance and lack of understanding.
Some said I was strong and a force of nature. Others claimed that with my bravery, it seemed as if there was nothing I couldn’t do.
The words, at their core, are disingenuine. You cannot tell me I am brave for speaking the truth while upholding your role as an enabler. You cannot congratulate a survivor on coming out with their story while still remaining pleasant with an abuser.
“We must all be soldiers,” I wrote. My message was clear. Fight for those like me. See them all around you, and fight with them against racism and sexism.
You are not a soldier if you enable racism and sexism. You are not a soldier if you ignore the abusive actions of another just because they are your friend, family member or significant other.
You are not a soldier if you heard my story and disregarded my words until it put your guilt at ease to tell me it was powerful. You are not a soldier if you only stand up for others when it’s convenient for you.
Praising survivors for coming out with their stories means nothing if you continue to promote or enable abusive, racist and sexist behavior. Congratulating me means nothing if you still continue to play into white guilt and engage in performative activism. In fact, it is further invalidating for survivors when they find the courage to share their story, just for some to miss the message entirely.
In order to create real change, we must not only listen to survivors, but understand them, internalize their messages and reflect upon our lives. My story was not some fictional piece to glance over and then forget. It held a purpose. You are not a soldier if you could not see it.
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Edited by Sophie Chappell | firstname.lastname@example.org