The Culture of Appropriating Movements

How to keep activism from becoming another -ism causing pain.

Posted Aug 09, 2019

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
Source: Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

In a recent social media post, a colleague, a white woman, posted the graphic photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter, Valeria, who drowned trying to cross from Mexico into Texas. The reviews of her posting this were mixed, but many POC saw it as an exploitation of Black and Brown bodies and called her in and out on it.

This is a woman who has been in the trenches in the fight against racism, sexism, LGBTQIA hatred, and hatred and discrimination of all marginalized groups for a very long time.

In her activist stance, she asked questions but also defended her position and saw it as the right way to bring attention to the issue and the pushback to her response was real and fierce.

When the #MeToo movement started to get “mainstream” visibility, Forbes published an article articulating the disrespect, frustration and anger of many in the Black community over the crediting of the movement to celebrity Alyssa Milano. According to the article, after Alyssa Milano tweeted for her followers to use the #metoo hashtag, it went viral with over 1 million tweets.

"Milano immediately informed her followers of an earlier Me Too Movement and Good Morning America identified its founder as civil rights activist, Tarana Burke. But ever since Burke was identified as the creator of the Me Too Movement, there has been a deliberate effort to diminish her work and efforts of the Black women anti-rape activists that came before her."

Here too activism was being called out in the way in which platforms were being used by White women celebrities to move things forward without crediting Black women.

These are not isolated examples. When Black Lives Matter was actively protesting and calling attention to the killing of Black men and women by the police, there were stories of Black protesters fearing for their safety when some White male protestors confronted police behavior in ways that were unsafe for POC. In other words, the Black protestors were well aware that they would jeopardize their own safety if they yelled at or even questioned police behavior, but too many White protestors thinking they were standing up for their fellow Black protestors exerted their privilege by confronting police.

There are many examples to choose from if one wants to really look at this issue on their own. While the term cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture, this type of activism is cultural appropriation of its own kind. It is stepping in to the culture of activism, typically a movement that has originated with POC and/or other marginalized groups, and adopting it for your own purposes without the consult, consent, or crediting of the originators of the movement. This creates huge conflicts within the movement that take away from what is trying to be achieved.

Essentially, activism becomes another -ism causing pain. This can be avoided or certainly lessened by knowing, understanding, and doing a few things.

Listen to the people who are most affected. My White colleague who posted the photo I spoke of pulled back and decided to reach out to those who called her out and in and asked for clarity around their objections to her post. She listened, asked for more clarity and then listened deeper. There is often this deep sense of “here I am doing the right thing when so many people who look like me are not and now you are attacking me and that’s wrong” that plays out for folks who receive pushback. Your goal should be to support in ways that those on the front lines believe will be helpful. In order to do that, you need to spend a lot more time listening.

When you get called In or Out, listen even more and then admit your mistake. The next step my colleague took was to work to understand and then immediately admit her mistake. Yes, her intentions were good and purposeful, but recognizing the harm of exposing that graphic photo rather than just reporting the narrative, she issued a sincere public apology and then everyone moved on to doing more work.

Don’t take it personal. The first place some folks tend to go is to the space of defensiveness as if being given this feedback is an attack on their character. It is actually a request to listen and learn. While that may come in a passionate or impatient tone that sits in historical frustration with the backdrop of “here we go again,” it is often a call for you to pay attention to what the originators and those most affected want. Again, a call to listen more.

Always be open to learning from those leading. Enthusiasm is great when tempered by learning more about how these issues touch and harm the lives of those most affected and what they feel is important to gain from this activism.

We can break culture together in activism if we don’t just take up the cause, but if we truly support those leading it by hearing them, honoring their work, and doing the work in the way they feel is needed.