Most likely, you’ve seen a flurry of information, slogans, hashtags and reading lists circulating on social media over the past few weeks. It is also likely that you have shared at least one or two of these posts on your timelines and Instagram stories… but how much of that online conversation has progressed into your offline life? As much as our intentions online may be good, I’ve found myself questioning what my real, long-term objectives are as an ally to a wide range of social justice movements.
Many people who share information or slogans to their stories will have some vague notion of wanting to “show support” for the movement in question: whether hashtagging #BlackLivesMatter, retweeting a feminist article or sharing a political petition in a group chat, we can use social media to amplify the voices of experts and victims and help grow their audience online without taking their place by adding unnecessary commentary
However, it is all too easy to share an image in order to signal to other people that we are allies in theory, and much more difficult to integrate activism or allyship into our offline words and work in practice. Performative value-signalling undermines the magnitude of the problem by suggesting that merely sharing an image achieves something concrete.
Playing informational telephone
Of course, thinking critically about who we share these images with can have a real impact. If you follow lots of experts and activists, but your followers likely follow very few of these accounts, then you could be the missing link to spread the message to another section of the internet population. Or perhaps some people you know are more likely to listen to a message when it comes from you than from a group they are unfamiliar with – and you can help them become familiar with the needs and ideas of that group. On the other hand, if you are only sharing a post to show other people who are already aware of these issues that you are also aware of them, that is when our activism and allyship slips into performative territory.
Instagram user _nanders explains this is in a superb graphic description of ‘informational telephone’:
Taking action in the real world The second problem we face online is how to progress the conversation offline. If you sign and share an online petition in support of Trans rights, but then fail to address the harmful words of a transphobic peer or family member in the real world, what can we say about our long-term objectives as allies? It is, of course, much more difficult to call someone out in person – but if we want societal attitudes to change, then it is very much the existing attitudes held by real people that we must challenge actively. Learning how to do this in a calm and respectful way can be a huge part of our own internal journey.
For me, listening to diverse perspectives online helps me to work out how I can take a more critical perspective to my university reading and societies, and then, later, how I can do the same in the workplace. For example, following yoga teachers who take care to avoid cultural appropriation of the original spiritual practice has helped me to think critically when choosing who I pay for yoga classes.
Learning from others and making a plan
The same must be said of reading lists: saving a decolonial reading list online and then never getting around to reading a single book might show that we have good intentions, but it does little to empower us or other people in reality. Instead, you can try to find a way to integrate the reading into your life – set a reminder once a month in your calendar to start a new book, pick an hour a day to read something, or even join a book club with other people who would also like support to explore some new ideas.
You don’t have to read only non-fiction: simply integrating fiction books of a genre you already enjoy by authors outside the typical demographic you encounter would be an excellent start. For example, I know that my literary circles are already pretty feminist, but I’m excited this summer to prioritise some non-fiction and fiction written by feminists of colour and specifically black feminists, because I know that historically mainstream feminism has excluded these voices, and I am not happy to do so (however inadvertently) in my own life. I owe my awareness of this history to activists like Rachel Cargle.
The takeaway: being an ally does not end online
Social media is an incredible tool for activism and allyship: it allows us to cut through social boundaries and both hear from and reach people we might not encounter in real life. It also allows us to learn an incredible amount of information, access resources, and find ways to make a difference through petitions and emails. However, like all things, there must be a balance between our online and offline work: if we fail to transfer our good intentions into long-term objectives which influence our offline actions, then we risk falling into a performative trap. The trick is to be brave and to know that allyship is a journey with no end – it certainly does not end on Instagram. We will sometime get things wrong, but that’s okay if we learn from our mistakes: what matters is that we keep listening to others and thinking critically about when to speak, who we speak to, and where.
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