Last fall term I wrote an article entitled, “The Commodification of Activism.” In that article, I talked about how activism and social justice are becoming buzz words off which institutions profit. The generation that grew up with the internet uses the web to voice their concerns about social issues that plague our societies. Companies and even celebrities use that platform for commercial gain. I do not have a stance on the appropriation of activism by these forces, which seem to be “benevolent” forces that are propelling American society towards a more “progressive future.” But I do believe that there is an insidious aspect to this commodification and I want to expand on those ideas. Most importantly, I want to illustrate how those ideas have affected allyship and contributed to what people are calling the Woke Olympics. The Woke Olympics is a phenomena that happens in social justice spaces or the internet where people compete to demonstrate how socially consciousness they are, or how many protests or conferences they attended. I argue this stifles conversations and hinders coalition building.
In the words of Winona LaDuke, “Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist.” The prominent Native American activist’s words resonate with me because it shows how social change must come out of a burning desire for a world where everyone is equal and held accountable. LaDuke’s words speak to the title of “activist” as a loaded term. Activism within the American imagination is seen as agitators complaining about issues that cannot be fixed. Usually these issues regard basic human rights, especially rights that are extinguished when big corporate entities are involved, such as the destruction of Native American land by oil and nuclear plants. LaDuke’s words are a reminder of the trauma associated with the term activism. Being marked as an activist depending on the context may cost you your life, especially in developing worlds where organizers are killed by totalitarian regimes or corrupt groups that see their activities as a disruption to their political ideologies. The term activism and justice implies you are willing to put your body and your well-being in harm’s way for a just cause. Unfortunately, sometimes social position forces you to engage with oppressive systems. When the state constructs you as an activist, you become disposable. In current times in America, activists are not constructed as disposable, which I argue is a dangerous illusion. This has increased this romanticizing of activism that happens in predominately western nations and, I would argue, in mostly white spaces.
Social media has made activism cool and has created a platform where the people can take power. The Egyptian revolution was ignited using Facebook; organizers used it as a tool that consolidated people in order to bring down a corrupt regime. Make no mistake – the internet is not only a weapon for the left. It has been used to censor black and brown activists and also to warn undocumented immigrants during the New York and LA ICE raids. So who knows what the Internet and activism will look like in the future.
At Lawrence University I have noticed in discussions about race, gender and sexuality that have become a festival of words mascaraed in white guilt and little action. In these Woke Olympic competitions, marginalized voices are the judges. The issue here is that not all marginalized bodies are the same; for example, every black person may have different views on police brutality as it relates to black bodies. Marginalized folks are then put in the position to affirm allies’ ideas whether we wanted to or not. If I had a quarter for how many times I was put in the position to validate people’s ideas, I would be fifty dollars richer.
The Woke Olympics is very interesting because it creates a social pressure for people who are not constantly rebuking white supremacy, heteronormativity and capitalism, to do so. And when they finally do want to engage with those questions, we lock them out because they are not “woke enough.” The danger of this rigid socialization is that it forgets that we need to meet people where they are. Everyone’s social awareness is at different levels and that is okay. What this Woke Olympics does is creating parameters over who can engage, which creates a very limited idea of organizing and activism. It is okay if you are that loud unapologetic queer radical feminist that is in a constant state of rage, just like it is okay to be a Lawrence student that still does not understand these issues. We forget that learning is a process and our identities are shaped by these processes. In this time, it is important to have hard conversations with each other but I would rather it be a genuine conversation than a Woke Olympics.