By Shanalee Gallagher, MPP Candidate 2018
Dear Ms. Woodley,
I’m writing today to address what seems to be a pattern on your Instagram feed. While I don’t mean to persecute you personally, your recent activity is an irresistible example of the newest trend of colonization, activist appropriation. Appropriation is when individuals take something from another culture and use it in a way it was not originally intended (and typically, a way that is inappropriate or insulting). Elements from another culture’s art, religion, and fashion are commonly appropriated—or in your case, someone else’s struggle.
As I scour your Instagram posts, I can see you seem to be an activist for salmon, Indigenous people, Prop 64 (purely based on your activist swag), Black Lives Matter, TPP, women’s empowerment, and climate change awareness. By the looks of your social media accounts, it appears that you are incessantly marching and rallying. Even when you’re in Hawaii, you make time for Instagram videos to report what’s going on in “the streets.”
You must be really busy.
I also noticed you appear in the Standing Rock music video shouting, “Stand up!” While I applaud your work with Standing Rock; the fight for clean water should be everyone’s fight. But every struggle is not everyone’s struggle.
One of the problems with activist appropriation is that it not only generalizes and oversimplifies the struggles of others but, in some cases, it also glamorizes them. When celebrity “activists” take on an issue by glamorizing it (e.g., posing by a graffiti sign or for the sake of social media accounts) and the focus shifts to merchandise, performance, and so forth, an important, very real struggle is de-legitimized, and the topic is easily shifted.
For example, the media sensation around Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest police brutality. While the issue of police brutality is an extremely important and very real struggle, the public narrative has been sidelined into a discussion of unpatriotic behavior and President Trump’s tweets. When activist appropriation promotes commercialization of a message, money gets involved–through merchandise, events, and fundraisers. Some legitimate organizations may be raising money to fund their operations, but opportunistic operations also crop up, simply to capitalize on a popular issue.
Another related problem with activist appropriation is that it takes the attention away from voices within the affected communities. When a celebrity offers their two cents about a particular issue, media will inevitably highlight the celebrity, and not, for example, Native Americans standing at Standing Rock or African-Americans directly affected by police brutality. Celebrities have access to resources (like money and connections) that the rest of us don’t. Please, use that power to uplift marginalized voices—consider passing the mic.
If you’re concerned that you might be an activist appropriator (and if you call yourself an activist, have amazing swag, and plenty of free time, this is likely you), here are some tips I have learned for keeping it real:
- Know the difference between “helping” and “being in service.” Being in service means that you are sensitive to the fact that you don’t know the needs of others and are willing to ask. “Helping” is when you impose your ideals of what others need and proceed without permission or request.
- Know the people you want to be in service to and their history. Understand where they came from, where you come from, and how this impacts your current positions (i.e. understand positionality).
- Be skeptical, and do your research. In many ways, the idea of “social justice” is in vogue, leading to individuals capitalizing on the term without offering any real substance. Does your new yoga teacher training certificate claim to have a concentration in social justice? Ask what the course offers specifically, who is leading the training, and what their qualifications are. Does your sound healing practitioner have a certificate from Four Winds in Shamanism?, Did they recently change their name from Becky to Sita? Are you unable to shake the feeling they’re a trustafarian? If it seems suspicious, it likely is.
- Seek out the communities and individuals directly affected. Don’t listen to third parties explain someone else’s struggle—instead, uplift their voices so that they are able to claim their history and tell it as they know it.
- Understand that history is written by the victors.
Ms. Woodley, you’re new to this, so you may experience an adjustment period. At first, I too was uncomfortable and couldn’t articulate or identify the discomfort. In the spirit of solidarity, I know many of us want to be supportive. There’s no harm in taking precautions in our “being in service to” approach, however, harm is caused when we don’t have awareness of what appropriation looks like. Instead of “standing up” and speaking out, consider passing the mic to those who have historically not had a voice. Your job, as an activist and ally, is to take the conversation back to your people, whoever they are, and have it there. Continuously.
“the choice to bear witness to our specific, contradictory historical identities in relationship to one another; accounting of debts and assets we’ve inherited, and acknowledging the precise nature of that inheritance is an act of spiritual and political integrity.”
A fan of your Divergent Trilogy
Shanalee is a 2018 MPP Candidate at the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy. Shanalee is passionate about raising the voices of others, including bringing nationally recognized tribal leaders and activists Brooklyn Baptiste of Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe and EJ Crandell of California’s Robinson Rancheria Council to Mills College to speak on tribal policy.