As we write this piece, we have to turn our phones on silent to drown out the frenzied buzzing of our inboxes and texts. We’ve gone on strike. It’s not the kind of strike you are used to, like an MTA shutdown or a crowd outside of Walmart with picket signs. We are Black Women, AfroIndigenous and women of color who have organized a social media Blackout.
We are your unwaged labor in our little corner of the internet that feeds a movement. Hours of phone teach-ins, hashtags, Twitter chats, video chats and phone calls to create a sustainable narrative and conversation around decolonization and antiblackness. As an online collective of Black, AfroIndigenous, and NDN women, we have created an entire framework with which to understand gender violence and racial hierarchy in a global and U.S. context. In order to do this however, we have had to shake up a few existing narratives, just like K. Michelle and her infamous table rumble on Love & Hip Hop.
The response has been sometimes loving, but in most cases we’ve faced nothing but pushback in the form of trolls, stalking. We’ve, at separate turns, been stopped and detained crossing international borders and questioned about our work, been tailed and targeted by police, had our livelihoods threatened with calls to our job, been threatened with rape on Twitter itself, faced triggering PTSD and trudged the physical burden of all of this abuse. This has all occurred while we see our work take wings and inform an entire movement. A movement that also refuses to make space for us while frequently joining in the naming of us as “Toxic Twitter” Why do we face barriers at every turn? If you hear many tell it, we are simply lazy women with good internet connections.
Quite simply, our interests are quite different than the people usually allowed to set the agenda for our bodies—not only on a state level, but even within movements that claim to be for our benefit. We are just too different, our ideas are just too out there. And besides, people still wonder what we’re so angry about anyway. Despite this gospel medley of media, academia, the non-profit industrial complex and “proper organizers” raising their voices in collective “Get off the internet and DO SOMETHING REAL,” our inboxes now sit full with those people requesting to know where have we gone and what are we doing. Don’t we know they have dissertations to write? Suddenly, your favorite activist’s timeline sounds less brilliant and more like a Magic Eight Ball or one of your Auntie’s Tarot Card Readings. The media landscape begins to dry up and people panic without their usual sacrificial lambs.
Even in our very silence, we are drama queens who are doing something personally harmful by removing ourselves from a space. No matter what we do, it’s considered petty and malicious, even if its just taking an absence from Twitter. It’s no coincidence that this is the landscape with which we view the physical disappearances of Black and NDN bodies. You see, that’s how surveillance works. The devaluation becomes the justification for the watching, followed by a frenzy of consumption, and an ensuing panic once we move beyond the eye of the surveyor. We are hated as women, but we have to be watched so we don’t do real harm to ourselves and others.
Never mind that we are constantly a full month ahead of the news cycle and that our frameworks mysteriously appear in a rash of articles and essays after we hammer them out publicly on digital mediums. We hear the refrain of “meeting people where they are,” but there is a constant devaluation exactly where marginalized Black and NDN grassroots women actually do show up.
In an age where young women often have cell phones with internet access before they have access to healthcare and social services, why are so many so quick to demean the work of digital feminism in the hands of Black women? When depression, anxiety and disability make it so that getting out of bed, much less into the streets, is a debilitating challenge and risk, why do we demean social media and tell people they cant fully engage without taking up physical space? Whose interests are we centering if we constantly hyperfocus on the limits of grassroots social media, instead of the impact and possibilities, while not making the physical spaces safe or accessible for these women? When we ask these questions, we uncover that the only people who meet these qualifications of real activism are cis gender, able bodied people—frequently male.
We replicate systems of power because we place high valuation on spaces they can access and devalue the spaces that marginalized identities have access to, while refusing to make the physical spaces of our movements safe by addressing interpersonal abuse or accessibility. People who have access to those spaces and understand how to navigate those systems then capitalize off the labor of marginalized women, show up to the movement and halls of academia, and present themselves as thought leaders and change makers. Once we expand our understanding of violence to include plagiarism, harassment, gaslighting, emotional abuse, ableism and exploitation of labor, we find huge fissures in a movement that the women we are prescribing solutions for fall through on a daily basis. We find a replicated system of violence that prioritizes those closer to systemic and hierarchal values of bodies rather than anti-violence. We then use this hierarchy to convince ourselves that these people are important (sometimes they are) and that their work is more necessary than addressing the violence that follows marginalized women attempting to engage a movement.
The way we are moving now, it’s simply not sustainable. What is the sustainability of a movement that leaves women behind and unsupported once the teach-ins and video chats end? Will we be a movement that only allows marginalized women to perform a lifetime of unwaged labor, only to be abused, and have to crowdfund their heating bills in middle age? No. We must prioritize the engagement of grassroots marginalized women in a movement over charismatic leaders and organizers who do good work. We have to stop leading with “But he/she does good work” and start leading with “How do I make this space safe for you?”
The question for 2015 is :“How do we, as a movement, engage unaffiliated women with no institutional covering or backing, on the grassroots level? How do we close ranks around these women in both digital and physical spaces so that they can continue this work? There is a refusal to legitimize the words of women of color without the backing of academia, established media, and non-profit monikers. How do we then legitimize the lens with which marginalized women of color view their lives and the spaces where they are actually allowed to assert their agency? Currently the tools women of color use to engage a movement that has long viewed them as silent subjects, relegated to frying chicken and frybread for the real movers, are devalued at best—and threatened after mined for content at worst. All of this and more take place to the tune of stalking, plagiarism, and an outright refusal to look at the interpersonal violence that we face as a result. Still, no one can quell our concern about how it is that we can expect to be respected and kept safe a physical movement space if you won’t respect and keep us safe in a digital one.
Currently, much of the defining dialogue on activism excludes the very women who have made it possible via sustainable conversations on anti-violence on social media and across a variety of informal platforms. The idea of “real activism” also ignores the fact that most marginalized women support their own mini communities and are at the core of providing care and resources for those around them. It is radical activism when an unemployed elder or younger woman provides free or reduced childcare for working women in her family and her community. It is radical activism when an abuela makes hundreds of tamales to feed a community during holidays or cooks extra, just in case visitors drop by. It is radical activism when women create informal economies to support themselves and their family. Whether you are selling tamales out of your truck, letting a cousin who was sexually assaulted stay with you until she can survive, or hosting a community teach in with your computer YOU ARE A RADICAL ACTIVIST.
We discourage people from engaging in a movement that doesn’t center their interests because it doesn’t even know how to recognize those interests—or a movement that creates a hierarchy of activism that excludes our ways of being and our ways of knowing before we ever heard of terms like 501(c)(3) or non-profit. When we shift our thinking to recognize real work to include that labor that isn’t calculated as part of an IRS tax exemption, when we recognize daily survival and the work of women who will never get to use certain doors because they’re busy looking to escape through a window, we will start to see a shift in consciousness.
What would it mean to have a revolution that’s making sure we are all safe (not to be confused with avoiding inevitable discomfort when held accountable—this is not lack of safety, but reckoning) and have our needs met, both physical and emotional? What radical shift would take place if we centered us being okay and decided nothing is more important than that—not even the revolution itself?