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Privilege of Social Justice Access: The Flaws of Modern Activism

In Michael B. Jordan’s interview with Vanity Fair for their November 2018 edition, he claimed that it’s difficult for people to think beyond slavery when they look at Black people because “we don’t have any mythology, black mythology, or folklore.”

His statements seemed to come from a place of good intentions, and his point was about getting more Black people’s stories to be told in Hollywood, but the delivery of his message was lost on some people. Twitter quickly criticized the comment for being tone deaf and insensitive, since it is incorrect to imply that Black people do not have any folklore.

While this is true, and Jordan probably meant to say that we don’t have any folklore that is being recreated in Hollywood or acknowledged in mainstream media, the conversation about it on Twitter brought up some important points. One user tweeted:

“The response to Michael B. Jordan saying we don’t have Black folklore and mythology is exposing people’s academic privilege and general lack of understanding or patience for Black people who haven’t had the same exposure and access.”

Again: what Michael B. Jordan said was wrong and misleading. His point was important and correct, but the delivery of his message included an inaccurate statement that (accidentally?) implies that we have no stories to be told. However, the academic and intellectual privilege that exists within certain communities is becoming more prevalent with the rise of “cancelled” culture.

Society is a lot more socially aware and politically correct than we were just a few years ago. There’s much more work left to be done, but that’s still a good thing. Nonetheless, the platform for this new wave of social-justice-forwardness and activism is social media, and this in itself comes with problems.

Many Twitter users or Instagram “influencers”, who do much more modeling and advertising than they do social justice work, have access to information that other people do not. In 2014, Tumblr taught us about cultural appropriation, intersectional feminism and institutional racism, but some people missed out on that. The communities that we intellectualize about and write think-pieces on actually consist of real people whose lives are quite literally affected by the circumstances of systems of oppression.

My point is that in some nuanced, modern ways, activism is a privilege. People who identify as activists are usually marginalized in society and their experience with this marginalization is valid, but in the age of social media, many of us seem to forget about the fact that what we know and discuss on the Internet is not what everyone else has the opportunity to know and discuss. While you bash capitalism and write long captions on Instagram about systemic racism, the people who don’t get to be part of that conversation are too busy trying to survive to participate in your pseudo-intellectualism.

Some people’s lives are impacted so deeply by the systems that are just theories or buzz-words to you that they simply do not have the time or space to be activists. I have seen it. I have witnessed family members when asked “why don’t you protest?” respond that they have too many bills to pay or too many kids to raise or too much mental health to protect to spend time in the streets or on the Internet protesting against systems that have failed to budge all their lives.

Those of us who are willing and able to write or speak about the problems in our society need to do it in a manner that is considerate and inclusive of actual, real people. This does not mean excusing ignorance. This does not mean encouraging apathy. All it takes is recognizing your privilege, even as a person who is oppressed in some ways by the powers that be. It means checking your favorite self-proclaimed activist on Instagram when they say something that feels insensitive or uncomfortable. It means recognizing that while we are on our phones learning and having discourse, not everyone has the same resources as we do. You can check people’s wrongs and share what you’ve had the privilege to learn thus far at the same time.

Not everyone has had the same exposure or access that you have, and until you account for and consider these people, your activism is flawed.

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