Activism isn’t for everyone


Illustration by Sofia Uriagereka Herburger

You can count on seeing it after every nationally publicized protest, either on Buzzfeed or Teen Vogue, any news site built around captivating the attention of teens. It could be a collection of quirky signs, or an overpriced, unethically sourced t-shirt bearing a carefully chosen slogan. “Proud Feminist. This is what a feminist looks like.” One particularly memorable Forever 21 shirt I saw a few weeks ago—worn proudly by a white woman—read “feminista” in the gothic, curling script known as “cholo font,” commonly associated with Mexican Americans in California. This is the climate we live in now: we commodify our activism and pat ourselves on the back for our imagined progressivity so much so that we come full circle, and go right back to being racist.  

We the people—in this case, the marginalized, the ignored, the voiceless—have sold our anger, however strongly rooted, to the corporations that helped to make, and keep us this way. Every Pride, Svedka Vodka, Capital One, and a plethora of other companies that were entirely apathetic to the LGBT community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, will unveil a new rainbow header on Twitter, or release a new billboard, a new YouTube ad, something neon-colored or sexualized, the content irrelevant really; as long as it says “love is love.” When our community’s elders were marching for the right to have the cause of their death acknowledged—not even cured, not for their lives to be saved, but acknowledged—these corporations turned their backs. It is not that Svedka suddenly cares about the LGBT community, or that Forever 21 or Urban Outfitters support women’s liberation—if they did they wouldn’t be employing hundreds of thousands of women in abhorrent working conditions with dismal pay—it’s that progressiveness has been co-opted into a profitable cause rather than a moral one.

At first the publicizing of these movements was like a beacon of hope, a lifeline for the marginalized, who were drowning in systemic oppression, institutionalized poverty, and international ignorance. It seemed the most logical next step that with the support of celebrities and corporations and politicians, the fight for equality and equity would gain legitimacy. It’s been a spectacular manipulation to observe, the way these companies dip their toes in the pool that they’d previously turned away from, in order to test the waters, to see just how much money could be made by pretending to care. It’s all very skillful, the Tweets, the public “support”, the timidly revolutionary statements they rush to make, most of them stolen from real activists.

This is not progress. And that is always a brutal thing to realize. But there are certain truths that our generation must not ignore, if only by taking into account what the previous generations endured. Cops do not belong at pride day, not when their presence has always been a harmful one in the community, particularly towards LGBT people of color. It is an insult to those who survived their brutality, and those who died because of it. Corporations do not deserve praise for their advertisements, or what they Tweet. Remember Pepsi’s massive misstep when they tried to make Kendall Jenner into an activist? The same lack of attention to ethics exists across the board. Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial was not a ‘win’ for the racial groups they pedantically tried to feature in their ad “A Coke Is a Coke.” Coke remains untried and unapologetic for the murder of trade unionists in Colombia, most famously Luciano Romero in 2005. It’s quite hard to posture about caring about showcasing the Latino community in your ads when you’re killing them for advocating for a more ethical workplace.

The most frequent counterargument I’m met with when this point is raised is that, while these companies might be damaging the communities they land in, at least they’re providing jobs, providing an economy. It’s just a soda. We must outgrow this notion that the arrival of weaponized capitalism in different parts of the world counts as development. The notion is nothing more than settler’s logic. Places existed before the U.S. reached out to dismantle them. That existence gets muted, erased even when these corporations grow roots. The mortality rate in Chiapas, Mexico has soared 30 percent since Coca-Cola bought up their water. They don’t just colonize the other businesses, leaving the community no other choice but to work for them, they colonize the water, so they have no choice but to drink what has stolen their future from them. Luciano Romero died because after trying to strengthen the workers union, Nestle (which owns and operates with Coca-Cola) spread the rumor that he and his colleagues were guerrilla members, which led to their subsequent kidnapping, torture, and murder at the hands of the paramilitary group that works in alignment with these companies in Colombia. But hey, it’s just a soda company, right?

Take the textile industry, the one making your t-shirts. Factories collapse on top of the women that they pay dirt to stitch your The Future is Female tank top. What about their future? What life is there left for them, now that this industry has monopolized their chance to make a living?

Women’s liberation is hindered by capitalism, not strengthened by it. We will never benefit from watering down our cause so it can be sold. Slowly, supporting the “ethical” rebranding of companies and systems that have harmed our communities will start to wear away at our resilience, at our souls. It is imperative that we start to see this for what it is—not a conscious search for redemption on the part of these oppressive mechanisms, but a deliberate, long-term manipulation in order to profit from suffering.

We must learn to accept only real change, and question why anyone would support anything else, why anyone would only want partial progress. Peter Struve initially called revolution a life-giving hurricane, and it’s high time we admit that a life-giving hurricane is all that will allow us true liberation, in whichever way it comes.