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If there's one thing we need more of in this society, it's more activists and intersectional feminists who are willing to go above and beyond for the cause. Luckily, it seems that our numbers are growing. That being said, things aren't perfect. Being an activist is great, but there's a line between promoting good social justice and making any given situation all about the activist rather than the cause. Sometimes, we — I'm mostly speaking about white activists — can make things much, much worse.
I'm speaking from experience. Not only am I white, I'm also no stranger to problematic feminism. I've been there. I've been the "sensible feminist" who has uttered the words #NotAllMen, and has spoken for issues that have nothing to do with me. I've learned from my mistakes, don't get me wrong, but I'm not going to pretend I haven't messed up in the past. As a neurodivergent woman, I too know the cringe of people trying to force their way into my space; it's part of the reason why I learned to stop doing it myself.
You need to find the type of activism that's right for you; maybe you love going to rallies, and have a book on the way about the struggle of women. Maybe you're set with sharing petitions and reblogging SJ posts. I'm not saying one way is better than the other. I am saying that, when we start to pretend to be something we're not, it can become a problem.
I'm talking, of course, about appropriative, faux social activism. Faux activists use marginalized people as a costume to pick up and drop whenever they feel like coming back into a world of privilege. It could be a white person squeezing themselves into areas unsafe for people of color to test the waters of the abuse they receive. It could be a heterosexual person pretending to be a member of the LGBT+ community in order to see what it feels like to be abused.
Recent examples of this kind problematic appropriation disguised as social activism are related to hijabs and face paint. There is an entire movement dedicated to "hijab solidarity," otherwise known as "wear a hijab day." This contradictory 'movement' is nothing more than cultural appropriation laced with a dash of white savior complex.
As Nashwa Khan stated for RG Reality Check on this issue, "Non-marginalized people who wish to work in solidarity should acknowledge the fact that their own advantages in life come at someone else's expense, and work to highlight voices on the sidelines."
Another prime example is a photo-journalism piece (which has now been deleted) featuring several African women in beautiful tribal garb. The problem was that these were not, in fact, African women. The journalist had digitally edited her own face to look like tribal women.
The pictures were displayed in a way that suggested the reader wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a white woman —caked in brown make-up, and dripping in jewelry and garments that did not belong to her own culture — and real women of color. Worst still, after deleting the post, the writer in question followed up her faux activism with the following faux apology:
"My intention was 100% pure with this tribal art, being a human right lawyer and journalist who knows pretty much about racism and similar issues, I have never imagined that my work will annoy so many people and that I will have to explain myself. And sure, I will not do that. Keep calm and love every human."
The article and accompanying photography may have intended to promote acceptance of all cultures and to suggest that deep down we're all the same but, luckily, this travesty was called out for what it was — cultural appropriation.
It's true that none of us are perfect feminists or activists. I wasn't, and I'm still riddled with problematic things I need to unlearn. But there's a learning curve and a line that we really should not cross (surely it's common sense that Blackface is always a no no?). It's my hope that the activists who have overstepped the mark will learn from their mistakes, and realize this type of behavior is not real activism.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that we cannot fight racism with racism. We cannot appropriate the hijab to make a statement against Islamaphobia. We can't paint our faces to "see what it feels like" to be a person of color. We need to learn from examples marginalized people have already set, listen to their words, and read their discourse.
There's a limit to what activists can and should do, and one of these limits is forcing ourselves into spaces where we just don't belong. We cannot oppress the already oppressed for the sake of our own learning, because when we appropriate their identities we're doing more harm than good.