“All this damn activism is just performative!”
This of course, is not true. However, in my irritation over this week’s shameless recycling of the activism seen on social media during previous movements, I yelled this statement at my boyfriend followed by several profanities.
This week, my social media feed, like many others, has been filled with colorful slideshows advocating for awareness of anti-Asian racism. With the recent rise of this issue and the subsequent mass shooting in Atlanta, Ga., came the inevitable rise of Instagram infographics. Posts about local Asian-owned businesses and links to GoFundMe pages began circulating, and it soon became clear that this was largely a repurposing of this summer’s calls to action.
Infographic culture arose over the summer as a form of activism that didn’t require leaving the house during a pandemic. Twitter threads with GoFundMe links to the families of victims and Black Lives Matter carrds popped up on every app and honestly, it was a good thing. Maybe it was slightly performative, but it was nice to see a focus on self-education. Black history and systemic oppression were common themes of my social media feed. However, social media over the past few weeks has contained suspiciously similar rhetoric.
The problem with recycling these themes is, of course, that not all racism is the same. Anti-Asian racism, while horrible and particularly acute at this moment, is born in xenophobia. Anti-Black racism, on the other hand, is more institutionalized and comes from an insidious 400-year history of slavery and oppression in the United States. Without addressing the difference, it is impossible to fix either issue or to have a meaningful discourse about them. And these Instagram posts, well-intentioned as they may be, are proving to be less than useful in truly breaking down these distinctions.
I appreciate Instagram activism — education is a valuable tool for self-growth, and these slideshows distill difficult information in an easily digestible format, making it easy to be passed along. However, infographic culture attempts reached beyond its limits.
Most social issues are difficult to understand for a reason: They are complex, nuanced and cannot be understood in 10 slides or fewer. Anti-Asian racism is one such issue.
For years, Asian people have been held up next to Black and Hispanic people as the “model minority” in America. This stereotype provides more than just a wedge to drive minorities seeking racial justice apart — it’s also an opportunity for people to claim that Asian people are privileged, and therefore, that anti-Asian racism doesn’t exist in the United States. After all, if so many Asian-American people attend top universities and have successful careers where they are paid as much or even more than their white counterparts, how bad can racism really be?
This simple-minded rhetoric fails to acknowledge the struggles of many Asian people in America, particularly immigrant workers such as those that were murdered in Atlanta last week. Anti-Asian sentiments that were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ones held by the Atlanta shooter stem from xenophobia and a fear of outsiders. Fears that Asian immigrants are going to steal American jobs are as old as Asian-American history itself. In addition, media tropes that hyper-sexualize Asian women, paint Asian men as feminine or weak and force Asian-American actors to put on heavy, fake accents further influence American perception of Asian people, particularly Asian immigrants.
This is not to imply that anti-Asian racism is somehow easier to solve or less ingrained in American culture than anti-Black racism, but they are different. While both require a severe examination of our own implicit biases and of society’s rhetoric, it is important to remember that an Instagram infographic cannot do that for us. They can be useful tools for provoking the internal dialogue necessary to conduct such an evaluation, but these graphics alone do not lead to enough of the conversations required around the proverbial dinner tables. In fact, many lead people the opposite way, allowing us to memorize statistics and harden pre-existing beliefs without critically thinking about the issues or our role in them.
It is easy to show a performative amount of allyship when it takes three clicks to repost an infographic onto your Instagram story. This kind of “infographic activism” places the problem and its blame squarely onto one’s followers, as opposed to being a tool for critical analysis of one’s own prejudices.
I can’t pretend I have never engaged in this easy, mindless form of activism. It’s simple, comfortable and socially acceptable. It is much more difficult to actively seek out alternative resources, examine your own biases and understand the complexities of the situation. Regardless, just like anti-Black racism, anti-Asian sentiment cannot be easily fixed through protests, donations or shopping at Asian-owned businesses — though these are all good ways to show solidarity with the Asian community. Anti-Asian racism is often subtle and can slip through the cracks in society’s perception of what is considered “racist.”
Social media’s simple breakdown of complex social issues in ten slides or less glosses over the ways in which people can help in the real world. Allyship is difficult work. It takes constant revision, apologies and compassion. Nuance is a key component in being a good ally, and honestly, Instagram infographics just aren’t cutting it anymore.
Mrinalini Iyer can be reached at email@example.com.