Image above provided by Pixabay.
Recently, I have chosen to take time away from social media (barring this blog). This is something I had considered doing for a while, especially knowing Facebook had been complicit in shutting out Black voices calling out racism. Ironically, I held back from doing this for reasons involving social justice. A lot of my hesitations centered on the concern of whether it would be me exercising my privilege to become less involved in social activity, or taking action when I needed. Much of my time spent had been sharing what was going on, hoping to increase awareness for people (and myself, too, really). At some point, I even challenged myself to not omit anyone from seeing anything I shared, knowing excessive adversity to confrontation was a form of complicity to the system, too. All of my hesitation hinged upon the idea that the world would see me as retreating into my semi-white privilege from passing and ethnic ambiguity. I would be viewed as not doing enough for making the world a better place.
Then I actually participated in a protest. There, I spoke with different activists, listened to people from Black Lives Matter, and saw the potential for greater things. Beyond the Take Back the Night rallies I attended in my previous universities, and one of the pride parades of 2018, this was really my first time being on the ground of activism, and not just from an information gathering-and-disseminating standpoint. This had illuminated areas of consideration for me and how I would engage social justice in the future. After I started reading Robin DiAngelo’s book on White Fragility in tandem with discussions on how heavily involved I needed to be on social media to make a difference, I came to a conclusion.
First, I had been doing the work even without social media. I had been critically looking at my privilege and incognizant complicity in White Supremacy. There were nonprofit organizations I had been regularly donating toward, groups that worked to help ensure freedom and justice for all when I cannot be there. Last Spring, I reached out to Asian-Americans to put together the university’s first celebration of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. I was and am a librarian at a university, and libraries more than ever are merely not given the “right” to stand for the marginalized, but have a duty. It is our duty as much as my choice to put in my part to make this happen. My supervisor wants me to really do some research on how to increase the representation of historically invisible voices in our collection. Though I did not initially plan on publishing nonfiction, I may as well be on the way with this project. One of my friends I had confided in with my dilemma is also working on his own research, and expressed interest in us co-authoring an article in the future.
Yet my inner voice suggests when I see all this, I need to do more. I am not listing all of these things I do to make me exceptional or spectacular. By the same token, I recognize some hard, hurtful truths based on my latest reflections and listing what I have been doing. I cannot help but see my role on social media the past few months has been little more than maybe risking the pitfall of virtue signaling.
This is where I feel I am criticizing trends in progressives, and I cannot think of any other way, to be honest, and polite about this. My words are in either case said in love as someone who values progressive causes. Virtue signaling is something that is particularly disappointing for me when coming from less aware white liberal progressives. The air of being unable to do any wrong, of not having done anything problematic in the past is more off-putting than appealing to me. It is pretentious and what put me off when I was living in Boulder, especially since seeing the recent news reports of police engaging in racial profiling there. Whenever people act like they themselves are the flawless experts, and are not simply stating what POC are saying and shining the light on them, it is patronizing. Yet because of my myopia to my own privilege, I risk the same when facing people with less privilege. If people are not white or cishet passing, I am privileged. It was no wonder I frustrated someone months ago. I truly validate their concern about my unchecked privilege and reflect from there on.
I am putting myself in this same boat as many White people in some instances. This virtue signaling, or the actions bordering thereof, feeds into my semi-white fragility because it adds a sense of being exceptional, an illusion of moral superiority. DiAngelo eloquently discusses in White Fragility this danger of viewing one’s self as an exception, even if not consciously so. It keeps me from having the stamina for when I need to be called out. If I am needing to hold White people on building the stamina for keeping up with conversations on race and other social justice topics, I need to also lead an example. There is an opportunity for me in making more positive change as someone approximated in-between Whiteness and POCness, in this regard. This is without pursuing the idea of the Model Minority that is poisonous for non-White communities.
And, the constant need to have validation for what I do is something else that feeds into the fragility of the privileged. Everyone needs to be validated, yes, but the work of social justice should not be the main source for validation. This dynamic is dangerous and leaves one reliant on praises and affirmation. The work will not be sustained at best, corrupted by White Supremacy’s cancerous tendrils at worse.
Now, I will honestly say that was not what went through my mind when I bought into the whole game of having “likes” and reactions to posts and having people share my posts. My insecurities are part to blame for that. Spreading the word was important to me as someone invested in the field of information.
Despite this, it does not mean I am free from falling into the trap of seeking validation on social media. I kept thinking if I unplugged, I would be seen as abandoning important causes. When I expressed this concern, a friend of mine sat me down and gave me the talk that boiled down to: “Does it matter who knows what you do? What are you trying to prove?” Directed to me. Like that.
He said he may have sounded harsh. I told him he did not, and I understood he was speaking as a big brother figure giving tough love. I let his words sink in, and I found he was right. Social media has become toxic because of the way it is set up. The way it makes people actively look for the next trend, news piece shared, or that like and commentary that screams out, “Good job.” This mentality makes one prone to ally theater as discussed by Mia McKenzie (see below). No one needs to see what I am doing for it to have an impact. If anyone wants to accuse me of not doing enough, that is their prerogative. If I need to do more, I eventually will if my heart is in the right place.
Coupled with this realization that I could fall into toxic patterns of virtue signaling and validation seeking is the absorbing of the frustration regarding our political climate and the depression felt from the news feed itself. And then seeing how much time has been put into recovering and having a mental space to write or even exist right after. My insecurities are not being improved at all in any of it, either. All of this and more, is why I decided it was time to unplug social media for an indefinite period. Realizing I was also starting to lose space to hold compassion and sustain conversations about social issues without feeling overwhelmed was a sure sign I had not sufficiently taken care of myself, to top.
At the end of the day, subscribing to some nonprofit organizations’ mailing lists and becoming a regular donor, plus the work I do at my day job, letting myself be open to correction on problematic thinking, and standing up for my friends, is enough for now. I am still doing the work and examining how to decolonize my mind and disrupt patterns imposed by White Supremacy. My writing had been heavily neglected because of my compulsion to keep informed, too, and if I want to write for a better world, I need to give my imperfect writing some love. I have friends who will direct me to something important locally or globally, and I am keeping an eye for opportunities for on-the-ground work in my e-mail. Some of my friends are also connected to activist organizations. This will do until I evaluate later and find I need to devote time to other endeavors.
Reflective reflexivity is a work in progress. Balancing self-care, serious introspection, and the work is also a place I will always need to continuously examine. Now I know a tool that can be helpful for cutting down costs of marketing, spreading news, and participating in virtual forms of activism can end up disrupting the work needing done the most. There is a possibility of me easing into social media again in the future. If I do, it will be when I start building a platform, one where I hope my efforts in intentionality on making a better world succeeds. As much as I would love to make some money off my writing, that desire should never precede the positive impact I hope to make.
Postscript: I have since returned to social media, but using my Instagram and sparingly logging on Twitter to re-Tweet content shared by celebrities I follow. It has been oddly a better experience for me because I do not feel the need to go down the rabbit hole of seeing everything out there. I do not feel as much need to spend endless hours reading the feed. Because of Instagram’s setup, I make future contributions on social media count.
Also, for anyone who is wondering about the topic of virtue signaling, it is synonymous with ally theater in social media the way I envision the issues. Mia McKenzie has a good article on it here. I learned a lot reading this post by her regarding the problematic trends surrounding “call-out culture.”