When I was small, having played the illustrious if questionably-costumed Planet Earth in a school play (let’s just say I’d made continents out of egg cartons), I was heavily concerned with Saving the World. This is a notion that I carried with me, even if subconsciously, through early adulthood. I’d been born into a dictatorship that ended, at least on paper, when I was thirteen. Change was possible. Hope is a powerful emotion, one that we can almost feel unworthy of, so grand its scope, a literal promise of salvation. A powerful warmth to harness.
Now, however, in my thirties, having worked in the “development” industry, journalism, and academia, having read and experienced and learned, continuing to learn, I find it urgent to ask people to interrogate the idea of “saving the world”—to interrogate who is saying this phrase and why, what they or we stand for, and how they or we are going about it. By the same token, interrogate the word “activist”. Hold this word up to a standard of ethics that all of us are continuously learning about and honing.
The increasing popularisation of the word “activism” seems inextricable from the rise of social media. With social media, of course, many important initiatives and ideas have been spread through hashtags: from the ongoing #ReformasiDikorupsi in my homeland Indonesia (with seven demands by protestors against the government, against corruption, misogyny, and socioenvironmental destruction) to #MeToo, founded in 2006 by American Tarana Burke. Burke’s case is a lesson in how power imbalances shape the trajectory of one’s impact; articles were published claiming #MeToo was begun by white actresses such as Alyssa Milano, marking systematic erasure of a Black woman’s work. Burke herself has asserted that #MeToo is not only applicable to communities with the privileges of wealth, fame, cisheteronormativity and whiteness, but more broadly and especially for lower economic classes, for people of colour, for LGBTQI+ folk. How #MeToo has too often been refracted through the lens of privilege is an object lesson in what not to do: not to coopt, not to erase, not to displace. Not to misrepresent, not to act in an extractive manner.
How can we make things truly better without reproducing harmful power dynamics? If we aren’t willing to ask this of ourselves, we need to pause before acting. Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad is an extreme example of how warped and commodified the idea of “protest” can be in the modern era, and we need to swim as far away as possible from similar examples.
This is a lesson being taught every day in the dynamics of activism. If you believe activism is only what is being done in public, and on the Internet, and with a name attached, you are negating millions upon millions who have been and continue to be activists without public recognition, for centuries, and including those movements who must move incognito at great personal risk. Including people who recognise how social media platforms are methods of data extraction, and must support their movements under the radar in order to survive. Movements worldwide consisting of Indigenous, Black and brown peoples who’ve been fighting for land rights and environmental justice for hundreds of years, and continue to today. Movement appropriation, cultural appropriation, and lack of “exposure” be damned. Throughout my life, I have been thankful for close proximity to people who embody this kind of activism, who embody it so completely that I often feel embarrassed about calling myself “activist” in light of how little I do in comparison, how public-facing the work I do is.
And yet, we must also remember to honour what each of our bodyminds have done in the face of difficulty to make this a kinder planet, to live another day. To remember to replenish our personal sources of strength, and to recognise that surviving in a world geared towards racist, capitalist, cisheteronormative ableist misogyny is in itself a beautiful movement.
Audre Lorde famously said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Like many sentiments created by communities of colour, the concept of “self-care” has become marketable by corporations, abstracted from communal origins and from the framework of it as political warfare for marginalised bodies in particular. We need to remember its roots.
We need to be mindful of what activism is not.
Activism is not the Republican donor who went to my uni, collected a smattering of us women international students on scholarships, and asked, “How can I help the women in your country?” Flabbergasted, I wanted to show her how the policies she supported were strip mining our countries, imposing socioenvironmental policies that made us more vulnerable. I wanted to show her how deeply imperial and arrogant her notion of “saving the world” was. How much it was a part of colonialism’s long reach.
Activism is not the INGO (international non-governmental organisation) employees who derive free labour from my communities in Indonesia by using us for their media as abject forms demanding pity, by actively harming us (see: Oxfam and WWF’s involvement in sexual brutality), by consulting us without paying us, by leaving us feeling used. By allowing for imperialism in environmental policies that endanger our communities.
Activism is certainly not the INGOs who, in my time monitoring aid and development in the Indonesian province of Aceh—devastated by both the Indian Ocean tsunami and years of war and oppression—parachute into a disaster space and leave with schools still unbuilt, with inadequate boats lying around unuseable by local fishermen. It is not the behaviour of competing INGOs staking out survivors as “stakeholders”, “constituents”, and “target populations”.
Activism is not the way many white academics behave in an extremely extractive manner, studying populations for careers in spaces that marginalise and actively exclude people from these populations.
Activism is not young teenagers and college students from Western countries, eager, using gap years to volunteer in countries they’ve never been to. About which they know hardly anything. With organisations that know full well how much more Western counterparts will get than the people they want to serve. The photo ops for social media. The lines on resumes. The perpetuation of imperial dreams of bettering, of “white man’s burden” in liberal form. Naiveté combined with moral superiority. The so-called “poorism” that voluntourism often becomes, voyeuristic, creating a feeling of adventure and danger in privileged people. As a middle-class Indonesian who’s long volunteered, I too remember this feeling of adventure in my youth, which I now want to replace with humbling myself, with learning where I am welcome and where I am not, with respect for others as equals and not merely beneficiaries. Just as I hope there will be an end to people regarding “third world countries” as only places to escape from, rather than places endangered by the countries that are supposed escapes. An end to urban dwellers looking down on “left-behind” regions, with an understanding that “developing” regions are not backwards but stolen from.
Activism comes from the inside out, from wanting to better ourselves. However, activism is not the women I meet in Indonesia, and India, and elsewhere, who perceive Bali and Goa only as places from which to extract spiritual and financial capital, who endanger the spiritual ecosystems they purport to honour with resorts sporting yoga classes where no local woman is in sight.
Activism is siding with the most vulnerable among us, without deeming us tokens or disrespecting us with pity. Identifying publically as disabled for the past eight years, I understand how we as disabled people are consistently written about, despite the slogan disability activists coined: “Nothing about us without us.”
The numerous incidents of racism I’ve witnessed and experienced in disability activism spaces show that activism should not be prejudice-tinged. We are all disadvantaged in ways and advantaged in others; we need to be vigilant in attuning ourselves to our privileges, our notions of knowing when there is so much to learn. This time of crisis, an Anthropocene that began with colonial expansion and continues apace into the present, should call us all to action. Action that, I stress, is mindful.
I no longer subscribe to the hubris of wanting to “save the world”, as I did as a child. What I desire more than ever is for all of us to help change the world, together—ethically, treating ourselves, each other and our messages with the kindness we deserve. To ward off what we should not participate in nor become. And then, as activists, together, to be as free as we possibly can.
Words by Khairani Barokka
This essay will be shared as screening notes at our screening of For Sama (2019) at Peckhamplex, Thursday 14th November at 8.30pm. Tickets available here: https://www.peckhamplex.london/film/for-sama-feminist-cinema-event
Images (in order of appearance): For Sama (2019), Live for Now (2017) aka Kendall Jenner's Pepsi advert, Sisters! (2011) and Vessel (2014).