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The Power And Pitfalls Of Online Activism

Chosang Tenzin is a junior at Oakland Technical High School.

Social media has revolutionized how activists get messages out in the world. Chosang Tenzin, a junior at Oakland Technical High School, wanted to understand the differences between being woke behind a screen — and on the street.

You could say seeming “woke” sells. Market research shows that young people support companies with a purpose. The razer company Gillette released an ad last year calling out toxic masculinity. And a lot of people found the message empowering. But others wondered what razers had to do with the Me Too movement. 

Then there was that infamous Pepsi commercial. Kendall Jenner hands a cop a Pepsi during a protest. The cop cracks open the drink, and the crowd cheers. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter responded with a tweet saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi."

Pressure To Stay Woke 

Some people I know are blatantly fake woke. I’ve heard people make homophobic slurs, and then post photos of themselves at the Pride parade on Instagram. This made me frustrated, and angry. 

A lot of students at Oakland Tech feel pressure to seem politically aware. After the Parkland shooting, I joined thousands of students for the national walkout against gun violence. 

I supported the march. But I also felt pressured to speak out about gun control, because it seemed like the right thing to do and because my classmates were doing it. 

But I also felt like I didn’t know about gun laws, or policies that could end gun violence. I do care a lot about other issues...like equal pay and immigration rights. But if I want to educate others, I need to educate myself. Speaking out about issues I don’t know a lot about can be dangerous. 

Woke As A Noun And An Adjective 

Sabah Harris also went to Oakland Tech. “Just starting the conversation isn’t enough and that’s the problem,” she says. 

Credit Chosang Tenzin / KALW
Sabah Harris is with the Attitudinal Healing Connection Center in West Oakland.

Harris is my older sister’s best friend. Her mom is an activist, and the founder of the Attitudinal Healing Connection Center in West Oakland. The space helps young people find creative outlets through art.She’s involved in her community, but she says that doesn’t give her the right to claim wokeness. 

“I just feel like being woke is a process. I think people use it as an adjective to describe [ how they’ve] reached enlightenment, like they understand systemic racism,” Harris says.

But she has also seen how social media can be a powerful tool for black organizers. After the man who shot and killed seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was acquitted in 2013, the hashtag Black Lives Matter exploded on social media. It became a rallying cry around the country, and it’s still used at least 17,000 times a day. 

“I think it really had this conversation started, like, ‘Do Black lives matter?’” Harris says, adding that now it feels like Black culture is trending. “So I think that people attempt to be woke and end up being fake woke because they're just trying to appeal to the masses and be liked.” 

Blue Marble, Black Lives Matter, And The Power Of Images 

Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, has studied how digital media affects how we see the world. He says to understand this current age of digital activism, you have to go back to 1972. 

That was the year the first photo showing the entire earth was shot from space. It’s called Blue Marble. 

Credit NASA/Apollo 17
"The Blue Marble" is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres

This photo galvanized activists around the world. 

“That photograph just opened a new way of understanding who we were and where we lived,” Mirzoeff says. “Environmentalism was beginning and it seems to encapsulate all of those possibilities for people.

Back then it opened a new sense of possibility.” 
But that was nearly 50 years ago. There are at least 700 million Snapchat photos sent everyday. And over three hundred hours of YouTube videos are uploaded every minute. Mirzoeff says we’re so saturated by images that photos rarely leave a lasting impact... like that snapshot of earth once did.

Oversaturated Attention Apans 

“What we see very commonly now is when a photograph appears it creates a storm for a day or two,” he says. “Then a week later if you ask somebody about it they probably have trouble remembering what you were talking about.” 

Films and photographs do not necessarily bring accountability or justice. Eric Garner’s death was captured by cell phone footage in 2014. The footage shows him saying, “I can’t breathe” repeatedly while a cop holds him in a chokehold. Yet the Justice Department ordered federal charges against that police officer to be dropped last year. 

We can sort of say that we are in a peculiar moment where seeing is no longer believing,” he says, adding that the younger generations of activists still give him hope. 

There are more young people than ever before on this planet. And he sees many of these young people protesting on the streets. 

Color HerStory 

Personally, I’ve encountered fake woke people everywhere. But there are at least a few informed people I know who are working to change the world.

Simone Hufana is 19-years-old, and the creator of a coloring book called Color HerStory.  Each page depicts an influential womxn of color. She uses her platform @colorherstory on instagram to inform her audience about social issues today. 

I'm definitely reaching a healthy, big amount of people. It's a great way to get messages out,” Hufana says. “I can reach these all these different communities instantly.”

Activism Online And Off 

For Hufana, educating people online and taking action in real life go hand in hand. 

“Not only taking up space with your voice on social media but taking up space with your body and with your being,” she says. “These physical spaces need our bodies there. They need activists there for people to speak out and disrupt.”

I’ve come to realize that being woke is about constantly learning. It’s not about thinking that you know enough. The people I’ve talked to all stressed the importance of taking time to create change instead of temporarily empathizing online. 

So, remember everyone, liking, retweeting, and sharing can only go so far.