Apparently, ‘Activist Appropriation’ Is a Thing Now

Marchers at the “A Day Without a Woman” event in Los Angeles, March 8, 2017. (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
This is nuts — the entire purpose of being an activist is to convince people to take your views and make them their own.

According to an article in the University of California–Los Angeles publication The Rival, people who are kind of into activism but not totally into activism are guilty of “activist appropriation.”

“Activist appropriation, adhering to my definition, is the popularization and generalization of political ideas or protests, movements, or symbols without an actual understanding of said ideas movements or symbols,” Nora McNulty writes.

According to McNulty, “activism has become ‘trendy’ in today’s culture,” and it’s resulted in a lot of companies selling clothing related to activist culture, such as Urban Outfitters’ “burn your bra” T-shirt.

“If symbols for any movement are over-popularized and appropriated by those who don’t really understand or appreciate what they are advocating/standing for, and then those people are questioned and come up short, it delegitimizes those who are genuinely invested and informed on the topic at hand,” she writes.

“You can take off clothing at the end of the day,” McNulty adds. “You can throw it away. But the struggle of a true activist does not end with this evening’s shower.”

Now, I completely agree that activism has become “trendy,” and that it’s annoying. There are far too many people out on the streets protesting who don’t really seem to know what they’re talking about (I know, because I’ve asked them) and even some who are totally bananas (I know, because I’ve talked to them, too). She’s correct that these kind of people delegitimize people who do know what they’re talking about, however, she’s wrong to single out clothing as a problem.

The amount of time that people spend protesting and the amount of dedication they have to protest culture doesn’t really have anything to do with how much they actually know. Again, I know this firsthand, because some of the most idiotic people that I’ve interviewed for my protest videos seem to be at every single protest that I cover. Is it true that, for some people, the activism starts and ends with a T-shirt? Sure — but why is that bad? Maybe these people have jobs. Maybe they don’t have the time or privilege to spend their days marching in the streets or getting a social-justice-studies degree on their parents’ dime. McNulty claims that some people are using activist-inspired clothing simply to fulfill an “aesthetic,” but I’m not sure that there is anyone who is really actually doing this. You might see someone wearing a “burn your bra” T-shirt who doesn’t attend protests or blog for the Huffington Post, but I highly doubt someone would buy that shirt unless she did have some support for feminist ideals. If she didn’t, she would probably pick a shirt with different words.

‘The struggle of a true activist does not end with this evening’s shower.’ — Nora McNulty

At the end of her article, McNulty does acknowledge that some people would make the argument that anything that “spreads awareness about a cause, is a positive thing,” but she ultimately concludes that “it’s best to have a genuine appreciation for it before advertising or taking part in it.”

That is, of course, true — “genuine appreciation” is better — but seeing “burn your bra” T-shirts at Urban Outfitters should still be seen as an undisputed victory for her movement rather than as something to complain about. The whole purpose of activism is to see the views that you are advocating start making their way into mainstream culture. Is Urban Outfitters making money off of it? Sure, but so what. The reason they are doing it is because they know that your point of view has become popular enough for a shirt like that to sell, and that’s a good thing. McNulty tries to compare “cultural appropriation” to “activist appropriation,” but the comparison doesn’t really work. The idea behind complaints of “cultural appropriation” is that one culture is essentially taking something from another and making it its own — and that that’s somehow wrong.

The entire purpose of being an activist, on the other hand, is to convince people to take your views and make them their own — and no good activist would be offended at signs that it’s working.


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