Columns / Discourse / May 9, 2018

The F-Word: $ocial justice symbolism within capitalism

We live as the people we want to be perceived as. We wear clothes that present our gender identity. We style our hair according to social norms. We speak a certain way in academic circles. We exist in ways that speak to our values and symbolize what is important to us.

In social justice circles, symbolism and clothing have important and sometimes historic implications. Images of women wearing pants, raised fists and leather jackets worn by the Black Panther Party are all examples of how presentation and symbolism can be used in social justice. But there is a unique intersection between the fight for equity and the capitalist system in which this fight exists.

It is not particularly unusual for middle schoolers to be wearing shirts that read “feminist” in bold letters or for activists to wear shirts repping Black Lives Matter. But there is something quite unsettling about hundreds of thousands of people wearing pink pussy hats or safety pins and assuming their duty to have been completed.

Do not get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to represent your beliefs through clothing or accessories. In fact, it is refreshing to know that someone would take such pride in their identity as a feminist. But the problem is that many who acquire these symbolic artifacts, understand activism to be limited to them.

Before progressing to the rest of the column, I want to clarify that I personally find pussy hats to be problematic because they allow trans-exclusionary feminism. On top of that, the profit that comes from selling these hats is usually one that fills the pockets of individuals who have no interest in collective progression.

However, I have also met gender non-binary individuals who find empowerment in pussy hats. So the discourse of this column is not necessarily on the ethics of the symbolism on its own but in the way it exists within capitalism.

Allow me to explain. If you own a Black Lives Matter shirt, there is value in investigating who that shirt benefits. Perhaps the shirt serves as an advertisement for the movement on a surface level. But unless you bought that shirt from a Black-owned business or an operation that donates all profits to pro-Black causes, you have participated in what can be called performative activism. This does not necessarily mean that you are a bad activist or that you are malicious; it just means that there was a second, deeper layer to pro-Black activism that you ignored because capitalism made it easy for you to do so. Similarly, wearing a pink “feminist” shirt from Forever 21 might initially seem like a good way to showcase your values, but the way Forever 21 (as a corporation) uses sweatshops, appropriates Black and PoC culture and actively participated in gentrification means that the money you spent to look the part contributed to causes that are fundamentally against what feminism is about.

It is not just pussy hats either. I remember when after the presidential elections there was a “movement” of wearing safety pins to indicate that people could talk to you. Many who wore the safety pins considered their job to be done. They sat around and claimed that they were doing all they could. Again, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a part of a support system for the marginalized. What is bothersome is that these same people would not march with us and would not protest with us because their activism stopped with the safety pins. Living in LA, I have seen so many gourmet cupcake businesses put up Black Lives Matter posters and signs in their shops while actively gentrifying the neighborhoods of Black PoC. These are the same shops and the same business owners that call the cops on young Black men for looking Black. Because their activism does not go beyond putting up posters.

Performative activism/feminism is one that acts shallow and does not help anyone except the ego of its participants. People who engage in performative work are often uneducated on intersectionality and the magnitude of systems of oppression.

I used to be poorly educated and think that my t-shirts or buttons would do the actual hard work of activism for me. So let it come from me that it is not easy. It is not easy to track the owner or creator of every t-shirt or social justice artifact I buy but it is worth it. In the beginning, it was extremely difficult for me to think intersectionally, but now it comes to me like second nature. And I am rightfully proud of that. I know that my hard work is paying off not only in my life but in the lives of all those for whom my activism truly, genuinely and practically advocates.

Pussy hats and safety pins do not bring change on their own. And you do not need either of them to be on the front lines of the fight for justice. There is no feminist checklist of five t-shirts and nine buttons. So if you do choose to acquire those t-shirt and buttons, the least you can do is to contextualize the consequences of your actions. No number of BLM t-shirts will bring justice for Black lives without the physical struggle. Similarly, no number of pussy hats will overthrow any president without the eradication of the supremacy that allows violence in the first place. Performative activism that enables capitalistic reinforcement of systems of oppression will not help anyone except those who do not need any help in the first place: the white, the rich and the men.


Eden Sarkisian, Discourse Editor
Eden Sarkisian ‘19 was Discourse Editor for The Knox Student from May 2017 to June 2019.

Tags:  capitalism F-Word performative activism social justice

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1 Comment

May 10, 2018

Thank you for the thoughtful article, first of all.

A couple of gentle critiques, if you’re open to them, though. I see a lot of assumptions in this article (about how many people engage in armchair activism). I see the other side of this (I make some of the shirts you’re talking about, and I run a small women-owned Etsy shop that yes, does not donate 100 percent of profits to feminist causes, but only because I have a mortgage to pay in a capitalistic society, and because I would have to take a traditional office job instead of creating these shirts if I didn’t profit from them to some degree). I donate what I can. And I also see and hear the women and men who wear the shirts I make. For them (because I know them, and see them, and hear their stories), I watch them march, rally donations for organizations and causes that make change, run for office in their area on platforms that support POC and trans individuals, and generally don’t sit on their laurels and think their job is done for wearing a feminist shirt. They walk the walk and talk the talk. Your article isn’t wrong–there are people who do exactly what you say. But I don’t think they’re the majority. I think the majority of people who want to wear these shirts are wearing them as a sort of inspiration and armor to do the work they need to do. Maybe that’s idealistic. But I do see them all the time. I wrote more about it here if you care to read:

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