This article was originally published by Everyday Feminism. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.
No matter how long you’ve been politically conscious, you’ve probably figured out by now that activists are by no means perfect. Even while we’re trying to end oppression, we can sometimes make some harmful mistakes ourselves.
So how do you address oppressive mistakes in your community?
Say you’re at a social justice event that’s promising in some ways but problematic in others.
What do you do? Take over the microphone and call out the organizers? Leave early and write a lengthy post on the Facebook event page about what they’ve done wrong? Invite the hosts out to coffee to point out their errors?
All of these strategies have pros and cons. There’s no one “right” way to address oppression in activist circles, which is why there have been many conversations among activists about approaches such as calling people out and calling them in.
But one troubling trend can get in the way of our attempts to build a more just world together.
We want to diminish the harm of oppressive behavior.
In many ways, holding each other accountable has come to mean punishing each other. Sometimes it feels like we’re all competing on a hardcore game show, trying to knock each other down to be crowned the movement’s Best Activist.
It starts from a good place—we want to diminish the harm of oppressive behavior. We’re all feeling the toll of daily oppression, and when we’re around other people who are woke enough to recognize this, we want to hold each other to a higher standard.
And we absolutely should be able to influence each other to be better. This helps our communities grow together, adds to our positive influence on the world around us, and helps each of us build the safe spaces we deserve.
But I want to focus on a specific type of holding each other accountable that shows up when we’re acting not just out of love for ourselves and our communities, but out of fear and pain.
It’s “performing activism”—when we’re more worried about how we look to other activists than our larger vision of what we’re trying to build together.
Because we’re trying to build a more just world, right? One where we treat each other with respect, and have liberation instead of cycles of oppressive violence.
But sometimes we forget about that part, and in standing against oppression, we end up replicating the same harmful cycles.
There are other ways to address harm in our movements without all the pressure or fear.
It makes sense that we’re doing this—especially when the activists around us are doing it, too. If I’m afraid that other people are going to notice that I’m not a perfect activist, one way to divert the attention is to shame someone else for doing wrong.
Take the example of that less-than-perfect event you’re attending. The organizers are making mistakes that could hurt somebody, and you have every right to be upset. You might try any number of approaches to make your disappointment known.
You could even rally up a whole group of folks, in person and online, to wage a campaign and let the whole world know that the event’s organizers are doing activism all wrong. And the promising aspects of their event would be just a distant memory.
Anyone else who’s afraid of being associated with this wrongdoing might join in the attack, and together you’d all make sure the organizers never host an event again.
This approach stands up for people who are harmed, which is great. But if it includes shaming, isolating, and punishing the people responsible for causing harm, it also just repeats the same tactics of the systems of oppression we’re trying to move away from.
There are other ways to address harm in our movements—without all the pressure, or fear, or looking out for every opportunity to tear each other down in order to protect ourselves.
Here are some signs that you may be “performing activism” when you’re trying to hold someone accountable—and how to refocus on the bigger picture instead.
1. You’re not focused on the outcome
Have you ever found yourself trying to get someone to understand that you’re upset with them—without really knowing what you want from them in return?
This experience is totally normal. You’re upset, and maybe you just need to get something off your chest. Maybe you need an apology, or a change in the other person’s behavior. Whatever it is you need, you won’t feel better until you get it.
When you’re communicating in your personal relationships, it can be helpful to take a moment to figure out what would help you feel heard, if that’s possible. Partly because you deserve to be heard, and to have the other person respect your needs if they’re able.
The same principle applies to holding other activists accountable. Simply hearing that they’ve upset you could very well be part of what you need—it’s important for them to be aware of the harm they’ve caused.
However, I don’t know about you, but when I do nothing more than sit in the vulnerability of my hurt feelings, without actually reaching hope for a change at the end of it all, I end up exhausted.
White guilt is not productive for actually making a change.
One way to heal this emotional drain is to consider what change you’re hoping for. Do you actually want this person to learn and do better, or just to feel bad about what they did?
I can’t be responsible for their feelings, and it’s not my fault if they focus on their own guilt. But I can let them know that guilt isn’t what I’m requesting from them.
I’m asking them to actually recognize the harm of their actions, and to try to do better. I know I can’t force them to do that, but at the very least, I can keep that goal in my own mind.
Then I’ll be able to recognize if they refuse to be accountable, and choose not to cooperate with them if that’s the case. But if I’m going down the hopeless road of trying to shame or coerce them into listening to me, I’ll try to pause and recognize that that’s not helping me reach my goal.
They’ll either crumple in shame or try to silence me—and I don’t need that in my life. What I need are people who are willing to recognize their mistakes and commit to doing better.
2. You’re not choosing your battles based on what’s best for the community involved
There’s a common fear that passing up opportunities to hold each other accountable would mean coddling people who are causing harm and silencing marginalized people who are harmed.
So we’re on alert to intervene at every problematic moment—every ignorant Facebook comment, every oblivious relative, every unwoke friend from middle school.
Which adds up to a lot of time spent advocating for marginalized people—a worthy cause, for sure.
But it can also mean more emotional exhaustion for you. And having you burn out on activism all day, every day, is bad strategy.
We’re not born with an awareness of how systems of oppression work.
It’s more than okay to pick your battles—it’s actually necessary for your own self-preservation.
Are you afraid of looking like a bad activist if you don’t gear up for every battle? That’s an understandable fear, and it shows why a climate of trying to outdo each other as activists isn’t helpful.
Instead, give yourself a little breathing room. One strategy I use for this is meeting people where they’re at in their process of learning about oppression.
It is a process for all of us—we’re not born with an awareness of how systems of oppression work around us in often invisible ways.
So if my young cousin who’s just taken her first women’s studies class makes a problematic comment, I know calling her in with a conversation or passing her an article might be all the energy I need to expend. Waging a public campaign against her isn’t necessary.
But if the problematic behavior is coming from a women’s empowerment organization with a big influence, a more public callout may be more effective.
And the random guy who’s commenting on a public Facebook page? Probably not worth my time. I could take him on if I’m really up for it, but if I’m just doing it for activist points and it’s going to contribute to my exhaustion at the end of the day, I can save that energy for another time.
3. You’re using the same strategy for every situation
When I’m feeling the pressure to fight every battle, I tend to check out emotionally. And then every situation feels the same.
But acts of oppression are not all the same, and each situation has a different set of strategies that would be most effective.
While addressing oppression within our communities, the intention may be similar across the board—we’re trying to put a stop to harm.
Usually when I talk about oppression, I emphasize impact over intention—because no matter how well-meaning someone is, they can still cause harm.
It’s not always about proving yourself to be the best activist.
Maybe we should consider the same emphasis when we’re trying to stop oppression. Regardless of our intentions, sometimes the only impact of calling out someone is that we get to feel like we punished them for what they did wrong.
But what about the impact beyond that? Have we actually made things better for the people who were harmed?
These are good questions to consider when you’re determining the best strategy for the situation. Just like choosing your battles, you can choose a strategy by meeting people where they’re at.
For instance, if you’re at a community event with a friend who thinks he’s being polite by treating women delicately with benevolent sexism, he might not even realize he’s being sexist. You may be able to call him in and let him know what he’s doing without publicly shaming him.
It’s different when the managers of the venue holding the event are unapologetically upholding rape culture with the way they run their space—that has a more dangerous impact. Publicly organizing a boycott to put a stop to this harm could be a good call.
It’s not always about proving yourself to be the best activist—it’s about the ultimate impact of your strategy.
4. You’re centering yourself on behalf of another group
Being a good intersectional activist includes looking out for marginalized groups that you’re not a part of.
It’s essential to stand in solidarity with other groups to take on the multiple systems of oppression working together against all of us.
And sometimes, it seems like there’s no better way to get “performing activism” points than to show off your status as an ally.
While acting as an ally can come from a good place, it can cross the line into performing activism when it’s more about your proving your allyship than about the group you’re trying to support.
At times, you might really be the best person to speak up about an issue, and you can help take some of the burden off the shoulders of the group that’s being harmed.
Are you listening to what’s best for the group you’re standing in solidarity with?
But when it comes determining what that group needs, it’s best to step back and follow their lead.
Consider what’s motivating you to act as an ally—are you trying to be a perfect ally just for the sake of perfect activism, or are you listening to what’s best for the group you’re standing in solidarity with?
For instance, if women in your activist circle are speaking up about being harassed by men in your community, and you’re a man who wants to help, that’s great. Some men might be more open to listening to you.
But also recognize that it’s a problem that these men are willing to listen to you, but not to women. If you’re talking over the women to center what you have to say, you’re replicating the same harmful patterns that silence women and prioritize men.
So you can use multiple strategies—both calling in, man-to-man, and encouraging men to listen to the women who are directly harmed by this issue.
5. You’re engaging in respectability politics to police other people’s behavior
As activists, we can fall into a terrible pattern of standing against shame and judgment … by shaming and judging each other.
We all know how it feels to be judged. That’s why we’re aiming for the kind of liberation that allows us all to be ourselves without being mistreated.
After living with the trauma of being mistreated ourselves, it can be hard to recognize that we’ve turned to judging each other.
When that judgment comes in the name of fighting oppression, it feels like self-protection. I want to feel safe from judgment, so I might police other people’s tone or hold them to standards of respectability politics before I accept them as “real” activists.
For instance, this happens a lot with social justice jargon. On one hand, knowing all the latest activist terms means you can name what’s happening when people are being oppressive, and you can keep up with the best ways to avoid using harmful language.
So it’s a good goal to try to keep up with it all. But it’s also realistic to accept that not everyone is able to.
Lots of this language comes from academic institutions and books that not everyone can access. And, while it’s sometimes true that self-education is just a Google search away, not everyone can access the internet or knows where to begin searching for these terms.
It takes time for other people to learn all the right lingo.
That doesn’t mean you have to put up with people using harmful language. But remember that, just as you became more politically conscious over time, it takes time for other people to learn all the right lingo.
So if my previously homophobic aunt says she wants to join me at a Pride parade to “support the men and women of the gay community,” that’s a start. I can let her know that queer communities have people who aren’t men or women, and introduce her to more letters in the LGBTQIA+ rainbow.
But I don’t have to tell her to memorize all of the gender and sexual identity terms immediately or GTFO. First I’ll give her a chance to correct her mistake, and help her try her best.
It’s not as if she’s in charge of the parade—if the Pride organizers were the ones using exclusive language, that would be a more pressing matter.
Still, correcting anyone is about the ultimate goal of helping everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community feel welcome—not just about judging who’s an inadequate activist and patting myself on the back for having the bigger vocabulary.
Addressing harmful behavior is important, but so is understanding that everyone is on a different stage of their journey, so we all make mistakes.
And we all have different strengths—so if someone’s lacking in one area, such as knowing vocabulary words, we don’t have to treat them like they’re totally disposable to the movement. We can help them grow in that area, and hope that others would help us in the areas we need to grow, too.
6. You’re trying to force someone to be accountable
Accountability is super important for our movements. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to learn or grow or take responsibility for our part in perpetuating systems of oppression.
But, unfortunately, asking someone to be accountable doesn’t come with a guarantee that they will be. If you’re so set on holding someone accountable that you feel like it’s your responsibility to make them atone for what they’ve done, you’re forgetting that it’s actually their responsibility to step up and be accountable.
The pressure of being responsible for someone else’s actions can take a lot out of you—and you shouldn’t have to feel that burden.
Understand that you can only do so much—the rest is up to the person who’s caused harm to recognize what they’ve done wrong and be willing to make a change.
There’s a difference between inviting them to make a change and trying to force their hand.
Here’s why that makes a difference when I’m addressing harm within my activist community. Say some feminists I’m working with are making prison rape jokes, and justifying it by saying that people in prison “deserve what they get.”
I know that many people were put in prison unfairly—as a result of racial profiling that incarcerates people of color at high rates, and a classist bail system that keeps poor people behind bars. And I know that all incarcerated people, no matter what they’ve done, deserve the basic human dignity of being safe from sexual violence.
I can explain what’s wrong with prison rape jokes, and invite those making them to hold themselves accountable to doing better. If they refuse, I can even attempt to influence their behavior by telling them that I won’t work with them, and neither will other feminists who care about prison injustice, unless they make a change.
But there’s a difference between inviting them to make a change and trying to force their hand.
If I push them into an apology they don’t really mean, over an issue they don’t actually understand, they’ll probably continue to demonize incarcerated people and trust that a racist, classist criminal justice system is just locking up “bad guys.”
So I’ll tell them the truth—that prison jokes are absolutely not okay. But I’ll also try to deliver it with some compassion, understanding that they have a reason to never question a system we’ve been taught to rely on for safety throughout our entire lives.
I feel strongly about prison injustice, and I can run out of patience for people perpetuate it without understanding what they’re doing.
But I also know that everyone needs time to learn about each issue. I’d rather take the time to help them understand than punish them for not getting it.
When it comes to institutions like prisons that actually uphold oppression, I’m all for public protests that demand immediate change.
But when it comes to my fellow activists and community members, I hope that we all have a similar vision. We won’t always agree, but in working together for that vision, I hope we can hold each other accountable without villainizing each other.
I also hope it’s clear that I’m not calling for giving people a pass to be oppressive or tone policing marginalized people to be “nice” when we’re protecting ourselves from harm.
I’ve written extensively about how important it is for us to be able to express our rage and frustration about the oppression we experience, because it’s absolutely essential for healing and making change.
So I’m not trying to silence the rage that rightfully shows up when you stand up for yourself and your communities. Instead, I’m saying you deserve to heal from the fear that comes up when you think others will judge you for being an imperfect activist.
And you don’t have to shame other activists—or yourself—for being imperfect.
We can give ourselves and each other room to make mistakes. We can recognize that making a mistake doesn’t mean you have to crawl into a hole and never show your face among conscious people ever again.
We should do better, and we can do better. Together, we can help each other figure out how—without resorting to punishment.