CW: this post will discuss the murder of George Floyd, the discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C., residential schools, and anti-Black racism
On my social media feed, I never saw more people reading books written by Black people than in the first few weeks after the murder of George Floyd. Suddenly, my timeline was flooded with people reading THUG by: Angie Thomas, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by: Reni Eddo-Lodge, and So You Want to Talk About Race by: Ijeoma Oluo. I too joined the cause to read more books by Black authors, and even books written by other marginalized groups, as I recognized that Indigenous folks in Canada face similar prejudices. But, after a few weeks passed, action on social media seemed to quiet down, and some Black creators began commenting about how the fight needs to continue way beyond when a Black person is murdered.
I can't remember the exact video they said this, but I remember when Jesse @ Bowties and Books asked poignantly why a Black man had to die for people to start reading books written by Black people. I thought they really put into words the culture of social activism that occurs when something terrible happens, when everyone wants to get involved, but how the activism doesn't always continue past the tragedy. This quote also allowed me to consider when I read books by marginalized authors, but more specifically, what books by marginalized authors I read. Yes, it's important to educate oneself about the trauma that marginalized folks face, but it is also crucial to integrate books of marginalized folks experiencing joy. We need to see marginalized individuals beyond the stereotypes of "victims and perpetuators" (which Eve Tuck so eloquently puts in her article: "Suspending Damage," link below!)
So, why I am I bringing up this conversation in 2023? Because earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a talk with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who is a Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer, and Robyn Maynard, who is a Black Canadian writer. One person in the conversation asked the two writers about allyship, which prompted me to ask them how they felt about the performative activism regarding reading that occured in 2020 and even in 2021 after the discovery of unmarked graves near a former residential school in B.C. I wanted to get their opinions on this very polarizing and complicated discussion, as it has been something I have been pondering over the years. Is all reading for activism good, even if it is performative? When does reading for activism become performative? Is it when Indigo puts out a table in their stores during Pride Month to celebrate LGBTQ+ voices? Is that enough?
Robyn Maynard answered first, and she said something that really opened my eyes. She started off her statement by saying that she had a "controversial" opinion on the subject, which is that she doesn't really care how non-Black individuals consume Black abolitionist content, as long as they are doing so. She said that if someone thinks that reading books on abolition is "cool" then who is she to stop them? She did consider that continuity is a problem, so if someone is not consuming Black-led content on a regular basis, then we can look critically on that, but overall, she sees any reading of Black books to be a good thing, regardless of intention.
Maynard's comments allowed me to think about performative reading and how BIPOC writers and readers may have a diversity of opinions on the subject. I think I had limited myself to the viewpoint that if someone is really only reading activist books for the "hype," then they are not contributing to activism as a whole. But Maynard really helped me to see the chain reaction that occurs once someone reads a book. They may like it, they may post about it on social media, and that inspires other people to pick up the book. Yes, hype may be a factor in this reading, but if someone does take something away from the book, then something was gained from the hype. Continuity is something that needs to be addressed, but at its core, performative reading may help to gain more readership in a positive way.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson expanded on Robyn's comments by noting how social media activism played a role in the Idle No More movement. Overall, both of these scholars note that we can often critique performative activism and reading for its intention, but there is also major positives to be gained when someone shares and posts these texts. This conversation helped me to recognize that I need to look at different perspectives on this subject because I think I put my opinion in a box and just looked at the critiques, while I failed to listen to BIPOC authors who suggested other viewpoints.
Overall, all of this is just to say that yes, performative activism and performative reading should be critiqued when continuity comes into question. Also, it is completely valid for BIPOC folks to be angry when books become hyped only at the time of trauma. I think this problem reflects widely on capitalism capitalizing on when things go viral on social media. However, it is also important to see the positives in privileged folks consuming activist content, and perhaps we can trick the system so that capitalism ultimately becomes a way to get more of these books into the hands of people who need to learn from them. This talk inspired me to listen to different viewpoints and understand that not all BIPOC artists will have the same opinion on a subject, and that's okay! Learning involves diversity, and sometimes a question doesn't have just one answer. In this case, I think Maynard and Betasamosake Simpson answered my question quite well.
What do you think about performative activism/reading? Have you ever put your opinion into a box and failed to see differing perspectives?
Eve Tuck's article: Suspending Damage
Emily @ Paperback Princess