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Current Events Asian-American activism on social media: how long will it last?

Mar. 17, 2021
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If you’re on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed a recent spike in story posts centering on hate crimes against Asian-Americans and what to do about them. Your friends are likely posting footage of terrible street violence inflicted upon this community and news of police brutality against Asian-American teens. The stories that have caught the most public attention so far are those of a 91-year-old pushed to the ground in Chinatown in Oakland, California, an 84-year-old shoved in San Francisco, who later died of his injuries, a 61-year-old slashed in the face while riding the NYC subway, and a 19-year-old shot by the police while in the midst of a mental health crisis. 

The rise in Instagram activity surrounding this issue corresponds to an actual and undeniable trend happening right now: hate crimes against Asian-Americans skyrocketed across U.S. cities last year and are continuing to do so, sometimes by triple-digit percentages

In 2020, anti-Asian-American hate crimes across the United States increased by approximately 150%. Almost all U.S. cities have reported individual increases in this activity, the highest being in New York City, with only Washington, D.C. seeing a decline. Interestingly enough, overall hate crime levels—meaning criminal offenses motivated by any race, religion, or sexual orientation—have decreased in cities. There’s no denying that Asian-Americans are being specifically targeted in this type of violence; in fact, the hateful rhetoric seems to land squarely on the Chinese, after Donald Trump publicly blamed China for bringing in the coronavirus and, with it, the economic and social maladies of the pandemic. 

Considering the deadly consequences of recent anti-Asian-American sentiment, it’s no wonder people are speaking up on social media. But how long the conversation will last is another matter. Other social-media-driven movements have been known to go out of favor relatively quickly, only to be replaced by more pressing concerns. So will current anti-racist activism by Asian-Americans and their allies meet a similar fate? 

It depends on how you look at it. Some people are of the opinion that the majority of things said on social media are just that—lots of talk and no real action. The term “performative activism,” or the sort of activism done to bolster one's own image or make a positive impression on others, is frequently ascribed to appearance-focused forays into the world of social change via social media. 

The thing about performative activism—overlaying rainbows on your brand’s logo during Pride Month, putting “End Racism” on football field endzones, or making a “Justice ReMix’d” ice cream flavor—is that it rarely lasts. In fact, the word “performative” itself gradually went out of favor after the recent BLM protests: it appeared more than 550,000 times a day across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook during the heat of the action and now is mentioned only 125,000 times a day. Is this decline a sign that people are becoming less performative and more intentional? Maybe. But it’s more likely that viral trends and topics simply lose their spark after a while. 

The key to predicting just how long the attention on Asian-American hate crimes will last lies in determining whether or not the dialogue surrounding this topic is “performative” or not. This dialogue might bear the seeds of real change and the end to Sinophobia in our country. Or it might be fueled by people and brands who are speaking out only because their friends are doing it or because their revenue will suffer if they don’t. 

A few weeks ago, Facebook’s global head of social, Eric Toda, made a statement on behalf of the brand, saying that Facebook condemns violence against the Asian-American community, both past and present. Toda also wrote a piece for Adweek on February 11, which discussed his own grandfather’s experience of being a hate crime victim, the long legacy of hate toward Asians in America, the group’s complex status as a model minority, and how Asian-Americans are often ignored in workplace anti-racism training. In his article, Toda also urged people to donate to Asian-American activist groups and volunteer for relevant organizations. One look at Toda’s Twitter feed shows that it’s filled with daily posts on this issue, so it’s clear that, as an Asian-American himself, Toda is fighting the good fight by providing people with resources, speaking out, and using his executive position as a “megaphone.”

Other brands and their leadership have issued one-time statements, videos, and posts that—while only moving the cause forward—still leave something to be desired. Airbnb published a blog post detailing their stance on the recent developments, quoting internal emails from their leadership about company-wide Asian-American inclusion, and giving resources for allyship. Brands like Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Converse, and Benefit have all posted under the hashtag #StopAsianHate and directed consumers to the Stop AAPI Hate collaboration (AAPI stands for Asian-American Pacific Islander). Many companies, like Fenty Beauty and Society 6, made highly stylized posts that fit their feeds: all funky fonts, colorful stripes, and cutesy illustrations. It’s reminiscent of when Emma Watson posted a black square with a white border on her Instagram page and was subsequently criticized for making it fit her social media aesthetic. 

The public’s response to hate against Asian-Americans has essentially been a mix of “performative activism,” real effort, and everything in between. Despite much debate and enlightenment on the meaning of “performative” in this day and age, it’s still hard to classify particular words, posts, and reactions into this camp or its direct opposite: true activism. According to Merriam-Webster, activism is “a practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Can donations to charitable causes (like Peloton’s $100,000 donation to the Asian-American Federation) count as vigorous? Could a simple mention of recent events and list of links to check out be considered a direct form of action or just support from the sidelines? The answer is oftentimes context-specific.

The true litmus test of “performative or not” comes, perhaps, not from the final product of the gesture of activism but from the deep-seated intentions of every individual behind posting that picture, tagging that organization, or sharing that story. If you’re genuinely concerned by racism or another social crisis and want to help out without considering how good or noble it might make you look, then your brand of activism is likely the real deal. It’s hard to know people’s intentions, though, so the only way we can avoid everything short of true activism is through rigorous self-analysis of our own motives. Identifying an ulterior one—popularity, praise, higher sales—is the first step to making sure our efforts are unfeigned. 

In a couple of months, it’s hard to say whether the #StopAsianHate hashtag will still be trending or if Instagram Stories will still be flooded with Asian-American-related content. The more devoted—truly devoted—people start being to the idea of bringing justice to Asian Americans, the longer this conversation can last and be of use. But the elimination of this hashtag from our feeds and timelines might not be such a bad thing after all: a fortunate indication, maybe, that direct and vigorous activists have achieved their goal or are at least working towards it. 

Illustration by Anjali Nair for NBC News.