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Op-Ed: “Being Apolitical is a privilege” – My experience of the social justice community

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

By Zoe Rivera

Zoe Rivera, on how their own experience as a radical Afrolatin genderqueer social justice organizer within the social justice community has proved equal parts empowering and aggravating.

“Being apolitical is a privilege”.

You’ve heard every single well-regarded youth activist shout this from the rooftops. Whether their near-biblical reverence for the saying is responsible for their skyrocketing fame or not is a contentious but fatuous argument for another op-ed; apathy is not the (untrademarked) trend that will serve as a pleasant but asinine distraction from your self-deprecation and placate the growing despondency you feel amongst your friends. It does not bring about the same temporal sense of quirkiness that aesthetically appealing and duplicitously-nonchalant lowercase text does. And, it certainly looks irreparably-uncharitable in the face of a burgeoning movement of socially-conscious and politically-proactive Gen-Z’ers who truly understand that change-making is less making ostensible observations about Reaganomics and more about toppling structural white supremacy and the heavily-paternalistic sentiments emboldening it in the most apophthegmatic and wondrously-confrontational manner possible.

But, let’s not make our movement into this magnanimous cultural revolution in which everyone — including that (self-proclaimed former-white-feminist who’s suddenly reached the zenith of multicultural knowledge because she’s read more than the comment’s section from HuffPost’s “Black Voices” section) suburban Scandinavian mom with the ginormous Kate Spade shades and the Honda Pilot — wears pink shirts that have “DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION” on them in aggressively-bold Helvetica while holding up (grotesquely-generic) Pride posters. Even those that ride the high horse and “commit” to civic engagement often make jaw-droppingly fallacious arguments or are guilty of upholding the oppressive systems that their Instagram bios claim they march against. Undeniably so, there are incredulous and blatantly-bigoted people out there who need educating; the same idiotic perniciousness has found its home in performative activists, hypocritical “social justice advocates” who refuse to acknowledge their complicity in promoting Black trauma porn and supporting slacktivism (“feel-good” activism that usually stops at sharing an unresearched post about tree-planting), and those who believe that adhering to the shibboleths of respectability politics and “cancel culture” make them qualified for the rather-unceremonious “Best Activist/Most-Valued Face of the Movement” Awards.

Undeniably so, there are incredulous and blatantly-bigoted people out there who need educating . . .

Being able to regurgitate decades-old historical asides and unremarkable witticisms in The Economist or The New York Times with the performative and self-ingratiating titles “trailblazer” or “youth powerhouse/lightning rod” is a privilege. Being able to superficially pay homage to the foremothers and forefathers of queer liberation (i.e. Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, etc.) on your macro-influencer page one day but then spending the money you’ve received from proceeds meant to go to the Trans Women of Color Collective on laxative teas and unethically-produced crop-tops from aging neo-corporatists and oligopolies another day is a privilege. Being able to be free from unanimous opprobrium, being able to co-opt radical leftism into something so obscenely-reductionist, being able to commercialize someone else’s marginalization so that it’s all about self-aggrandizement and not about accountability — those are the privileges that our presumptuously-”woke” movement is sleeping on.

I identify as a radical Afrolatin genderqueer (femme-subscribing) social justice organizer. I’m sixteen. I live in a single-parent low-income household. I’m a diehard extrovert. I love investigative journalism, spoken word poetry, and historical fiction. Public-speaking, writing, and crushing the preconceived notions of recently-self-anointed and “benevolent” white liberals are my favorite pastimes. However, underneath all of this determination (more so insatiable inquisitiveness and a distinguishable adoration for phantasmagorical literature) and mordacious charisma, lies someone who is deeply-invested in LGBTQIAP+ Black liberation, sexual and reproductive resource equitability, and the controversial intricacies of performative allyship within our — the young people’s — revolution.

To be frank, my experience within the social justice community has been equal-parts empowering and equal-parts aggravating. I have met many teens who are genuinely passionate about the work they’re doing and legitimately employ the grassroots method to mobilization; their vibrancy, toothachingly-sweet optimism, and pertinaciousness were refreshing presences to my world — one dulled by the maddeningly-desensitizing and perversely-sensationalist mainstream media and the lack of empathy expressed by people who I once believed to be my role models. Conversely, social justice organizing and youth empowerment are far from stagnant and achromatic; the trials and tribulations that I’ve faced in regards to inaccessibility, inequity, Impostor Syndrome, and self-inflicted bouts of lackadaisical-bitterness, have all been made significantly easier to bear because of the incredible support system I’ve been indoctrinated into. In times where I felt both hypervisible in the unsettled aftermath of police brutality (and, consequentially, the normalization of premature Black death) and xenophobic Eurocentrist repudiations of immigration as well as invisible (i.e. in conversations regarding gender-non-conforming individuals and educational resource inequity, queer misrepresentation, etc.), I have been metaphorically (and truthfully) saved by these people — these generous, unconditionally-loving, intelligent, and beautifully-unconventional firebrands who have called out closet racists while also calling themselves and their past behaviors in — from the ultimate hindrance: myself.

However, as I have stated before, the beauty of our revolution creates avariciousness and divisiveness; people who we believed to be our brothers and sisters-in-justice have assumed proprietorships upon monopolies on our suffering and dehumanization — all while being stationed on stolen land. The select few of us who are catapulted to the heights of stardom and appear on TIME Magazine have fashioned the unrecognized — those who are fighting for change within their own communities — to be their indentured servants, their editors laughing alongside them over croissants and bubbly pink champagne. We have people who pick-and-choose their level of detachment towards an injustice in order to fill their own pockets and assuage their own insecurities.

This is the flexibility of our world’s multigenerational apathy: to be apolitical is a privilege; to be selectively indifferent is a variant of that privilege.

Intersectionality and inclusivity are not groundbreaking ideas; rather, it is the fact that we — a miscellaneous collective, an indefatigable force for good, a group that disturbs the comfortable and encourages the systemically-undermined — are speaking out for them that it becomes so gorgeously-threatening. It is because we, the people, trust in us and only us; not the maladaptive moral objectivity of the state, not the “holiness” of our institutions, and not the warped agglomeration of validation and accommodation bestowed upon our oppressors.

It is because we, the people, trust in us and only us; not the maladaptive moral objectivity of the state . . .

Our movement is controversial. We are controversial. My existence is controversial. However, this tendentious reading of contemporary culture — soon-to-be-history — is a necessary beautification to our otherwise inauspicious world. We must continue to organize, denounce, and reform while also focusing on holding ourselves accountable and toppling -isms and -archies that we, directly or indirectly, benefit from. With platitudes, performances, and instantaneously-exhilarating but incomprehensible approaches to decision-making and policy-making, we will become our own archnemesis; however, in order to create an egalitarian social structure — one inherently economically and culturally-equitable — we must practice translating our social justice literacy from paperback books to foundational aspects of our society. It is indiscriminate in its mercilessness; nevertheless, however, it is our charge. The stubborn inquisitiveness and meddlesome-social interventionism characteristic of our ancestors are constellations that shine in the darkest of nights; it is their brilliance that serves as a handicapped pathway for our liberation. We must thank them for this chance by finishing the work they could not — all in our own clumsily-comical, bitingly-sarcastic, and ingeniously-Gen-Z way.

Our movement is controversial. We are controversial. My existence is controversial.

Activism is my mode of self-preservation and community-resuscitation. It is me conquering the iniquities of structural white supremacy every single day because my practicing of self-love is an act of resistance. Actualizing the fact that the compositeness of my identity makes the revolution that much more ungovernable and attractive as well as that my existence as an enduring entity of intergenerational trauma and perseverance is me speaking truth to power. It is that sharing — that outspokenness expressed through mouth, hands, or pen — that is emblematic of the strength of multiculturalism across experience, an indispensable part of our movement.

I am irresistible; and, I am one of the many faces of our revolution — so are you.


BIOGRAPHY: Zoe is a 16 year-old comfortably confrontational, effervescent, and audacious Afrolatinx genderqueer femme writer, self-love enthusiast, and aspiring-POTUS whose place of residence (Somerset, NJ) is sandwiched between gentrification-motivated business ventures and rolling hills of prefabricated-paneled houses, 2007 Ford Expeditions, and oak trees. When not writing supercalifragilisticexpialidocious dissertations upon revelations upon personal essays and exposing the ridiculously-unethical practices of the paternalistic P5 (China, Russia, the UK, France, and the US), they can be found eating a copious amount of dragonfruit and impersonating turtleneck-wearing Scandinavian e-boys on TikTok with their friends.

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