16 Nov 2016

In Conversation with Zaren Healey White

Online Activism
What kind of work do you do?
Zaren Healey White
I’m currently working at Memorial and before that I worked in local news media in St. John’s. I’ve always been passionate about writing and contributing to public discourse, and working in the media definitely helped me develop more avenues for contributing to larger conversations. I completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University (2012) and started blogging during that time, mainly about feminism, literature, and culture. When I resumed grad school, this time a Master of Gender Studies program at Memorial, I really started to develop my blog and increase my presence as, what I would call, a public feminist. My existing sense of myself as a feminist and a writer was cultivated by both completing the master’s program and working in media. I started to see all the interconnections between academic study, public discourse, and social activism, as well as believe that the Internet and social media, while fraught with challenges for women and other marginalized identities, could be an important frontier for activism around feminist work and issues.

What inspires your work?
My feminism arose during and was informed by the role of web and social media in my life, certainly over the last decade since I first created my Facebook account! I love the potential that the Internet offers for self-publication – while so much of what gets printed or published is informed by all kinds of structures and barriers, I find the potential for self-publication empowering. I think gender studies and feminism have places in academia and in the community and it’s so crucial that each is informed by the other. The best part about doing a degree in gender studies has been finding exciting ways to bring what I have learned in the classroom into different spheres, such as organizing a feminist art show, guest speaking at different events, and promoting the coverage of topics relevant to women and feminist activism in the media.

What does online activism involve?
Online activism is all about having an online or web component to your message, your activism, your cause – whatever that might be. For many issues, online disclosure of experiences and discussion of shared concerns have been integral to amplifying the discourse. Personal experience narratives are powerful and, online, can link messages together, creating communities from individuals. And that’s the root of most social action – collaboration and shared priorities. If the goal is to put something out into public discourse, amplify underrepresented voices, and reach the greatest number of minds possible, the Internet and social media are exceptionally effective ways to do just that.

What is your experience doing online activism?
As I started to use social media for personal purposes, over time I naturally started to use it for advocacy purposes, too. For me, online activism has meant simply using whatever online platforms and presences I have to advocate for a culture informed by feminism – one that resists sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, and rape culture. Maybe it’s sharing an article – maybe it’s writing an article.  Sometimes it has meant critiquing sexist or anti-feminist aspects of the culture around me. Sometimes it has meant writing a feminist movie review! Always it is about imagining the good that can come from encouraging others to think critically about a topic, and go forth to change other people’s minds, promote critical thinking and resistance to the patriarchal status quo, and promote feminist discourse and discussions.

How different is online activism from other forms of activism?
They go together! I am always quick to clarify that online activism doesn’t mean all work is or should be exclusively online or virtual – I think there is a need for interplay between many different forms of engagement. So I like to write blog posts on feminist topics and tweet, but I also do public talks, class lectures, attend rallies and marches, and go on the radio to talk about different topics. Working on launching a feminist art show in St. John’s, Feminisms {Re}Framed (now two years running!) was also a form of feminist action. And how did we connect with all the amazing feminist artists who exhibited both years? Online promotions and networks. There are so many ways to participate in social action and they are all valid. I think every cause needs a web aspect or component, and that ideas we share online should be shared in person, too.

How effective is the Internet as a tool for activism?
The Internet is a scary place for women and marginalized people. It can be toxic. There are so many challenges associated with being a woman online, taking up space, particularly if you want to talk about women’s rights or challenge male privilege. There is harassment, trolling, threats, and exhausting conversations with “devil’s advocates.” But platforms such as Twitter have also allowed me to make connections with so many great local feminists of all genders. Those connections can and do carry over in the non-virtual sphere. Through the Internet, I get to read articles by inspiring feminist writers and media critics and learn from them. There is so much potential. Like anything, the Internet and social media are not inherently good – they can be used for a variety of things to a variety of ends.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered?
I sometimes struggle with the emotional labour of being vocal online. I’m a feminist, one who is committed to participating in feminist discourse online, but I know that I can’t be “on,” analyzing and critiquing and participating all the time, nor do I want to. A lot of people who blog or tweet or publish online about feminism experience fatigue and burnout. We all need to decide what works for us, how much we can contribute and when. We all also need to be able to opt out and take a break. Both academically and personally I’ve completed a lot of research about feminism on the Internet and the hostile landscape many people face. Reading a lot in this area and deliberately going down dark rabbit holes, such as anti-feminist websites, can be very draining. Luckily there is also a huge volume of feminist sites, online magazines, and memes that can help pick you back up.

How is online activism received in society?
Just as, more and more, everything has an online component, so does activism. The online and offline elements are increasingly intertwined and interdependent. Even two years ago when I first started seriously researching women’s online activism and networks, I felt more compelled to make a case for the importance of contributing to public discourse via social and digital media. I don’t belabour that argument as much now, as most audiences I speak with have a great grasp of how important online activism is as another way of communicating and reaching people.

How can people, especially women, doing activism using digital tools stay safe given the attacks that activists face?
Sometimes the Internet is appealing because, depending on your context, it can be a safer way to participate. But it’s important for people to realize that online harassment doesn’t just hurt feelings – online abuse has very real effects on all aspects of people’s lives and threats and harassment often do trickle offline, into people’s “real” lives, too. It’s so hard to navigate how to be a feminist online, as the Internet is often, as I put it, a toxic hellscape. It’s important that people report abuse on different platforms and remember that they don’t have to engage with every single person who wants to engage. You can opt out. You don’t owe anything to anyone, as a regular member of the Internet using public. It should be safer, and platforms need to protect people more, but in the meantime, the most important thing is to remember to only do what is safe and comfortable for you, as a person and an activist.

Any last remarks to young people interested in online activism?
Navigating the increasing integration of digital and social media into our everyday lives is tricky for everyone, not just activists! The speed, vastness, and volume of information to perceive can be overwhelming. It can also sometimes feel like your post or blog or tweet couldn’t possibly make a difference. But our digital presence online extends further than the people we see actively engaging with us (for better or worse). When someone tells me (and someone did recently) that my feminist online presence had an impact on them, and their identifying as a feminist, that mattered to me. Every small contribution each of us can make towards fostering a feminist culture – a culture in which women have respect, dignity, and safety – matters.

Zaren Healey White recently completed a Master of Gender Studies at Memorial University. She works at Memorial and is interested in feminist media criticism and online/social media activism.

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