So, the #icebucketchallenge. It’s viral. It’s on social media. It’s got people doing something closely resembling “good” in the world. Sounds like something I’d love, right? While they don’t even come close to the level of effed up of the Grand Old Pinkification of Everything for Breast Cancer, a campaign that has boldly slapped pink ribbons on all kinds of carcinogens, I won’t be taking the #icebucketchallenge for ALS.
The #icebucketchallenge for ALS supposes that raising awareness is good , and that “getting people involved” is good. The premise here is that you dump a bucket of ice on your head “for awareness,” and post a video of yourself dumping ice on your head, after which you are crowned with the glory of nominating three others who are either supposed to dump ice on their head and nominate three people or who are supposed to donate $100 to the ALS Association. It’s a movement of short videos on social media, and my Facebook feed is filled up with the ice-dumpers. The ALS Association has raised millions, and that’s awesome. I’m all for curing ALS- it’s a horrible thing, and they need funds for research. For a great economic analysis that I could never articulate, read this article. But even without it, there’s something a little weird here, isn’t there? I mean, after all, what does ice on the head have to do with ALS? And why does everyone “care” all the sudden, and what kind of “caring” is it, really?
Let me remind you: dumping ice on your head is what you do in order to avoid giving $100 to the ALS Association. Supposedly, the #icebucketchallenge raises “awareness.” Of what? How our friends look in wet t-shirts with ice stuck in their bras? While the videos dot my facebook feed every time I check it, I’ve not learned a single thing about ALS from them. I don’t know what the ALS Association is doing to cure ALS, I don’t know what causes ALS, I don’t know anyone with ALS, and I have no idea how ALS affects the families of diagnosed patients. I’d say my awareness is painfully lacking, despite watching these videos.
So is this an instance of clicktivism, of slacktivism? What is the actual work being done by posting these videos? By that, I mean, what moves you to participate? Is it because its silly? Are you moved because your friends did it? Do you want to be known as someone who will do something crazy for a cause? Be real when you think about why- its certainly more than believing in eradicating ALS, because if that was your desire, might you do something more linked to ALS, something with a more significant direct impact? Certainly there is a kind of acclaim you get from your friends, that warm fuzzy feeling of being recognized as “part of the solution,” that way that social media lets you “take a stance” (against ALS? for wet t-shirts?) as someone who believes in a better kind of world. And who doesn’t want to be known as believing in a better kind of world? This is the blessing and the curse of our digital times: the ability to reach millions, and the capitalist tendencies and values that warp doing good, that dilute awareness, that twist what has the spark of organizing and actual movement into an event defined by show and tell and the number of likes on your video. I mean sure, feeling good is nice. But what does it do for ALS? When do you think about ALS actually, after you dump ice on your head and post it from your phone to Facebook? When did you listen to the people living with ALS? I mean please, if all it takes is raising awareness… I suppose my issue is with awareness itself, with awareness as a stand-in for political action.
You know what I think? I think it’s insanely weird that my white friends are doing the ALS ice bucket things, and my friends of color are posting news about Michael Brown being gunned down en route to grandmas. The Brown tragedy is a tragedy because black lives matter as much as white lives — be they white lives afflicted by ALS or not. Yet, it seems like the coverage casts Michael Brown as a tragedy because he’s a “good kid,” on his way to grandmas one afternoon and off to college soon thereafter. Setting him up that way makes it seem like black lives don’t matter, except for a few boys who are “good kids,” unlike the other black boys who are, apparently, not good kids. I think that the ALS #icebucketchallenge is a safe alternative for white folks to position themselves as activists, as in the know, as believing in a better world. But you know what? It’s risky for white folks to align themselves with enraged communities of colour, and to educate themselves about race and racism and oppression. It’s much easier to simply dump a bucket of ice on your head and count your activism done for the day. But as you do that, remember, young black men are dying at the hands of the good ol’ American system, and when you took the easy road out and dumped ice on your head and made sure everyone knew you were the supportive, fun, good kind, you didn’t also post about black teenagers dying because they live in a racist system.
So think again. Educate yourself on the issues, on the histories of racism, on how Fergussen is a microcosm of the US, learn about how histories of racism shape experiences today. Don’t tell me you’re not racist, so you don’t need to do any work. We all live in a racist society, and it’s not about you. It’s about challenging a system that allows us to turn a blind eye when a young black teenager is shot en route to grandma’s, a system that cheers for ice bucket-dumping, a system that privileges white people in ways that we white people have a hard time even identifying because they are so insidious. We are all responsible for what happened to Michael Brown, and it is only by taking responsibility that we will eradicate racism. So go educate yourself. I say, start with http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/. But do your own work. Don’t expect others to do it for you. Educate yourself. Already.
Yes, I’m grumpy. I know I have family members (and others) who will qualify my reluctance as grumpy, as unwilling to even try. They will crow about the millions that have been raised, they will ask how it hurts to dump ice on your head and have a little fun. Sure, it’s not “hurting” per say, unless they are from California, in which case I will remind them they live in a state desperate for water, in a season defined by drought. That so many communities all the world over are short on drinking water should be enough to stop anyone, but especially enough to stop those who are living the drought themselves.
So I’m grumpy. A killjoy. It’s nothing new. In fact, I think we killjoys actually have more fun than the rest of you. We have fun critiquing. We have fun skipping. We have fun playing with paints and we have fun wine tasting. We just choose to think a little harder about our actions, especially when they are politically aligned, or mis/aligned. I mean if we really wanted to have fun, we could just pick a random cause, assign a random action to “raise awareness” and see how many people would sign up to play “we’re following the leader, the leader, the leader…”
Thing is, there’s no thought in “we’re following the leader.” There’s no critical reasoning. No personal experience. No braiding together of community. No struggle over knowledge or meaning or future. It’s just sheep, dumping buckets of ice over their head and not donating and not learning more about ALS and wasting all the water in the middle of a drought.
So go ahead, do your #icebucketchallenge. Be real about who you want to see, how you want to look, why you are doing it, what kind of work it’s doing for you and your image. Question how this action got connected to ALS, why, by who, for what. And if you want to make a difference, do something real. Donate funds. Read a bunch of articles. Make a film. Volunteer your time. Open your heart. Act with loving kindness. Try thinking critically. Bring a friend a meal. Read a book. As for me, there will be no #icebucketchallenge. Instead I’m going to try to convince everyone that jumping like a bunny over all the sidewalk cracks is for hang-nail-awareness. Because really, guys?