Public Displays of (Dis)affection

To call or to not call out?

Art by Ranuka Tandan.

Like many people in this era of social media, I often end up lost in the depths of Facebook comments sections. It’s a pretty average habit, until I find myself spending hours reading the public outrage of Baby Boomers under a ‘Sunrise’, ‘TODAY’, or ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ post. You know, the ones deliberately written in a way that will provoke 66 year old Sharon/John/Cheryl/Darren/etc. into an emotional and usually ill-informed rant about climate strikers, refugees, vegans, feminists, or any of the topics that these outlets love to throw around with a baiting title for engagement. 

I find myself here multiple times a day. I don’t reply like I used to in 2016 when I used arguing with strangers as a form of excitement and procrastination during my dreary HSC days. Often, I just sit and fume about the widespread ignorance that tends to be displayed and let my thoughts spiral angrily until I hastily close my phone. 

On a similar and more personal scale, this tendency has weaseled its way into my other social media habits – on multiple occasions, I have engaged with cishet white males from high school who have been provoked by the messages I post and share to my Instagram stories. I won’t lie, I get a kick out of this particular tendency – I am entertained by exposing the ignorance of the people who made me feel too Brown throughout high school. Perhaps it’s due to the extensive effort I once put in to bury my identity around them and keep my opinions aligned to theirs. Perhaps I perceive calling these people out to be empowering, without really understanding why. Either way, I’d never comprehended the harm of doing this until my girlfriend recently pointed out: by sharing the reactions of these people, what kind of online space was I creating for myself, my loved ones, and the communities that I belong to? 

My younger sibling, who currently attends the high school that I graduated from, acts in a similar way, publicly shaming any backlash over the issues they speak out about, with this years’ notable occasions including Invasion Day and the Global Climate Strikes. Despite the 5 year age difference between our cohorts, we both seem to engage for the same reasons – to educate friends and family, to retort back when people attack us, to reaffirm our opinions beyond echo chambers of like-minded views, and because, in their words “I know it’s not my responsibility… but who else is going to do it?”. 

It’s no secret that in this society, people belonging to marginalised groups are often tasked with the responsibility of educating everyone else, with this burden falling heavily on Black women. And whilst I have only occasionally been asked to educate cishet men on current affairs (easily Google-able ones, at that – how hard is it to figure out why Uber drivers or school students are striking?) as a queer Asian woman, I have still managed to internalised this responsibility alongside a desire to assert my voice and political identity to the passive audience I once silenced myself for. 

Years after branching out from these groups and allowing myself to form an identity, I still find myself pinned beneath a white gaze – evident even by the positive messages I get from other white friends commending how I speak up and thanking me for educating them, whilst refusing to act similarly and share the burden. For a matter of years, I’ve taken on this role with apparent ease, and internalised it to a point that I reacted defensively when it was first brought to my attention. In a podcast by The Guardian, writer Jia Tolentino remarks, “the economic model of the internet re-selling and selling data points about our identity and our search to further harden, or shape or change that identity,” and importantly concludes that “our selfhood was not meant to bear that kind of economic weight.” 

And indeed, I’m no longer sure that my own selfhood needs it, let alone has the ability to bear it.

This leaves me at a point of disparity – it is not within my nature to stay quiet on topics that I feel passionately about. How am I meant to refrain from engaging with ignorance when we next roll around to January 26th and social media becomes flooded with pictures of Southern Cross tattoos and SMH articles about “political correctness gone mad”? Last year on this very date, I had a photo sent directly to me of a white boy I once had a crush on holding a can of VB in one hand, and his middle finger up on the other. 

Perhaps it’s time to cleanse my online spaces – to unfollow, to unlike, and to finally cut these ties. Not to stop speaking out, but to ensure that my sibling and I are able to let people take on the responsibility of educating themselves, to nurture the online spaces we inhabit, and to allow ourselves to step back and breathe.