Accountability in Activism

By Emem Obot and Lee Fleming

Activists fight injustices in our society. Remaining authentic to that root purpose is essential for movement building and community organizing. Activism, like any other movement, has its flaws. As activists become more visible they are often afforded a perception of infallibility. Activists that consider themselves to be infallible can be a dangerous and toxic people. Unfortunately, activists often neglect to hold themselves accountable for problematic behavior and actions, even when they are called out by their peers. 

Those who have deemed themselves infallible undermine the progress toward accountability and growth. This is a recurring violence that needs to cease and needs to be named. Emem Obot and Lee Fleming, two Black non-binary activists, teamed up to share their experiences calling for accountability in activist spaces.

Emem Obot:

I decided discuss the lack of accountability in activism following an exchange on social media between myself and the Director of the Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Project at a prominent LGBTQ rights organization. The Director had taken it upon themselves to silence my calls for accountability on behalf of the offending party, a white trans woman.

My lived experiences were called into question (gaslighting) and my plea for accountability was chalked up to “call-out culture.” This exchange reaffirmed the reality that our society, and even our LGBTQ rights organizations, deem white bodies/experiences as more important and worthy than black bodies/experiences.

I felt like the Director’s involvement was for no other purpose than to intimidate me, while belittling the core issue and insisting it was my job to educate the offending party on why their behavior was racist. This continual abuse of black bodies within activist spaces especially by white liberals and non-black people of color further perpetuates the failure to empathize and listen to the experiences of black bodies.

Lee Fleming:

After being removed from an community organizing coalition, along with two other non-binary activists, I tried to reach out to the organization’s Executive Director. After several failed attempts to make contact with the Executive Director, they wrote a Facebook post on the organization’s Facebook page exemplifying the failures of activists to hold themselves accountable.

The 1000+ word Facebook post in question, was a public statement explaining why the Executive Director had done nothing for which to be held accountable. Ironically, the post itself contained instances of gaslighting, transphobia, and the tokenization of trans bodies. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect, I and my colleague were deadnamed within the post.

One of the hardest, most difficult parts of activism is realizing that another activist that you idolize is abusive or toxic. Abusers are sometimes able to gain access into activist spaces simply by knowing the language. Sometimes you don’t realize it until someone gets hurt. You can’t preach radical, subversive politics but practice toxic behavior that only re-entrenches status quo violence.

Emem & Lee:

Phrases like “call-out culture,” “social justice warriors,” and “political correctness” have become the battle cry of people who enjoy privilege and refuse to hold themselves accountable.

Marginalized identities can still perpetuate violence because we are not monolithic. We have other identities that can reap benefits from this system. However, being perceived as white, cisgender, heteronormative, or masculine-bodied affords privilege because we exist within a white supremacist, transphobic, patriarchal society.

Keeping this in mind, it is important for us to understand our place within the fight for liberation. Because of our privileges, we cannot speak over those whose identities are marked as a threat to society and order. These individuals are subjected to more direct violence from the state and society. You can’t call for a revolution centering yourself and ignoring the blatant privileges you reap. That’s not a revolution; that’s oppression! That’s self revelation.

As people with marginalized bodies, we are tired of privileged individuals using our struggles either against us or as a way to propel themselves through their insular elitist meritocracy. We are tired of the invalidation of our concerns. We are tired of being gaslighted when we call for accountability.

Emem Obot (no pronouns) is a sophomore at American University in Washington, DC. Obot is majoring in International Studies with a focus in Identity, Race, Gender, Culture and Human Rights. Obot is passionate about anti-black activism with the intersections of feminism/womanism and LGBTQ+ rights. Obot is also the co-founder of Blackout: Generation Liberation. Obot identifies as agender/ genderqueer and uses no pronouns.

Lee Fleming (they/them) is a black queer/genderqueer, New Orleans-born social activist, graphic designer, and multimedia artist. Lee’s activist work is partly inspired by surviving Hurricane Katrina, when they experienced delayed and ineffective government response to the suffering of poor black people. Fleming is a graduate student researching racial microaggressions, specifically pertaining to how hair politics create structural employment barriers.