Social change is a subject of great interest in academic (Noble, 2000) and non-academic conversations. More often than not, we hear politically motivated people claiming that they want to “make a difference”. Likewise, we often hear people observe different types of political actions and wonder what difference they make. In my research career, I have researched and engaged in media activism. That is, individual and collective initiatives through multiple forms of communication – e.g. journalism, photography, filmmaking, social media, broadcasting, theatre, music, etc. – and interactions. I specifically look at media activism for respect, justice and changes among people who suffer from inequalities (Custódio, 2017).
“What do you mean?” – A question for empathy and dialogue
Whenever people ask me about what social changes are possible through media activism, I often reply with another question – what do you mean by “difference”? I do so because sometimes the question “what difference can it make?” tells more about the person asking then necessarily about the feasibility of the actions under discussion. Let me describe some experiences talking about my current research on media activism against racism as an illustration to how the important question about feasible social changes (cf. Craig Jenkins and Form, 2005) can be problematic. In this case, I am specifically talking about my interactions with two profiles of white people in and outside academia.
On the one hand, there are those who consider themselves allies in anti-racism struggles. When some of them excitedly ask about what differences media activism can make, they seem less interested in the complicated nuances of social change than they are in having their hope boosted. Then, when I reply with a weary sigh that social change is not a simple causal matter of action and impact, I notice the happy eagerness gradually shift into sad disappointment. On the other hand, there are those people who are sceptical about the feasibility of any form of activism because they consider economics and governmental politics as the main engines for social change. Then, when they ask what difference media activism against racism makes, their tone tends to be sarcastic, pitiful or aggressive. This attitude suggests to me that they already have an answer in mind: “it makes no relevant difference at all”.
The main problem in both circumstances is that there is very little room for constructive dialogue. That is why I have started asking what people mean by ‘difference’ as a provocative reply. By doing so, I shift the conversation from unfair evaluations of activist practices to an assessment of people’s expectations and prejudices concerning their understanding of meaningful social change. My hope is that this provocation makes more room for dialogue and empathy than biased judgement.
Anti-racism media activism and changes in Finland
My next step, in these conversations, is to clarify how I understand social change. As a Black scholar studying anti-racism media activism, I can never disassociate my biography, subjectivity, worldviews, and activism from the subject of my research. In these circumstances, I have decided to use my own transformations this far in my life and around me as a thematic blueprint for a multidimensional analysis of social changes through media activism. By multidimensional, I mean an effort to understand forms of change that are social, but that happen in different ways on the levels of self, interpersonal relations, cultural patterns, policies, social norms and social structures.
Take Finland for example. When I moved to Finland in 2007, there was a handful of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) voices in public conversations. Today, the situation has improved significantly. There is the music of Yeboyah and Gracias. There is the journalism of Ruskeat Tytöt, Susani Mahadura and Yagmur Özberkan. Finland also enjoys the art of Sasha Huber, the performances of Sonya Lindfors and Ima Iduozee, and the cultural initiatives by AfroFinns, Good Hair Day Helsinki and Ubuntu Film Club. There is so much more: the comedy of Seksikäs Suklaa; the poetry of Tanya Nathan; the writings of Maryan Abdulkarim; the photography of Uwa Iduozee, and the comics of Warda Ahmed.
All these and many others across Finland have both been changes and contributed to changes in Finland. For example, BIPOC people in Finland see people like them as positive representatives of Finnishness beyond whiteness. In addition, Finnish society has gradually condemned and dismantled racist symbols in media and culture. Such changes have also contributed to a slow, but gradual understanding of Finland as a diverse society also at the political, legislative and institutional levels. While it is not possible to indicate how much of these changes can be credited to anti-racism media activism, it is undeniable that the voices of BIPOC people in Finland directly relate to them.
As such, the increase in anti-racism media activist efforts is in itself a major social change. Perhaps, then, a more suitable question than “what difference does it make?” would be “why have I not noticed these changes?” After all, sometimes, the “problem” is not in the actions for change, but in the people who ask about them.
About the author: Leonardo Custódio is a postdoctoral researcher at Åbo Akademi University, co-founder of the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance (www.armaalliance.com), founder and co-coordinator of the Activist Research Network (https://mailman.abo.fi/mailman/listinfo/activist-research-network), and editor-in-chief of www.raster.fi, the website of the Finnish Anti-Racist Research Network. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig Jenkins, J. & Form, W. (2005). “Social movements and social change”. In Janoski, T.; Alford, R.R.;
Custódio, L. (2017). Favela media activism: Counterpublics for human rights in Brazil. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Noble, T. (2000). Social theory and social change. Hampshire/New York: Palgrave.