There’s trouble in influencer land. Two writers and Instagram feminists –The Slumflower, aka Chidera Eggerue, and Florence Given – are locked in an ongoing dispute regarding intellectual property, accusations of online bullying and a demand for colonial reparations. But as tempting as it is to dismiss the online furore, the row (baffling and overwrought as it may be) demonstrates the limitations of both influencer activism and a politics constructed around white guilt.
For those who had no idea a war was raging because they find themselves, like me, on the wrong side of 25, here’s the precis. Chidera Eggerue, author of What a Time to be Alone and How To Get Over A Boy has alleged that Florence Given’s book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty has substantively plagiarised her own work. Eggerue (who is British Nigerian) accused Given (who is not) of “profiting off of black people’s ideas, black activism, black work”.
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The Slumflower has demanded that, in light of her allegations, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty should either be immediately yanked from shop shelves and royalties given to her, or that if Florence wants to continue publishing it, the royalties should be divided as a 70/30 split with Eggerue to be assigned the lion’s share as a form of “reparations”. Given has unequivocally rejected any imputation that she is a copycat, calling the claims “baseless” and “without merit”, and furthermore stated that two lawyers specialising in intellectual property have examined her book and found no infringement of copyright or plagiarism whatsoever. Meanwhile, Eggerue has come under fire for her conduct on social media, where she has received criticism from other Black writers who have been made to face a barrage of hostile replies from The Slumflower’s dedicated – and often white – supporters. Perhaps this was one of those things which would have been better off left to legal professionals, rather than being put to trial-by-Clubhouse.
Until the beef exploded, Eggerue and Given shared a management team and an agent – and indeed, there are distinct similarities in how the two were marketed. They were both sold as the fresh and dynamic faces of female empowerment: self-help, with a sprinkle of Audre Lorde. Their Instagram feeds are sumptuous arrays of gorgeous selfies, tasteful interiors, and go-get-em quotes (“Maybe I’m ‘too much’. Maybe my abundance just reminds you that you’re lacking”). While both women make passing references to social movements, neither are particularly interested in the terrain of collective struggle. In Eggerue’s words, “the real activism is your relationship with yourself”. The personal isn’t just political, it’s all there is. Eggerue and Given (both peddling books which really should have been tweets) push soft politics for the newly therapised: a glimmering of social consciousness embedded within a cult of the individual.
While having undeveloped or immature politics isn’t the gravest sin in the world, The Slumflower’s use of the phrase “individual reparations” is altogether more distasteful. It should be said, however, that Eggerue did not invent the concept. That dubious honour belongs to professor Michael Eric Dyson, who argues that both a white person paying a Black gardener double for mowing the lawn and the United Negro College Fund accepting $25m from the Koch brothers are forms of “individual reparations” (regardless of what else either the hypothetical white homeowner, or real-life Koch brothers, might otherwise be doing for the cause of antiracism). It’s possible to see, therefore, that this was already an idea that’s somewhat unmoored from any robust critique of the structural and collective harm that disempowers Black and formerly colonised people.
But contrary to Dyson’s claims, reparations isn’t an individual white person giving money to an individual Black or brown person (apart from when I personally am broke and want a cocktail, in which case it’s very much that). The Global Reparations Movement has its origins in pan-Africanist, civil rights, Black radical and anti-imperialist currents of organising. It starts from a recognition that a) colonialism and slavery have had a lasting economic impact, and b) the successor of chattel slavery and colonialism is the underdevelopment and debt servitude of the global south, and the exploitation of labour and resources from the global south. Reparations is not merely restitution for past wrongs, but the transfer of wealth and the reorganisation of power in order to restore “a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments or corporations.” You cannot, as Chidera Eggerue does, substitute an individual for the whole and still call the demand “reparations”.
Of course, it’s not for me to say whether Eggerue’s abuse of the language of reparatory justice is born of ignorance, or springs from opportunism. I don’t know her, and all of us have room to grow in our politics and change for the better. But I can see how the space has been created for her to make such a demand, and why white people are indeed forking out in the name of individual reparations.
The last few years, from Brexit to BLM to Boris and Trump, have been a startling wake-up call for young, socially-conscious white people. The accelerated distribution of ideas has rapidly familiarised people who don’t themselves experience racism with ideas like intersectionality, anti-Blackness and white privilege. While the white and newly awakened have learned of their centrality to the unequal organisation of society, there hasn’t however been an obvious avenue for their participation in anti-racist struggle. For good reason, the emphasis has been on the self-organisation of Black and brown people; so while white people have been made more politically aware, that hasn’t necessarily resulted in being more politically active. Rather it has intensified their consumption of political content – particularly material which equates white guilt with anti-racist solidarity.
This means that people who are adept at branding content with the trappings of social consciousness are uniquely well placed to capitalise on the political moment. As Moya Lothian McLean points out in her piece for gal-dem, “an obvious career trajectory has been established for young women who manage to build a large social media following via ‘feminist’ content.”
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“First comes the low-level buzz, the appearances on magazine lists that feature the word ’empowering’ or ‘badass’ in the title,” she writes. “Next up are the panel appearances. Then the podcast. Finally, a lucrative book deal – six figures or so – that will open them up to the rest of the world.”
But this professional pathway also has political implications. Social media blurs the distinction between influencer and activist. Individuals become seen as being totemic of a wider political struggle, and their success a measure of political progress. And it is, of course, meaningful to materially support people whose work you deem politically useful – writers can’t live on praise alone.
Furthermore, the wild success of leftwing crowdfunding in recent years shows that there’s power in opening your purse. Before he dropped out of the primaries, Bernie Sanders was able to outspend corporate Dems because of money raised through small donations. The Minnesota Freedom Fund raised over $30m last summer, as supporters raced to donate bail money for protestors arrested after the murder of George Floyd. Donating to projects of collective emancipation is part of how we break big money’s stranglehold on the political process.
However, Eggerue performs something of a bait-and-switch, where supporting her as a Black woman becomes a proxy for supporting all Black women. This isn’t reparations, and it’s certainly not just. It values the visibility of social media activity above the often subterranean work of deep organising. The cult of the self engulfs the shared terrain of collective struggle – which, even before the plagiarism row erupted, was Eggerue and Given’s direction of travel anyway. The personal makes up the sum total of the political: there’s no such thing as social struggle. The influencers have invented intersectional Thatcherism.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.