On Divisiveness in Activism

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have heard a lot of accusations of activists being “divisive” by asking white protesters to take a back seat at rallies. This is not a new thing; in feminism there is a long history of white women telling women of colour to stop talking about race, that the movement is about ALL women and that they should stop being divisive by pointing out that women of colour have a different experience that goes ignored in feminist circles.

However, accusing people of being divisive is a dangerous thing to do in activism, as it is silencing and can veer into mimicking the very sexist or white supremacist oppression that we are trying to destroy. The problem seems to be that there is a mindset that goes like this: I am taking part in anti-oppression activism, therefore my intentions are clearly good, and we should all just focus on doing that good instead of picking on each other and destroying the movement from within.

But what this mindset fails to acknowledge is that just because you are anti-oppression, does not mean you are magically immune to perpetuating systemic oppression. The fact is that we have all grown up in these oppressive systems, and just because we are aware of them and are attempting to fight against them does not mean we do not still replicate those dynamics within our activist spaces. This is clear in feminism when men like H*** Sch***** (typing his name would inevitably attract his vitriol) become spokesmen for the movement and are considered more legitimate and relatable and a great asset to the movement. Oppressive systems are so pervasive in our lives that we model them without even realising it.

Thus, a huge part of activism is not just to protest against systemic injustice. It is also to constantly look inwards and analyse our own motivations and roles in a movement, to recognize when we are perpetuating an oppressive dynamic that we have learned. That is a huge amount of work, and not something everyone is willing to do; however, it is an integral part of being an activist. This is why activism is someone’s entire work and life – it is hard work. Activist spaces are constantly trying to unlearn oppressive behaviours and systems and create new ones; because if you do not know how to undo oppressive dynamics in your own life and spaces, how could you possibly know how to undo it on a societal level? You cannot come into an activist space, claim to be an activist, and then wonder why other activists are asking you to do the hard work that activism involves.

White people at a Black Lives Matter rally yelling the chants that do not represent their own experiences, acting as if they are affected the same way as their black co-protesters are not practising activism. Viewing people who ask these protesters to step aside and leave room for black protesters as being “divisive” is a dangerous viewpoint to hold – it is usually held by white people. White people do not get to decide where the lines are drawn in activism around racism, just as men do not get to decide what is important or necessary in feminist activism. We as privileged people do not get to define the oppression that we may perpetuate, and we do not get to ignore the voices of the people who are marginalized by a system we are part of. Telling us to take a step back is not a petty demand for people to be utterly perfect; it is a plea for us to take our activism deeper and heal the wounds we have carved into our own activist spaces.

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On Violence

Edit: Okay, this is just to make clear that I totally love Idle No More, and this is in no way a critique of what they’re doing or how they do it. I’m also not all like YO LET’S ALL START A VIOLENT REVOLUTION RIGHT NOW FUCK YES. I’m a big proponent of non-violent methods of protest. But I think it’s important not to immediately shoot down other kinds. I’m just trying to make people think a little bit before making grand, sweeping statements from some imagined moral high-ground. Now, with that in mind…

 

“I believe violence is NEVER the answer,” a girl announces proudly from the front row of desks.

We’re sitting in our squishy, height-adjustable, swivelling office chairs in the new building on campus, discussing decolonization and resistance movements in our Indigenous Studies class. Each desk has several electrical outlets installed, conveniently placed for our laptops (mostly MacBooks) to stay charged during the three-hour lecture. It’s minus twenty degrees Celsius outside, but we all have our jackets off in this comfortably-heated room with double-glaze windows.

“Non-violent methods are more productive.”

We read an article by Frantz Fanon, “On Violence”, about the decolonization movements in Algeria. Decolonization will always be violent, he says. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. But nobody seems to agree with him.

Non-violent methods are more productive?

That’s easy for you to say. That’s easy for any of us to say, sitting in our expensive room on our expensive computers completing our expensive undergraduate degrees. We’re cosy. We’re comfortable. Violent resistance is a theoretical abstract that is just so wonderfully easy to dismiss.

Don’t we need to consider the fact that maybe we can so self-assuredly say that “violence is never the answer” because we’ve never been put in a position where actually, maybe violence is the only answer we have left? Maybe deciding that “violence is never the answer” is much more straight-forward when we’re not faced with immediate, actual, physical violence? Maybe, just maybe, sitting in a university classroom in Canada and deciding that violence is never the answer is a bit different from the conclusion you might come to if you were living the experience of being actively, violently colonized.

Canada WAS actively and violently colonized, and the colonization of Indigenous peoples is ongoing and still violent, albeit in usually more covert, indirect, non-physically violent ways. I’m not dismissing that. But the idea that violence is never the answer — coming to that conclusion so easily and assuredly — often comes from a place of privilege. The privilege of thinking of state-endorsed violence as an abstract concept. We’re not faced with imminent physical danger as we sit in our classroom.

And it’s not that there aren’t people living in those situations who don’t still think that violence is not the answer. It’s not that thinking that violence is not the answer is only EVER a privileged opinion. It’s not that it’s a less legitimate opinion. It’s that those of us who live comfortable lives need to stop to wonder why that’s such an easy conclusion for us to come to, why we so immediately dismiss anyone suggesting violent resistance as “wrong” or “irrational” or somehow “behind the times”.

We value non-violent methods of protest so highly, and we consider them so much better than violent methods. If someone says “yeah actually, violence is sometimes called for,” we consider ourselves much more progressive and liberal and just nicer people than them. They’re advocating people KILLING people!!!!!!! Aren’t they?? HOW COULD ANYONE ADVOCATE THAT. They must be right-wing psychos! Or extremists! Why would they not see that sitting down and talking out our problems is just so much more civilized?

Civilized.

Another of the activists whose work we’ve been reading for this class, Taiaiake Alfred, talks a lot about resisting the colonialist framework; he says that trying to work within the framework, to try to get the government to recognise Indigenous people’s rights, is completely futile. To work within the colonialist framework (“Aboriginalism”) basically lends that framework legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Trying to make a place for yourself in that framework helps to support it and ensure that it stays in place. So, Alfred suggests, to effectively decolonize, Indigenous people need to break away from that framework, create their own, to stop from depending on the colonial systems.

People in class didn’t argue with that. Taiaiake advocates for non-violent means of decolonization, and everyone likes that. Idle No More comes up in the discussion, of course, and people think that it’s great that the movement is non-violent because then the media has no ammo to discredit them. They have to be viewed as legitimate now!

Legitimate.

There’s something underlying this discussion that doesn’t come up, and it bothers me, but I don’t say anything because I can’t quite think of how to articulate the feeling of yuck. But as the conversation goes on, the idea starts to form and by the end of class I am uncomfortable and I can identify why that is.

The professor asks a question that brings my issue into sharp focus.

“Who defines violence?”

“The colonizer.” We all know the answer. Gosh, we’re so self-aware. But nobody takes this further, nobody applies this to the assumptions and claims that we’ve all been making throughout the three hours of class. Non-violent means of resistance are always better. Violence is never the answer. Is it a coincidence that all of us, brought up in the West, in a colonialist school system, in colonized countries, unanimously agree that violence is never the answer? Why do we all agree?

Maybe because that is exactly what we are taught. By the colonial system. The colonial system that gets to define even the meaning of violence. The colonial system gets to decide what counts as violence, who’s a terrorist. But not only that; it also gets to decide that “violence is never the answer”. Because why would a colonialist system want anyone to think otherwise? Non-violent means of resistance can be a lot easier for a colonialist state to ignore. Do I think that non-violent means are NEVER effective? No, of course not. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason we’re all taught that violent resistance groups are wrong and bad and irrational and taking things too far.

We learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and “I have a dream”. We’re taught that Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are peace-loving, non-violent leaders of protest movements. Look, they are good! They are just, and their movements are successful! They are how protest leaders and movements Should Be!

Martin Luther King Jr. made many more speeches than just that one. How many of them have you read or heard? A lot of them were just as — if not more — stirring, inspiring, and effective… and also a lot less white-colonialist-friendly. A lot less “non-violent”. Same goes for Mandela and Gandhi. There were also protest movements that were explicitly violent, or a lot less dedicated to being non-violent, that we are taught are BAD BAD BAD, WRONG. TERRIBLE. Maybe we’re only learning about certain resistance leaders, and very particular parts of their histories and opinions, for a reason.

Maybe the colonialist state is choosing how we define and think of “good” resistance and “bad” resistance.

As I said, people in my class like Idle No More because they are non-violent and thus can’t have their acts misrepresented by the media. So people acknowledge that the media has an agenda, that when a resistance movement can be discredited, it will.

But nobody points out that the whole idea that a protest movement MUST BE NON-VIOLENT to be considered legitimate, is in itself a colonialist system’s means of discrediting a portion of resistance movements.  Somebody pipes up and says that being non-violent means that the colonizer will be more likely to listen. Hence why violent resistance movements are unproductive.

Maybe those who advocate violent resistance don’t care about being misrepresented by the media. Maybe they don’t care about the colonizer being more likely to listen. Maybe that’s because so far, the colonial system has come up with an awfully large number of reasons not to listen. The media, as extension of the colonialist system, will always be able to find ways to discredit a resistance that is inconvenient. So maybe working within the colonial framework of non-violent-is-the-only-way-to-go is futile. Because the colonial system is defining how people are even allowed to resist it. We’ll only listen to you if you say it nicely. No shouting! Stop being so aggressive! Maybe we’ll start listening if you’re more polite! Say please! Say thank you! Say “sir”! It means the colonizers get to move the goalposts and forever decide that your resistance efforts aren’t legitimate enough. Aren’t civilized. And so they don’t have to listen to you.

So maybe those who advocate violent means of resistance are fed up with that and are choosing to ignore the framework that non-violent = good, legitimate, worth listening to and violent = bad and irrational.

After all that, it might sound kind of contradictory of me to say that I’m NOT arguing that violent resistance is the better or only way to go. I am just questioning the assumption that the opposite is always the case. Think about the major social revolutions that have occurred; there was a lot of non-violent protest. I have a dream, and all that. But, alongside it, there was ALSO a lot of violent protest going on. Maybe instead of looking at it as the violent resistance being wrong and unnecessary and it was the non-violent portion of the resistance that won people all those rights and recognition under the law, maybe it was both at once. Perhaps both methods of resistance are necessary to achieve decolonization?

Doctors Aren’t Always Right and Other Life Lessons That Never Get Learned

It seems an unfortunate truth that a lot of us learn how-not-to-be-an-asshole far too late in life. So I have compiled a list of resources and some discussion on the lessons I’ve learned in mine, and hopefully this will help other people on their way to not-being-an-asshole, too. Even if you think you’re not an asshole, you may be surprised. I know I have been surprised to learn that I was an asshole (and very well still may be about something I am currently unaware of), so don’t assume that you know whether you’re being one or not.

First and foremost is the strangely prevalent idea that our doctors (and professors, anyone with a “Dr.” in front of their name) know EVERYTHING EVER and are not possibly biased at all, or are not possibly behind the times in certain areas. Doctors are weird superhumans that are infallible, and if they say something is true, then it absolutely must be, no questions asked, and if you disagree then gawd you’re so stupid thinking you’re better than your doctor. But doctors are HUMANS, and they most certainly DO have biases. Say, for example, perhaps one of the most prevalent biases in the medical community today, fat stigma. WAIT, DON’T POST AN ANGRY COMMENT TELLING ME HOW FAT HAS BEEN *PROVEN* TO BE A DISEASE AND STUPID FATTIES NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT FOR THEIR OWN GOOD BECAUSE THEY ARE *KILLING THEMSELVES*.

I find the idea that doctors know better than everyone else — and if they say something is a medical condition then by golly it IS and who are you, stupid music major, to think you know better than DOCTORS — particularly strange because doctors do not focus on social justice. And receiving sensitivity training is in no way comparable. Doctors are not experts in issues of discrimination, so they can be just as thoroughly unaware of their biases as anyone else. These biases, as with any other human, can affect their research, their diagnoses/treatment of patients, everything — biases affect our view of the world, that’s the point. And since doctors are not immune to this, having studies that “prove” something does not make it True Solid Facts Totally Infallible Shut Up. Even if the data collection for a study is conducted properly, the studying of the data and trying to form conclusions, cause-and-effect, correlation, etc, can be coloured by our prejudices. That’s why there are some studies that support one side of a debate, and there are some that support the other side. It’s not that one side is just totally making shit up. But people can come to different conclusions and even get different data if they have underlying prejudices directing the way they’re approaching their research.

And even if we are unwilling to let go of the “doctor knows all” mentality, there are doctors who don’t believe that fat = UGH SO UNHEALTHY YOU ARE GOING TO DIE EARLY IF YOU DON’T LOSE WEIGHT. So why do we all believe the ones that do?

Health At Every Size
Health at Every Size Blog
21 Things to Stop Saying Unless You Hate Fat People
My Fat Body is ME
The Fantasy of Staying Exactly as I Am
Fat Stigma at the Grocery Store

On top of that, there’s a current social trend to be as totally frickin’ culturally insensitive/ironic-racist as possible. This ugly creature rears its head in the form of the trendy “Navajo” clothing at, oh say, every major retailer ever. Hipster headdresses and warpaint, comebacks of racist team logos, and the ever beloved COMPLETELY BLATANTLY-BUT-SOMEHOW-NOT-BLATANTLY racist halloween costumes. And of course popular media, but we all know that’s not a new trend. People have all sorts of reasons as to why any of those things are actually a-okay, but they never seem to stop to ask themselves why they feel the need to come up with such strong defences. Why is it so hard to just stop doing whatever it is?

Racism has always had the fiercest defence, and people seem to raise their hackles pretty quickly as soon as the term “racist” comes into a conversation. But I know I have learned to really think about who something is coming from, and who I am in relation. As in, I am a white middle-class girl. Who the fuck am I to know better than anyone else whether something’s “really” racist or not, having never been on the receiving end of that form of oppression? I don’t mean that white people can never tell when something is racist. But if you don’t think something is racist and someone who is part of a group that experiences racism — who knows first hand what oppression looks and feels like — is telling you that something is racist, you bet your ass they have a better idea of what racism looks like than you do. So maybe ask yourself why you are so unwilling to hear what they have to say.

Because chances are, they’ve already heard what YOU have to say. White people get their voices heard all the time. But how often do we hear the voices of people of colour, not silenced, not stifled, not interrupted?

The Angry Black Woman
Native Appropriations

But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Racebending
The Danger of a Single Story (video)

In the same vein, I STILL hear jokes about “Justin Bieber is a girl!” haha, super funny. Not at all. Considering the vast amounts of violent crimes against trans* and other non-gender-bindary folks that are still occurring, IN OUR COUNTRY, HERE AND NOW, I would expect people to stop with transphobic jokes already but hey, that’d be not-asshole-y. And if everyone was not-an-asshole, cissexism wouldn’t be a problem to begin with. Feminism isn’t immune to this shit either; some feminist circles are also transphobic — some very blatantly, and others through constantly equating/linking women with vaginas (vaginae?). Hey, newsflash, not every woman has a vagina. Why is that still news? And another newsflash-that-shouldn’t-be, making jokes about male-identified celebrities really having vaginas is transphobic, plain and simple. Cut that shit out already.

A Conversation With Isis King and Janet Mock (video)
Gender Bitch
Genderbitch on Tumblr
Not Your Mom’s Trans 101
Art of Transliness
My Genital Affirmation (video)

Obviously there are many, many more lessons in how-to-not-be-an-asshole that everyone needs to learn. But alas, I must save it for another day, as the words pass 1000 and the night grows old. So I will leave you with this information for now; the many links will hopefully bring you hours of joyous self-assessment and/or just some interesting stuff to read if you’re already down with all this. And some day hence, I shall return, with more lessons that I have learned and want to share with you. Until then, adieu!

Breaking News: Black Character Actually Played by Black Actor This Time!

I’m amazed.

I just watched the trailer for a new Wuthering Heights movie.

HEATHCLIFF IS ACTUALLY BLACK THIS TIME!

Except sadly, the only reason I think this happened is because it’s not a big-budget Hollywood production. So don’t worry, Hollywood is still as racist as ever, HURRAAAAYYYY.

When I read the book I had always thought it was pretty fucking obvious that he was a black guy, and that (along with the inevitable-because-yay-racist-society lower-class-ness) was why Cathy’s feelings for him were frowned upon. Although Emily never outright writes “he’s a black dude and everyone’s fucking racist”, but I thought it was pretty obvious from the description of his dark skin and the way everyone treated him like utter piss even when he’d been fancied up a bit. But in every big screen adaptation? Well, let’s have a look, shall we?

Hello, I’m Heathcliff, and I’m white as fuck!

Hello, I’m Heathcliff, and I’m also white as fuck.

Hey! Guess who I am! And guess what colour I am?!

Because god forbid there be an actual black actor on screen, as a MAIN CHARACTER? HEINOUS. And not only that, but as the MAIN LOVE INTEREST, too? That’s just out of the question.

Except now someone finally admits it — hey this book is about interracial relationships and how a racist society shunned people who had them!

(if the video doesn’t show up for you, here’s the link -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HjdVKA1AuQ)

Hurray! Fucking FINALLY! THANK YOU! Now Hollywood, follow suit already!