Opinion: Lights, Camera, Action: The Performance of Activism
People don’t realize that advocacy because a choice is a privilege
Throughout my childhood, I accepted certain things as universal truths.
One: The TV schedule never changes. I can count on the fact that after a long day of learning everything fourth graders are learning (fractions? The American Dream? Dodgeball?), I can get off the bus, run down the street, and land on my couch before 3pm, just in time to catch this Phineas and Ferb are up to.
Two: dinner certainly includes rice. Growing up in a first generation immigrant home, my parents’ biggest fear was that I would wake up one day, forget Bengali and become their totally Western daughter. I would demand a pair of Ugg boots and start calling them by their first name. They wouldn’t know what to do with me. My mom was hopeful that Rice would renew my South Asian subscription for the next 24 hours.
Three: Whenever Asia is mentioned, whatever the room, all heads will turn in my direction. I, with only seven months living in Bangladesh and two South Asian friends under my belt, will be called upon to speak on any relevant matter. I like to call it a workplace hazard to be one of the only brown kids in just about every room I’ve occupied in the beautiful city of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
So I started my lifelong journey to social justice without really having a say in it. What people don’t realize is that advocacy as a choice is a privilege. Like me, most members of minorities are forced to do so. Maybe the teachers are well intentioned when they do it, or maybe my peers wanted to give me a chance to speak, that’s what they’re supposed to do, right? Make room at the table, pass the microphone, and shine the spotlight on silence otherwise? Sure.
Of course, it would also be nice if they took the time to do their own research and not leave it in the hands of a nine-year-old.
So, like clockwork, when anything about racialized identities is brought up, eyes all around turn to me, making me an unwitting advocate. Only, growing up, I was a child like them. I did not have time to understand everything.
Even so, there is a sense of urgency shared by immigrants, racialized groups and minorities as a whole, to understand all of this.
It felt like I had to give up a few visits from Phineas and Ferb at 3 p.m. to find out what to do as a racialized fourth grader (how to pronounce your own name? History of colonization? What to say when? we ask him where are you from?).
After all, in this class of 23, you were given a mic for millions.
In the suburbs, I was the first diverse encounter for most people. Therefore, I was a lot of people’s guinea pig to spoil everything. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for me, the patience of young migrant and minority children is unprecedented. So I would bite my tongue.
As a young person of color, there is a fourth truth: social justice is a game of waiting. “The other children did not know any better” and “they will learn when they are older”, we would be reassured. You are asked to be the tallest person when you are barely four feet tall. (I will, however, let you know that by Bengali standards I am the tallest person. At 1.71 meters, I am currently 19 centimeters above the national female average. Wait for applause.)
Even so, it is certainly difficult to be the taller person when you feel so small.
So I played the waiting game. Turns out it’s true: they learn when they’re older, sort of. The same people who asked why I got an award at the Catholic school I should never have enrolled in, said my name sounded like a taco, and made Islamophobic comments while sitting next to me in an eighth grade class, would go out to post black squares, colorful infographics on their stories and send their thoughts and prayers. There was a time when another universal truth was that I could open Instagram and find latte art, dog photos, and an Instagram post that was a screenshot of a tweet that was originally a Tumblr post.
Now the platform is saturated with infographics that almost double as badges – I’m a good person, trust me! And many of them are. But many of them publish and then turn a blind eye to racist family members. Such is the performance of activism. But who am I to judge, right? Either way, I should be happy for them, right? They managed to get out on the other side. Good for them. Great! Marvellous.
It’s just hard not to be frustrated. Again, I feel like I’m on the playing field and asking myself to be the bigger person. Make no mistake: anyone who has truly acknowledged their past digressions, made amends, and actively chooses advocacy now, I respect them tremendously. It’s incredibly respectable to be able to admit your mistakes and grow up, or reject ideologies you might have learned growing up – hey, other cultures can have universal truths too. However, I disagree with those who wear the Social Justice Warrior as an accessory that they can adorn at their convenience. This is where we differ: the boldness of choice and the inequality of apathy. You could say that ignorance is bliss, but I contend that ignorance is a privilege, just like apathy.
It is a privilege for social injustice to be objective or impersonal. It doesn’t seem impersonal when in London, Ont., A Pakistani Muslim family of the nine-year-old son of four went for a walk with his parents and teenage sister, before being orphaned in a terrorist attack. It doesn’t seem impersonal to me when my own nine-year-old brother, who often walks with our parents and teenage sisters, is sobered that it looks a lot like him. How can it be impersonal when I have to comfort him and say that it was a fluke, a unique event and that he will be okay? It is not an objective event when my mother warns her to be less open with her Muslim identity, even when she is wearing a hijab. It is not easy to feel detached when you are so intrinsically, irrevocably attached.
But racism is not a one-off thing, nor a dark and closed chapter in Canadian history. This is the whole story. At present, as Canada financially supports Israel and, therefore, supports the genocide of the Palestinians, this continues. As indigenous peoples find themselves without clean drinking water, it continues. As Canada Day came and went, and with it the red and white holidays and ornaments, I saw it again. Advocacy only when convenient, easy to digest, and does not disrupt routine. As indigenous people called for a ceasefire on fireworks, a swap of red and white for orange, and mourning instead of celebrating the genocide, people traded in their pastel infographics usual against images of red solo cups, red and white clothes and listlessness. Why isn’t the day of the orange T-shirt enough? Why is Indigenous Peoples Day not enough? Why waste their day with uncomfortable guilt? Why can’t they wear red and white and light some fireworks?
Because the whites were the settlers who stole this land. Because red was the blood they shed as they tried to “take the Indian out of the child.” Because the fireworks boom is stifling the voices of indigenous peoples begging, begging, demanding justice. Because some Canadians are turning 154, Aboriginal people are focusing more on a different set of numbers. 215, 751, 1,300 indigenous bodies found – and it continues. Because while some are celebrating, others cry. Because they shouldn’t have to be the greatest people while facing genocide and generational trauma.
Now when it is most important we should make room at the table, pass the microphone to those who have the ability and the will to speak, shine the spotlight on those who would otherwise be silenced. Listen now, support now, be consistent with your advocacy now, not when it is convenient and comfortable.
So if you are on your way to social justice, I implore you not to wear an advocacy badge, easily removed as you wish. Please don’t give up on the cause while you sit down at the table with your “old-fashioned” aunt. Because I can’t change my skin color when she looks at me sideways at Walmart the next day. Please do not take off your badge as you are letting your friends agree to disagree on basic human rights as my mother will not take off her hijab when they make comments about it in audience later. Be the change you say you want to see. I ask you to tattoo your alliance with advocacy and denounce the inequality of apathy and the performativity of activism.