This is a very overdue post, but two weekends ago, I had the honor to be invited to this year’s Banana 2: Asian Pacific American Bloggers Conference in Los Angeles. I felt very grateful to speak on the “Uncovering the Activist in You/Social Media for Social Change” panel with Fatemeh Fakhraie (founder of “Muslimah Media Watch”), Marissa Lee (co-founder of “Racebending”), Frances Kai-Hwa Wang (of “Adventures in Multicultural Living”), Cynthia Liu (of K-12 News Network), and our moderator, Keith Kamisugi. This was the first time I was invited to speak on a panel and I must thank Edward Hong, an activist, actor, and blogger, for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and connect with fellow activists and bloggers.
I was overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort that went into organizing the conference. I especially Loved how everything in the room was very social media-based (I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised because it was, after all, a bloggers conference!). For example, draped in one corner of the room was a projector screen that showed live Twitter updates from people in attendance. There was also a table in another corner that had laptops for people to access the internet and update their blogs and social media accounts. Above the table was a cute speech bubble painted on the wall that read: “Blog Here!” (I actually updated my Facebook status from this blogging station after I spoke on my panel!) In the back of the room, there was a white board where people could post up neat and witty sticky notes. Just by reading the notes, I recognized the diverse Asian community in attendance: Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, bi-racial and multi-racial folks, etc. (sorry if I missed anyone!)
Although I was the only South Asian and Pakistani speaker at the conference, I did not feel alienated or excluded. On the contrary, I felt very welcomed and I got the sense that people were interested in what I had to say. One of the first panels actually discussed what it meant to be “Asian” and how South Asians, as well as West Asians, should be included. Fatemeh and I were the only Muslim speakers and I felt like we made a significant contribution to the discussion. Given the size of our panel on social media activism, a maximum of five minutes to speak was requested of each panelist. It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but I was surprised how much could share within that limit. I was nervous at first, but after speaking with my fellow panelists, particularly Marissa Lee, who told me that this is the most encouraging audience I’ll be speaking in front of, I felt more comfortable about it! In this blog post, I just want to share some of the things I mentioned in my talk, but also elaborate further on activist organizing.
Prior to the conference, I remember Edward outlining the panel for us and one of the questions he made us think about was, “Can an everyday person make a difference through social media?” A number of times, I wondered why I was invited to speak at the conference. My blog is not connected to a group, organization, or a major website. I really just created my blog to share my experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American and to write about issues that I feel are important. A lot of times, in my experience, I’ve come across people who didn’t see the significance in blogging, going to a rally, protesting, signing a petition, etc. They don’t feel like it makes a difference. I think part of the problem is that we’re socialized to think that revolutions happen overnight and that there must be immediate results from our protesting. When we focus on this model of activism, it’s easy for us to get discouraged. We overlook the other significant elements that are important in our struggles, such as reaching out to people, engaging with people on a very personal and individual level. I strive to do that on my blog, especially when I receive e-mails from readers who share their thoughts about my posts. Making a difference one person at a time, as cliche as it sounds, is still making a difference. It is still significant, and with those of us who have access to social media, we can use our blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to network with fellow activists. It is about sharing knowledge, learning from each other, building and creating communities, advancing upon our movements, expressing solidarity, meeting in person (if possible), and implementing new knowledge and contributions into our social justice activism.
As in my experience, you never know who’s reading your posts. I’ve seen my posts being re-published on many different websites, not just anti-racist blogs. In fact, my chapter published in “Teaching Against Islamophobia,” was a result of a university professor reading my two-part online essay on Muslim women in American and Middle Eastern comic books. I do not deny that there are limitations with social media, but it is an important tool that we can use to strengthen and further our activism. I mentioned Egypt briefly in my talk because it does exemplify how social media can be used to coordinate rallies, but I also made it a point to say that it would be very problematic and simplistic to characterize the Egypt uprisings as a “Twitter Revolution.” That is, people were marching in the streets, putting themselves at risk, and even giving their lives for the sake of justice. Even when the government shut down the internet, people were still protesting.
For a lot of us in the west, social media was a great way to follow the updates in Egypt. If I didn’t have social media, I would have been stuck with mainstream American news channels that were distorting the reality in Egypt and discussing the protests through an offensive Islamophobic and orientalist lens. If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t have been able to easily choose an alternative source, particularly Al Jazeera English. I remember speaking to some co-workers who were surprised when I told them about Egyptian Christians and Muslims holding hands, forming human chains to protect each other during prayers, and standing in solidarity with each other. Because of their access to social media, I was able to easily share Al Jazeera English with them.
Similarly, when we use social media to network with people and other communities, we benefit by learning from each other. One of the most important things I’ve learned about through my discussions with friends on Facebook and the blogosphere is something called intersectionality, which refers to the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, and how they often operate simultaneously. bell hooks stresses a lot on intersectional approaches because so many white feminists from privileged class backgrounds disregard racism, classism, and other factors that play immense roles in oppressing women. This approach has taught that we cannot be speaking out against racism while participating in sexist oppression (and vice versa). We can’t be condemning homophobia while we’re perpetuating Islamophobia (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage!). We can’t be outraged by Islamophobia while making racist jokes about other communities and folks of color. We can’t be advocating feminism while spreading racist stereotypes about women and men of color (and I would recommend reading this excellent post “Bad Romance: Feminism and Women of Colour Make an Unhappy Pair” by Sana Saeed). We can’t fight gender discrimination while advocating racial profiling and congressional hearings on Muslims. We can’t be standing up for Muslim rights in America while supporting orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries, and I would further add that such a stance plays into the hands of “US-centrism,” where we believe what happens in the US is “more important” than what happens “over there.” We need to understand the relationship between US imperialism in other countries and oppression in the US itself.
For those of you who are familiar with Andrea Smith’s work, you may recognize that my last point comes from her brilliant piece “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supermacy.” A year or so ago, a good friend of mine shared Smith’s essay with me and I have to say that it remains one of the most important, thought-provoking, and valuable pieces I’ve read on people of color organizing. Smith asserts that instead of focusing on “shared oppression” or “shared victimization,” we should understand that white supremacy affects us all in different ways and that we need to take responsibility in recognizing how our struggles often run into conflict with each other. An example she uses is how US-born communities of color join the military “in order to advance economically out of impoverished communities.” As a result, she adds, we “become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries.” Meanwhile, “all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands.” The point in keeping us all accountable is to develop stronger alliances and more vigilant strategies in ensuring that our commitment to social justice and liberation does not oppress others (either within or outside our communities). I believe Smith’s following example demonstrates how effective this strategy is:
“Native peoples who are organizing against the colonial and genocidal practices committed by the US government will be more effective in their struggle if they also organize against US militarism, particularly the military recruitment of indigenous peoples to support US imperial wars. If we try to end US colonial practices at home, but support US empire by joining the military, we are strengthening the state’s ability to carry out genocidal policies against people of color here and all over the world.”
I mention this strategy because I think it really makes us focus on the rights, dignity, and care of all peoples. Its purpose is not to discourage us or to assert any sort of political superiority. It’s about helping us build communities and understand each other better. I know there were things about the Asian-American community that I didn’t know about prior to attending the Banana 2 conference. I wasn’t aware that Japanese-Americans were the first community to actively speak out against the vilification of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 (and they recently condemned the disgusting, anti-Muslim rally that protested against an Islamic charity fundraiser in Orange County). I know there is a lot I can learn from you and I know that the same system that hurts your people is also hurting my people. I know that when we get to know each other, learn about struggles, and build alliances, we only become stronger. I know that when I do not stand up for you, no one will stand up for me. When other people of color see Asians speak out against Hollywood’s whitewashing in “The Last Bender,” for example, it’s important to express solidarity and understand that this is not solely an “Asian issue.” It’s something we should all be concerned about.
Towards the end of the conference, I was trying to articulate about something that I think I can express better on my blog. It’s about an unfortunate phenomenon called “celebrity activism,” which happens far too often. It’s when being an “activist” becomes a “title” and social justice movements transform into another oppressive hierarchy. This undermines everything we’re supposed to be standing for: equality, justice, dignity, and yes, Love. There have been many times when I’ve felt discouraged by fellow activists who assert their political superiority in all sorts of manners, whether it’s because of their emphasis on “sexual liberation” (that is, if you’re not having sex, you’re seen as “backwards” and “regressive”) or their accusing you of being “too negative” and not “positive” enough. I have seen fellow activists vehemently attack others for not being “consistent” enough in their politics. In other words, there are “qualifications” one needs to be an “activist.” There is a specific “way” one needs to speak and behave in order to be considered an “activist.”
On “sexual liberation,” I want to share what bell hooks writes in her book, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center”:
The focus on “sexual liberation” has always carried with it the assumption that the goal of such effort is to make it possible for individuals to engage in more and/or better sexual activity. Yet one aspect of sexual norms that many people find oppressive is the assumption that one ‘should’ be engaged in sexual activity. This “should” is one expression of sexual coercion. Advocates of sexual liberation often imply that any individual who is not concerned about the quality of their experience or exercising greater sexual freedom is mentally disturbed or sexually repressed. When primary emphasis is placed on ending sexual oppression rather than on sexual liberation, it is possible to envision a society in which it is as much an expression of sexual freedom to choose not to participate in sexual activity as it is to choose to participate.
To address my other point on “positivity” and “earning” the “activist title,” I need to ask the following question: what does it mean to be an activist? When we say that we must have a certain mind-set, or a “smile or die” attitude about social justice, we are forgetting about the fact that there are people out there who do not have the “privilege” (I don’t like this word; can anyone suggest an alternative?) to join organizations, to go to rallies, to write blog posts, to write to elected officials, etc. These are people who are fighting for their rights 24/7, for their basic right to be treated as human beings. To suggest that these stories aren’t important because they’re “too negative” is exclusionary and oppressive. Human beings have feelings, they’re allowed to feel angry, sad, and miserable about the situations they’re in. Arrogantly denying their feelings and telling them they need to be “more positive” is counter-productive and extremely inconsiderate of the fact that racism and oppression affects us all differently. Malcolm X was angry, does that mean he couldn’t make a difference? We need people to share their stories and experiences. If they can’t feel free and comfortable to speak in our movements, then where can their voices be heard? There is a lot of hurt out there and we cannot heal if we behave like the pain doesn’t exist.
Something else that also happens with “celebrity activists” is that we give them a “pass” on any problematic things they may say. I am not diminishing the importance of speaking in the mainstream and I mean no disrespect to the scholars, activists, authors, filmmakers, and artists who are doing amazing work (which is why I will not say their names), but there are some who, due to their status, are excused on ridiculing and even exploiting others. In some cases, the status of these “celebrity activists,” coupled with their “physical attractiveness” is used to gloss over the errors they make in their analysis. When we excuse problematic statements that reinforce serious stereotypes about communities just because the individual is “hot,” we are asserting the oppressive notion that “physically attractive” people deserve better treatment. In these situations, let’s consider if these same statements were made by someone that media and society would classify as “unattractive,” would we still excuse them? (and this topic on physical attractiveness and the way we treat people is an important one and requires further anti-racist analysis).
One of the things I appreciated about my experience at Banana 2 was that I didn’t feel a hierarchy. I didn’t get the sense that some bloggers/speakers thought they were better than anyone else. While I heard things I disagreed with, I felt that this was a receptive crowd and that if we engaged in friendly, respectful discussions, we could learn a lot from each other. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had and I hope whatever I shared in this post (and at the conference) is found useful. I’m confident all of us can benefit from each other and build stronger, more effective alliances and strategies that ensure the end of oppression for all peoples.