Reflections on Wiscon 40

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Although WisCon 40 ended on Monday, I didn’t make it back home until Wednesday because my Tuesday flight was cancelled due to the weather. Even on Wednesday, United Airlines sent me consecutive texts about how my flight kept getting delayed. My plan was not to miss my Wednesday night class, but due to the flight delays, I ended up being an hour late!

There is a lot I want to say about my first time attending WisCon, a self-described feminist science fiction and fantasy convention that advocates anti-racist and intersectional politics. Overall, it was a great experience and I loved how efforts were made to provide safe space for everyone. There were so many amazing panel topics and discussions, but some took place at the same time, so it was impossible to attend all of them! It was refreshing to hear feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic perspectives highlighted upon, particularly in the context of science fiction and fantasy. In more mainstream discussions, the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are mostly marginalized or excluded altogether.

A friend finally convinced me to join Twitter so that I could keep up with the conversations at the panels and also live tweet reactions that others could read. I remember people doing live tweets when I spoke at the Banana 2 conference back in 2011, but I missed all of the tweets because I didn’t have a Twitter account!

Anyway, as much as I enjoyed WisCon, it was not perfect. I had one experience with a racial microaggression that shook me up a little on Friday, where a White woman scolded me in the elevator for not moving, even though there were clearly two other people standing in front of me and I was waiting for them to walk out. Her anger may have been towards all of us, but it was directed at me. I was the darkest person in the elevator, so I figured that I was an easy target. I didn’t say anything to her and just walked out when I was able to, but as someone who experiences racism, Islamophobia, and microaggressions on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but think, “I came here to get away from the dehumanizing treatment I get from White people. I have to deal with it here, too?” Thanks to a friend, I was able to move past it. I needed to, otherwise I would have been in a terrible mood and I would have missed out on meeting wonderful people at the Con.

The first panel I went to was a Star Wars panel, which tweeted under the hashtag #TheFandomAwakens. As one can imagine, the discussion was full of praise for the latest Star Wars film, particularly for Rey, Finn, and Poe. It was nice to hear the panelists mention the Women of Color characters that we saw in the background of the film, but I was hoping for them to be a little more critical and talk about how Women of Color deserve to play significant roles, too. I mentioned this in my previous posts here and here about how it’s great we are seeing more prominent women characters in science fiction, fantasy, and comic book movies/TV shows, but the majority of them are White women. I have some friends, for example, who wished Rey was a woman of color. It would have been interesting to discuss and ask, “Could a woman of color ever be the main character in a Star Wars movie?” This is not a diss on the panel because I totally understand wanting to talk about all the positive things in The Force Awakens. I wasn’t bothered by this, until a White woman referred to John Boyega’s skin color as “dark chocolate.” I was sitting there, thinking, whoa, did I just hear that?

Let me take a minute here to say: NO. Do NOT compare Black people and other People of Color to food. JUST DON’T. I remember classmates in school likening my skin color to Hershey chocolate after they told me I couldn’t dress up as Batman for Halloween because I’m not White. The panelist initially said that she appreciated how a dark skinned Black man was chosen to play Finn. There was nothing wrong about that statement because, yes, we see colorism a lot in Hollywood where People of Color, especially Women of Color, with darker skin are excluded and discriminated against, but the “dark chocolate” comment was completely unnecessary.

Later that day, I decided to go to the Safer Space for People of Color room. I cannot express how grateful I am that such a space exists for People of Color. Everyone in the room was friendly, welcoming, and supportive. People use the space to vent about anything, not just about the experiences they’re having at the Con. One night, I was talking to a couple of people about the “dark chocolate” remark I heard at the Star Wars panel. I also expressed how I often get worried about being critical of Star Wars (which is my favorite movie series of all time, by the way) because there’s a perception that if you critique something, then it must mean you hate it. One person in the room immediately said, “Oh, that’s such a White attitude.” And I was like, “Yes! It so is.” We had discussions about the metaphorical minorities panel and all of the sci-fi/fantasy movies that appropriate the struggles of People of Color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities, and depict White people as being the most persecuted group. Someone in the space also mentioned how she felt Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road should have been an Indigenous woman due to how disappearances of Indigenous women and other Women of Color are still prevalent today. All in all, it felt great to have these discussions with people who understand that just because you’re critical of something, it doesn’t mean you “hate” it (And of course, I did talk about certain movies and TV shows I hate too!). I think having such spaces where people can vent freely and not worry about being judged, silenced, or marginalized is a radical act.

Frequent readers of my blog may know this already, but I am not used to being around a lot of People of Color due to the demographics of where I live, work, and study. Being the only person of color and only Muslim in the workplace or classroom is a norm I’ve experienced all of my life. At the Safe Space for People of Color room, when I introduced myself to people, everyone made a genuine effort in learning how to pronounce my name correctly. That meant a lot to me. I’m so used to the opposite, where White people won’t make an effort to learn. I worked 5 years in a workplace where one of my White managers refused to address me by my name because, “It’s too hard!” (yet she knew how to pronounce “Hydrochlorothiazide”). Of course, there are White folks and People of Color that I meet in my everyday life that are better at this, but I didn’t have any anxiety about introducing myself at the Safer Space for PoC at WisCon.

There was also a dinner for People of Color on one of the nights. Across the PoC dinner room was the dinner provided by the main Con. As you can imagine, all of the White folks were lined up for that dinner, but as a friend and I were walking by, we heard a couple of White people complaining about how there was a PoC dinner. One of them even said, “I’m transparent, does that count as a color?” Ha Ha. Get it? Because transparent is… Yeah. My friend and I looked at each other and were like, “Did you just hear that?” As I mentioned earlier, this was my first WisCon, so I was unaware of the work that went into getting safe space for People of Color. My friend informed me about how WisCon has been changing and becoming more inclusive over the years, and how there has been resistance to these changes, especially from the older generation of White attendees. I heard more People of Color mention this in conversations.

Of course, WisCon isn’t the only place where I’ve heard White people complain about safe space for People of Color. I’ll speak for myself here, but I’ve lost count of how many times I have been excluded from workplace dinners or parties organized by classmates. The workplace dinners were the worst because there were multiple times when pork would be on the pizza they ordered or there was never any effort to order Halal meat. I don’t expect the latter, but you would think “holiday dinners” would have vegetarian options at least, but they didn’t until I complained about it. I became so used to being that one person who couldn’t eat anything at non-Muslim dinner events. So it felt nice, for once, that I could access a space that White people couldn’t and that there were food options available to me. In downtown Madison, we were looking for restaurants that served Halal meat and were able to find three. I am thinking about contacting the organizers at WisCon to let them know which restaurants. I think it would be nice if the WisCon app included Halal and Kosher meat categories under the restaurants they have listed.

It was awesome meeting all of the science fiction and fantasy authors at the Con. I was introduced to N.K. Jemisin’s work last year and read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but she wasn’t at WisCon this year. I felt a little awkward getting my book signed by Sofia Samatar because I had not read any of her work before. Before I went to the Con, I bought a book where two of her short stories are featured, but I didn’t get a chance to read them in time! I bought her book, The Winged Histories, and told her that I was really looking forward to reading it.

One of the panels I really liked was about Social Media Exclusivity. It stood out to me on the schedule because I’ve deactivated from Facebook for about 7 months now. I have been thinking about writing a post about why I deactivated, but it was nice to hear other people express similar concerns and critiques about social media. The panelists spoke about how people tend to assume that everyone has access to social media and/or the internet in general. They mentioned how a lot of activist organizing and announcements are made on Twitter and Facebook, but there are also a lot of people, especially communities of color, who are excluded from these meetings and events because they don’t have access to social media. There was also a discussion about how people choose to stay off social media due to how unsafe it can be due to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc. I appreciated this panel because it reminded me of how torn I feel about being off Facebook. On one hand, it was a space where I could meet and network with people (mainly other Muslims and people of color) who I would not have met otherwise, but on the other, there was also a lot of toxicity, ego battles, and oppressive behavior. The latter made Facebook extremely time consuming, but also exhausting. I don’t know how long I’ll stay on Twitter because I hear it can be worse than Facebook. Anyway, like I said before, I have been thinking about writing a post on this, so I’ll save all of the details for that post.

I was hoping to find a panel about Muslim characters and/or Islamophobia at WisCon, but there did not seem to be any. However, I was informed that panels about Islamophobia and Muslim characters were discussed in previous years. I didn’t register for WisCon in time to organize a panel, but I would like to in the future because there’s so much I want to vent about with regard to Islamophobia in mainstream science fiction and fantasy movies! Overall, I am glad I went to WisCon this year. I got to meet some really wonderful people and I hope to stay connected with them! I would definitely go to WisCon again, though probably not next year because memorial weekend falls on Ramadan.

If you went to WisCon 40, I would love to hear your thoughts or read any posts you’ve written about it!

In Defense of Creating Safe Space on Social Media

tumblr_n2sum9iWod1rfwfq9o1_1280During the Occupy protests, I remember attending a meeting created by and for people of color. Their goals were many, including efforts to de-center white activists who failed (and refused) to address issues like racism, sexism, colonialism, and imperialism. They also sought to change the name to “Decolonize” instead of “Occupy” because the land on which we walk in the United States is already stolen and occupied Indigenous land. As the first meeting began, we recognized that there were white people in attendance seeking to show solidarity and become allies. They were welcomed in the group, but most people of color also demanded that there be time for safe space, i.e. meetings for people of color only. As expected, the reaction from white folks was extremely defensive. I heard some even say that we were resorting to the very discrimination that we were fighting against (we’ve all heard this before, nothing new). Also not surprising was how there were some people of color in agreement with these white activists. As one could imagine, a lot of exhaustive arguing ensued, especially from people of color who were trying to explain the need for safe space. Ironic was how the white activists who kept complaining and crying “reverse racism” failed to recognize that their defensive reactions were precisely the reason why people of color ask for safe space — a space where our concerns don’t get derailed or where we don’t need to explain ourselves or worry about being labeled “reverse racists” or “anti-white.”

Recently, on my Facebook, a person of color (who I had recently added) accused me of “reverse racism” and “discriminating against white readers” when I shared my previous post on X-Men’s appropriation of anti-racist struggles. He also said that the answer to racism is not the “supremacy” of “another race group” just like the “the answer to patriarchy is not matriarchy.” After I replied to a private message of his and recommended some readings for him, he de-friended me and wrote a scathing message where he accused me of “playing the victim,” “isolating myself” and surrounding myself only with people who “agree with me.” It’s not important who this person is specifically. What’s more important and concerning is that there are far too many people like him who buy into the myths of “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism,” as well as the “multicultural” notion that respecting and accepting “all views” is a marker for being “progressive.”

I’m not going to address the “playing the victim” comments in-depth here, but I will quickly just say that regardless of how much I disagree with someone, I would never go as far as using victim-blaming attacks against someone, especially a person of color. I don’t know how anyone committed to anti-racism, feminism, and anti-oppression can accuse another stigmatized and marginalized individual of “playing the victim.” The vocabulary reminds me of “playing the race card” or “playing the gender card,” which imply that those who struggle against racism and sexism are “treacherous” and have the “advantage” over those who are more privileged in white supremacist heteropatriarchy. As Ann Anlin Cheng writes in her book, “The Melancholy of Race”:

Even in contemporary vernacular culture, we observe the increased frequency with which the ‘race card’ is displayed… Indeed, it has acquired the peculiar status of a game where what constitutes a winning hand has become identical with the handicap. Reappearing with the vagrancy of a Joker, the race card brings with it a host of haunting questions about the value and perception of race and racial matters in America. What does it mean that the deep wound of race in this country has come to be euphemized as a card, a metaphor that acknowledges the rhetoric as such yet simultaneously materializes race into a finite object that can be dealt out, withheld, or trumped? Why the singularity of a card? Who gets to play? And what would constitute a ‘full deck’?

Holding a ‘full deck’ may imply some idealized version of multisubjectivity (that is, the potential to play the race card, the gender card, the immigrant card, and so forth), but it also implies a state of mental health and completion that renders such playing unnecessary in the first place. One would ‘play’ a card only because one is already outside the larger game, for to play a card is to exercise the value of one’s disadvantage, the liability that is asset … [T]he vocabulary of the card also reveals a conceptualization of health and pathology that underlies our very perceptions of race and its abnormalities. Figuring the minority can be treacherous… [A]s the ‘race card’ rhetoric makes clear, there is more than a little irony, if not downright counterproductivity, in effort to relabel as healthy a condition that has been diagnosed, and kept, as sickly and aberrant.

Cheng calls attention to the paradox: “the one who plays with a full deck not only need not play at all but indeed has no such ‘card’ to play. Only those players with less than a full deck need apply.” I would go as far as describing such arguments (“playing the race card” or “playing the gender card”) as racist and sexist. Similarly, when it comes to people who make “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” arguments, I believe those assertions should be described as racist and sexist arguments as well, not merely flawed or problematic. Recently, a First Nations band, A Tribe Called Red, heard cries of “reverse racism” after one of their members wore a T-shirt mocking the Cleveland MLB baseball team: the word “Caucasians” instead of “Indians” was written across it. Far too often, claims of “reverse racism,” “reverse sexism” and any other type of “reverse” oppression are attempts to derail, vilify, and silence people resisting against these oppressions.

I’m not going to explain why “reverse racism” arguments are oppressive, mostly because so much work has been done on it already (watch Aamer Rahman explain it and read Mia McKenzie and A.D Song’s brilliant post). What I want to talk about is the flawed “multicultural” notion that if you don’t surround yourself with people who “have different views,” you are “close-minded.” I’m not talking about “different views” in the sense of having different perspectives that are non-oppressive. None of us think exactly the same, but there is a significant difference between having different perspectives and having views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, etc. If you’re going to trivialize and/or justify drone attacks, rape, racism, racial slurs, gender slurs, Israeli occupation of Palestine, etc., then we are going to have issues. There is a difference between having a disagreement over, say, whether or not we are ready to see complex supervillains of color in western sci-fi/fantasy (I don’t think we are, but I know others who feel differently) and having a disagreement over use of the “i” word to describe undocumented immigrants. Use of the “i” word is not “up for debate,” as the term is dehumanizing. I’m not talking about people who are unaware of how this word is a racial slur; I’m talking about people who have already made up their mind and insist that this language is “appropriate” and “acceptable.” If you set boundaries for yourself and seek to avoid people who are perpetuating racist and sexist ideologies, then how is this “close-minded”?

In my personal life and on my Facebook page, I used to be ok with befriending people whose politics were profoundly different than mine. I spent the time and energy “dialoguing” with them and addressing their misconceptions about Islam, anti-racism, and other issues. However, a lot of times, these conversations would become quite heated and accusations of “reverse racism” were leveled at me and my friends.  After a while of going back and forth with these people, I realized how much time and energy I had wasted on people who were never interested in learning in the first place, but rather wanted to argue, insult me, and prove me “wrong.” I remember I would go to work on some days and then come home at night only to see ridiculously long comments posted on my wall that labeled Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a “terrorist” and “Jew-hater,” or comments that demanded Muslims to explain the “violent verses” (most of the time, I found that these comments were copied and pasted off of notorious Islamophobic websites). I remember spending hours responding to these people. I recall writing an 11 page e-mail to a friend (who I knew since 6th grade) who believed that the Qur’an didn’t permit friendships between Muslims and Christians. I would cite so many books on Islam and Islamic history to assure people who were important to me that my faith didn’t preach discrimination or violence against people due to their religion. In some cases, things worked out fine. Sometimes my messages to online non-Muslim friends (i.e. people I never met before) had better results than my conversations with friends who knew me for years. In many cases, no matter how “peaceful,” “polite,” or “respectful” my tone, the conversation would go nowhere. When some asked ridiculous questions like “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” it was never a sincere question most of the time. It’s an attempt to vilify Muslims unless they support racist U.S. policies (NYPD spying of Muslims, racial profiling, etc.) and violent U.S. wars in Muslim-majority countries.

A turning point came for me after I read Mia McKenzie’s post, “Read a Book! Or, Why I Don’t Talk to Strange White Folks About Race,” where she writes about why she refuses to respond to random white people whom she doesn’t know well or trust. She argues that, most of the time, when people of color spend the time and energy and exhaust ourselves in explaining racism to random white people, most of the time, nothing good comes out of it. She elaborates:

What happens, most of the time, is nothing good. Why? Because the person who posted the thing that offended us did so because it’s what they really think, it’s what they actually believe, it’s the conclusion that they have somehow come to after 25 or 30 or 40 years of living in this world. The ridiculous position they just laid down isn’t something they just came up with. It’s their fucking philosophy, and they mean that shit. And now here you come telling them, uh uh, nope, your analysis is flawed and this is why. And you are right. You really are. And guess what? It doesn’t matter… Nothing you say is going to change that. But you might spend a lot of time and energy trying.

[…]

More importantly, engaging with strange white people about race feels incredibly unsafe. If I do it anyway, because, after all, they just want to “understand” my position, then I am putting their need to “understand” ahead of my own need to protect my psychological and emotional well-being. And why on earth should I do that? Especially when the likelihood of that understanding actually happening is slim to none? And the likelihood that my position will be mocked, dismissed, or attacked is very high?

I found myself relating to much of this and I soon began to remove offensive people from my Facebook. Some of these people were from interfaith groups I had joined and while I don’t doubt their intentions were initially good, they often would try to tone police me and other Muslims on my wall when we expressed outrage against Islamophobia and imperialism. Respectful and compassionate conversations with our friends and allies are important, especially when we make mistakes. However, when it comes to people who are insulting, condescending, and/or think they’re superior to you, what is to be gained from this “friendship”? What is the point of “friendships” when white people, and those who defend them, are constantly trying to police our thoughts, feelings, and experiences? I found these interactions quite unhealthy for me. I’m sure all of us have dealt with these people. The kind of people who NEVER comment on anything you post EXCEPT the times when they want to argue with you. Or, the people who lurk on your Facebook and click “like” on the comments written by someone else who is insulting you. And of course, there are the passive aggressive people who will just post a link on your wall (or under your post) without leaving a caption or explanation of why they’re posting it (and the linked article is often something in response to the views you’ve expressed on your wall).

Some people have come at me for deleting people with accusations of “censorship” and being “close-minded” or “intolerant.” There have been countless times on my blog, for instance, where I’ve responded to Islamophobic, racist, and sexist comments from random people, yet what seems to outrage certain people the most is when I decide I’m done responding and would rather delete comments. I cannot control who reads my blog, but the main reason I put comment moderation on is because responding to Islamophobic comments became exhausting and a waste of my time. On the same thread where several people were saying “all Muslims” should be “executed” or “evicted,” some chose to tone-police me and accuse me of “censorship” instead of addressing the violent, anti-Muslim comments. I have heard countless incidents from women bloggers/writers who have received rape threats, in addition to death threats, from men who disagreed with them. Why is it “censorship” or “close-minded” if someone wants to ban these comments or delete people who think and behave this way?

For people who think maintaining a safe space on Facebook is “close-minded,” I ask them to consider this: most people of color are already in spaces that are discriminatory, unsafe, and/or hostile to them in their everyday lives. One of the major problems with “multiculturalism” is that it legitimizes “all views,” including views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and so on. If you challenge someone who holds such views, the blame is on you for not being “multiculturally competent.” That’s how messed up “multiculturalism” is. Whether it’s in the workplace, school, or any other public setting, hearing these “different views” are things we hear on a daily basis. How often do people of color have to deal with ignorant remarks, offensive questions, or stereotypical assumptions? Many students of color are verbally attacked in their classrooms for raising anti-racist critiques and disrupting the status quo. How many are attacked, either verbally or physically, just for their mere presence in a classroom or workplace? What about people of color who have to bite their tongues at work 90% of the time for the sake of keeping their jobs? Many do speak up and get suspended, fired, and vilified for standing up for themselves. What about how often women see and hear sexism and misogyny, especially women of color who face both racism and sexism?

“Different views and opinions” that perpetuate racism and sexism not only come from classmates, teachers, co-workers, bosses, lawyers, doctors, but sometimes even from members in our own families. Yes, sometimes they are not intentional, but white supremacy and heteropatriarchy are so normalized that people don’t need to be deliberate in order to carry out oppressive acts or behaviors. When there are so many oppressive forces in everyday life, why is one considered “close-minded” or “living in a bubble” if he/she chooses to maintain a safe space on their Facebook, in their circle of friends, at their club meetings, etc.? I know lots of people of color, including myself, who like to use Facebook not only to network with people and stay in touch with friends/family, but to also vent comfortably and safely without worrying about judgment (or accusations of “reverse racism/sexism”). If you are constantly arguing and insisting that people of color can somehow oppress white people institutionally, despite being told and informed over and over again about how these arguments perpetuate racism, re-center white people, and silence and vilify people of color, you’re not just being disrespectful. You’re making your unwillingness to listen and learn very clear. Telling someone that they should be “more open” by having to listen and accept racist views is oppressive, not a sign of “progress.” If we cannot feel comfortable venting to our friends, then who can we speak to?

I have to clarify that I’m not saying everyone should delete people in this way.  I know this is more complex than simply saying, “Oh, that person posted something racist on your wall? Just delete them!” It’s no one’s business to tell you who you should or shouldn’t have on your Facebook. I have seen that play out as well and how it perpetuates shaming and victim-blaming. I do believe there are times when it’s important to show solidarity on someone else’s wall if they’re being attacked with racist, sexist, and oppressive comments. A lot of times, these comments are inevitable, no matter how hard we try to filter them out. There are complex reasons why we choose to maintain friendships with certain people, despite them holding views that are quite different than ours. Also, I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage in conversations with people. As a friend told me recently, it’s important that we don’t shut out friends and allies by being arrogant and condescending towards them.

My overall point isn’t about how people should use social media, but how we shouldn’t label people “close-minded” if they choose to delete people they don’t feel comfortable or safe having on their friend’s list. I don’t believe a safe space means that everyone thinks exactly the same or that people agree on everything. My friends and I disagree on a lot of things, but those disagreements occur in a space of trust, respect, compassion, and humility. When we are constantly surrounded by the images and messages that promote white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, etc., how can we blame people for seeking a safe space among their friends where they don’t have to deal with the headache, stress, and trauma of these oppressions? It is not “close-minded” or “censorship” – it’s the need, as McKenzie said, to protect our own psychological and emotional health and well-being.

UPDATE 12/13/14: A friend recently shared a similar article that was posted on Everyday Feminism. Definitely worth reading! Click here: 6 Reasons Why We Need Safe Spaces

Banana 2 Conference and Intersectionality

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.