Who is an Activist in a World Socially Distanced?

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

#socialjustice #reflexivity #agentofsocialchange #socialchangefromhome #blacklivesmatter #BIPOC #allyship #whiteness #socialchangeroles

The tragic and traumatic death of George Floyd has sent a shock wave of sadness, anger, and fear across the U.S. and around the world. A death that shouldn't have occurred, but our unjust social and political processes sanctioned. I can't begin to comprehend the pain and devastation experienced by his family, loved ones, and community. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

My heart also breaks for my loved ones, friends, and colleagues who belong to BIPOC communities. I'm angry that there are people who I love and respect that have to be ever diligent about their safety in the wider world that is supposedly premised upon fairness and justice for all. Far more problematic is the notion that our law enforcement agencies are largely responsible enacting the very violence against BIPOC communities, or at the very least, failing to prevent the violence that claims their lives. We see time again police departments minimizing how ubiquitous discrimination is among their ranks.

When I heard for George's death, I immediately thought about the youth I worked alongside during the start of my career. It was 2007 whilst working for Toronto Community Housing in Dundas & Sherbourne area when I met group of exceptional BIPOC youth struggling with racial profiling by the local police detachment.

At the time, I was a youth worker responsible for delivering youth leadership programming. The focus of the program was cultivating leadership skills through learning about anti-oppression. As a person who moves through the world in a white body, I wasn't sure how I'd be able to help these young people navigate the realities of racism and classism. Nevertheless, the most pressing issue was their anger toward, and fear of the police.

After a series of meetings and strong advocacy on part of the youth, my supervisor agreed to establish a youth advisory committee with the goal of improving youth-police relations. I remember the youth distinctly asking for the police to attend meetings in civilian clothing as a show of good faith and a willingness to reduce the power differential.

The youth were clear that they would not meet with the police otherwise. Sadly, the police would not agree to attend in civilian clothing thus bringing an abrupt stop to months of hard work. The reluctance of the police department was infuriating. I was left disillusioned. The reason given by the police department was that that coming in civilian clothing would undermine their role and authority. My contract ended that summer and I did not return to work for Toronto Housing the year after. Thus, I do not know what came of the project or the youth with whom I worked. It is clear that little has changed, and may in fact have gotten worse.

Another major lesson I took away from my work with these exceptional young people was their capacity to make me feel safe. As I wrestled with my whiteness and how it mitigate it's impact on my work, it became clear to me that I was ashamed of my queer-ness and was afraid to share it with them. Many of the young people with whom I worked were first generation Canadians with parents from the Caribbean. I thought that I had 'risen' above my own racist socialization, but one area wherein it hid was my fear that they would not accept my queer identity because of where their parents were from.

Whilst history would have it at that time, politically and socially, Caribbean countries denounced LGBTQ+ rights. I assumed that because of where they were from that they too would feel the same way. Once I realized this, I struggled significantly to rectify my assumptions with my deeply held beliefs about social justice. Moreover, how could I teach them to honour and celebrate who they are whilst denying and suppressing a large part of who I am?

I decided after much deliberation to share my queer identity with them whilst being real about my underlying prejudices that informed my reasons for withholding it from them. They responded with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. They also acknowledged that in world that privileges heterosexuality whilst failing to prevent violence against LGBTQ+ communities, that they could understand my fear and reluctance. They appreciated my willingness to wade into the conversation about whiteness as many of the other white youth workers with whom they worked veered away from these conversations.

Over the past several days, I've had many sessions that centred on the emotional impact of George's death. Many of my clients have been white who feel they're not doing enough to take part in the conversation or contribute meaningfully to change efforts. One shared that they were judged for not posting about race and racism on their feeds suggesting that they are on the side of the oppressor. Whilst I believe the bystander effect is problematic, social media is not the only measure of ally-ship. Moreover, it is precisely these types of either-or practices that divide and conquer us in our pursuits toward sustainable social change.

We can engage in social change in myriad ways that extend beyond those who organize rallies or protests. In her workbook about queer and trans resilience, Dr. Singh outlines several social change roles: the counsellor/support person who holds space, the advocate who helps navigate systems, and the organizer/rebel. She urges us to avoid getting caught up in which practice is better or more far-reaching as the organizer will always need a place to get support so they can continue the emotional labour of rallies and protests.

Perhaps more importantly, I urge those who are white to not collapse into guilt or fragility as two things usually happen: 1) when we feel guilty for being white rather than our complicity in whiteness, we take space from our BIPOC friends as they then have to emotionally care of us or 2) white fragility often predisposes us to denying whiteness by arguing "we have hard too, but in these ways."

Acknowledging our whiteness does not undermine our other vulnerabilities or markers of otherness, rather it enables us to see how anti-black racism and other forms racialization circulate in the world and our role in it's circulation or contestation. One of the most pivotal articles I read in my master's program by Yee, a race scholar, says that whiteness circulates as taken-for-granted because it positions white people as aracial and everyone else as the 'racial other.'

Thus, activism in a socially distanced world can, and in my view, must involve self-reflection and a willingness to engage in tough conversations about whiteness without collapsing into guilt about we are. Nor do I think it's productive to police other people's activism to raise how we feel about ours. We are all in this together.

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