Activism: Do You Owe Ignorant People an Explanation?
Recently, I was present at the creation of the Edmonton Chapter of Black Lives Matter and, in my personal process of learning about racism and the daily grievances of POC from POC, I have consistently found two activist narratives at play. On the one hand, there are activists who argue that we need to educate people and offer programming and workshops for non-POC people to become allies. On the other hand, while not detracting from the efforts of those working in education, other activists fiercely defend their right to live in peace, to not be asked, to not have to educate the ignorant.
The latter group bases their reasoning on the existence of the internet (where learning can easily be done) and by how damn tired the whole issue of racism is. In other words, if you don’t know that discriminating against someone by the colour of their skin is a sin by now, then you are never going to know. You are a lost cause.
I can’t necessarily argue one way or another for the correct course of action. I do think there is a point to be made by the latter group, if only because there is no discriminatory equivalent to melanin in one’s skin. As a visible Muslim, I simply do not experience the same type of discrimination as POC do daily. I can remove my hijab and step into privilege once more. They can’t remove their skin. Nor should they have to. And for the POC sisters who wear hijab, their discrimination is intersectional and therefore, exponential.
Dismantling the system that marginalizes a person based on the amount of or hue of the pigment in their skin is a must but should not have to rely on the actions of those who are marginalized. Those who benefit from and are privileged by the system should also be responsible for its dismantling. People of colour are traumatized and continue to be traumatized every time they see their kin gunned down by police in the street, every time a microaggression can’t be #madeawkward for fear of violent repercussions or stereotyping, every time white supremacists get the nation’s attention by being permitted to hold a media megaphone. They are exhausted from making and taking space they are owed.
Any efforts POC make are excellent and valid; however, non-POC allies need to step up to the plate, calling out racists in their midst, and developing their own education initiatives that, while centering POC voices and their cause, do not rely on them to be present for explanations in spaces that can quickly become unsafe. #makeitawkward is the responsibility of every ally.
That being said, what about cases of discrimination that are not centered on discourses around race or ethnicity? What about Islamo- and Judeophobia? I am still working through my thoughts on this, but generally speaking, in my experience while working against Islamo and Judeophobia, I have found that education by individuals from those communities is one of the single most powerful instigators of change. Having conversations with diverse groups of people, lecturing to audiences that may, in fact, hate you, is exhausting and unending but it is also exhilarating. Every single time I have lectured, I have come away with stories of change, of growth, of increased understanding from people who simply lacked knowledge, from people who even feared me and thus hated me. By being available to answer questions (no matter how ignorant those questions might seem), I am providing the theatre for change to happen. I humanize myself to people and, in turn, they come to see me as a person. These conversations are challenging and difficult, but the outcomes are worth the effort. Change does not always come immediately. Sometimes it is months, even years after something has touched the life of someone before they come to me and let me know how a talk changed their perspective, how a list of resources shaped their learning, how a safe space to be ignorant led them to seek knowledge.
Ultimately, whichever area of activism you are working in, and whichever course of activism you choose to take, make sure you are taking care of yourself in the process. Sometimes, the most powerful revolution takes place by simply remaining present, owning your space and refusing to give in to hateful rhetoric around you. Loving yourself and staying healthy in the face of a deeply imperfect world is powerful too.
Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta. Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.