I have been doing a lot of thinking since leaving university – about my activism in particular.
Over the past few months, society has had to come to terms with the phenomena of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States. More startling than the candidate though are his supporters; violent, openly racist and xenophobic, and seemingly willing to do all it takes to elect “their leader”. It is comforting and easy to dismiss these folks as “deplorables”, outliers who will be shunned in our communities when everything is said and done. Yet the uncomfortable truth remains – that close to 40% of Americans will end up backing Trump on Election Day.
Closer to home, a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party openly touts her tough on immigration policy that will screen potential migrants for “anti Canadian values”, and there’s no reason to believe that a significant percentage of Canadians don’t support this. This is not necessarily new, racism has always been embedded into the fabric of our settler colonial states. Yet, despite that – there is still something deeply unsettling about this latest trend of populist backed racism that is sweeping much of North America and Western Europe. And that is that rather that inching towards even marginal progress, we seem to be moving backwards.
Nov. 8th will come and go, but how will we deal with the fact that many of our neighbours and co-workers will have voted for Trump, whether they express that sentiment or not. How they managed to vote for a candidate who has stripped us of our humanity, while seemingly getting along with us at the water cooler. That is what is scarier – Trump may get on his private jet and vamoose, but Trumpism will remain alive and well long after the last ballot is cast.
Dealing with this uncomfortable truth made me think about my own “activism”. I joined the student movement in 2012 and was introduced to concepts of social justice and equity from there. I owe my knowledge to many mentors and older students who guided me through best practices and lead by example. Things began to change in 2014 when I was elected President of the students’ union. As I began to face more micro aggressions than I did previously, I did a few things to cope. I turned to friends to vent and started a collective of representatives of colour on campus, with a bunch of my friends who found themselves in a similar predicament; how to express your anger when being a representative of colour did not allow room for that. You had to be all smiles. My friends and the collective were really helpful at helping to deal with that.
My experiences (you can read about those here), coupled with a collective awakening of consciousness that seemed to occur amongst young people of colour, allowed me to express myself in ways that I never did before. However, it soon devolved into an exercise of self absorbed futile behaviour. Ranting became a daily occurrence of posting long jargon filled statuses on Facebook and waiting for the likes. If they don’t get ten – delete. Solidarity became a practice of watching and engaging in long unproductive comment threads, also on Facebook. Organizing was finding a new group to join once the previous solidarity group blew up. People’s slip ups, at times, started to become amusing.
At the time, this to me felt like the indignation that comes with critical consciousness. But it wasn’t indignation at society, it was indignation at the audacity of other people for not knowing exactly what I knew. What I thought was a practice of building consciousness, was in reality, a stroking of the ego. Engaging in social justice rhetoric as a method of virtue signalling. The bigger your ego gets, the more you think you are right – and the harder it is to unlearn things. As much as chided people privately for not being accountable or making things all about themselves, I realized that the way I was engaging in things did make it about myself.
People make mistakes – but if I assume the worst in people and don’t leave room for growth, what hope do I have for society?
Leaving student politics (which itself is a space where ego thrives), and engaging in other types of work allowed me to reflect on how I engaged in the past. I was exposed to union organizing this past summer and that was a powerful thing to observe. Young and old workers, immigrants, black and brown people, white folks — all united in the pursuit of better wages and living conditions. All supporting each other and not feeling the need to say “well actually” when black lives were mentioned, or justice for immigrants was mentioned. That is what solidarity looks like – it is built upon a foundation of love and wanting what’s best for each other, which discussions on Facebook can never really replicate (unless they are with your closest friends). Are you really invested in wanting other people to do better? Most of the time on Facebook, for me, the answer to this question was no.
In Islam, we call this type of self reflective exercise “intention checking”. If your intentions aren’t pure, then it isn’t worth pursuing that action.
I don’t believe in tone policing, you can react however you want to react. Nor am I disregarding the value and labour that comes with me choosing to educate, choosing to organize when I make that decision. The onus is not on me, but I’ll choose to do it when I feel its productive. At the end of the day, it’s a choice that I make.
But I really don’t believe in educating strangers on the internet with a “lol” or a comment that shames them for their ignorance in “liking the wrong television show that has a problematic secondary character”, because this isn’t accountability nor is it building solidarity. To me, this accomplishes nothing – but makes my ego feel great and is met with tons of non genuine apologies and vague remarks of “i’ll do better” – another form of virtue signalling. It’s a discourse that is starting to mean nothing at all.
All of this builds up an idea that systemic oppression is about individuals and them being bad people, rather than systems that we need to work on dismantling.
Watching my relatives talk, there is a lot of work to do in building consciousness and unpacking behaviours. Looking at how many average people support Trump and right wing demagogues, there is a lot of work to do. I’m no longer going to waste my time arguing with blatant racists on their internet or making snide comments at others who make mistakes. But my ego is something I will continue to struggle with.
Organizers organize communities of regular folks who may not be down with discourse and sometimes it means having patient, tough conversations with people who you love, you live and work with, about the world. It isn’t about individuals, it’s about systems – and so long as we have these conversations under a basis of building solidarity – then we can go far. That is difficult work and it’s certainly not something I have to do as a marginalized person. But I’ll take that any day over online virtue signalling.