After last year's ‘black square summer’, many of us have genuinely wanted to become more aware, more knowledgeable and more involved. But we know how easy it is to fall into the common pitfalls of 'activism'—all fluff and no substance. So how can we ensure we don't become the next casualty, freefalling in the abyss of performative action?
In a recent Instagram post, author and journalist Poorna Bell highlighted that the muting of discourse around the ongoing Indian farmers protests speaks to a problematic ‘mining’ of its culture: taking the parts of Indian culture that have enriched Western lives—like yoga, Ayurveda or this new obsession with turmeric—while simultaneously dismissing all the parts that seem unpalatable, no matter how connected they are. By not honestly identifying and depicting the full breadth and depth of a situation, you disconnect from the very real people at its origin.
This got us thinking. Consciously observing and being sensitive to a bigger picture can be both uncomfortable and affronting—whether it exposes a diminishing of heritage, sexuality or culture to try to fit in, or that you knowingly (or unknowingly) benefit from at the expense of others. This seems like a lot, especially when we’re all so tired... of just about everything. So, how the hell do we move forward?
One of the easiest ways is to work collaboratively with those who differ from you. It gives you a different perspective on the topics at hand, which, in turn, gives space to a wider range of ideas and viewpoints. As an example, a storm has been brewing over the past few days over two production companies who were each developing a programme about Black women being five times more likely to die in childbirth in the UK. Channel 4 approached and cast the show fronted by Rochelle Humes, a biracial mother of three who opted out of using the NHS to give birth privately.
Meanwhile, author, presenter and founder of Make Motherhood Diverse, Candice Brathwaite, who regularly speaks about maternal mortality rates for Black women in Britain, lost out to hosting the show she was working on to a "lighter-skinned Black woman". When she asked to co-host on the show with Humes, she was refused; they instead asked for her expertise on the subject, which she declined as she'd have no control over the narrative. The reasoning given to Brathwaite was that Humes had a bigger following, but why should that matter? She was also told that particular production company prefer their subjects to be removed from the situation.
Surely when developing a programme about Black women dying in disproportionate numbers, we shouldn’t be approaching this from a voyeuristic, Attenborough-style perspective—particularly when you have access to someone who has dedicated her career to the cause? Aside from the colourism at play here—and we’ll get into the concept of a ‘palatable’ Black or brown person another time—this is a serious, human issue that deserves nuance and depth. Share the mic, or pass it on.
Secondly, as obvious as it may seem, do your research. Fashion house Louis Vuitton recently unveiled a jumper that was ‘inspired’ by the Jamaican flag. Unfortunately, they weren’t inspired enough and failed to actually use the colours of the Jamaican flag—green, gold and black—and instead made a jumper that was green, yellow and red. That it was designed and produced is mind-blowing (and LV have since pulled the jumper from retail). Funnily enough, the flag it most closely resembled was Ethiopia's; the birthplace of Rastafarianism, something often associated with Jamaica, despite less than one percent of its population identifying as Rastafarian. Paying homage to a culture should be flattery in its highest form. But without awareness or context—or in Louis Vuitton’s case, a Google image search—you not only miss the mark but also cause offence.
Thirdly, prejudice and bias, even unconscious ones, can so easily define how you frame an interview, the line of questioning you choose, and even the keywords you type into a Google search. Last week, BBC Woman’s Hour showed us the result of leading with your personal bias unchecked, when they tweeted a clip of new host, Emma Barnett, ambushing Zara Mohammed—the newly appointed, first woman (and youngest) Secretary General at the Muslim Council of Britain—about how many (or few, as Barnett seemed to be getting at) female imams there were in the UK.
The ‘gotcha’ interviewing technique was grossly out of place. Not only did it force someone onto the ropes who didn’t belong there, it showed an inherent lack of understanding of Islam. 29-year-old Mohammed, a law graduate, and training and development consultant—is neither a politician nor accused of a crime.
Incidentally, the preoccupation that some feminists seem to have with trying to ‘save’ Muslim women and help them to recognise their own ‘oppression’, is oppressive in and of itself. Not to mention misguided, given that certain tenets of Islamic marriage—such as its bolder approach to sexuality, in terms of recommending foreplay and contraception—are infinitely more liberal than many of their religious counterparts. Barnett and her producers at the BBC have serious work to do in terms of unpacking xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Ultimately, a fragmented story, clouded with personal bias and formed from a singular or narrow perspective, is a recipe for performative action that lacks depth and fails to tackle the problems at hand. If we really want to become more aware, more knowledgeable and more involved, we need to do the research, create balance and check our biases—where they lie, and how we’re going to offset them. It’s the best way to create momentum when it feels like we’ve stalled.
P.S. If you missed any of our past 11 newsletters, you can read them all here. And if you liked the newsletter, why not support us with a digital cuppa?
Writing Tip of the Day
Don’t assume that all black and brown writers are qualified to speak or write on a topic that delves into racial inequalities or decolonisation. It may be that, due to their own economic privilege or disconnection from the subject matter, commissioning them will run you into tokenism territory and you’ll end up with something performative.
What’s the topic about and who exactly does it concern? If it's a serious issue, who is best qualified to give it depth and why? Speak to your go-to writers about what they think their beat is, and what they actually want to put out there: it may be that they can give you 1,000 pithy words on dating during a pandemic, have a huge TikTok following for comedy videos or are training to become a sommelier.
The Sense Check
"I’ve seen a lot of cis, straight people display their pronouns (she/hers, he/his) on email signatures, social media and in Zoom calls, alongside people who identify as 'they/their'. Is this something we should all be doing--and does it matter if someone doesn’t?”
"Publicly and habitually sharing gender pronouns—and there are more than three!—despite one's gender identity normalises gender diversity and inclusion. It takes the onus off of anyone who is not read as cis from othering or outing themselves.
For example, it's rare to see people identify themselves as 'white' in their bios, which is often the opposite for people of colour [BAME/BIPOC]—there are xyz people and then there are people who just get to be people.
If you keep assuming you know someone's pronouns based on their avatar, you're going to get it wrong at some point.
Not being misgendered is a privilege. It’s a privilege to not have to constantly correct people’s use of your pronouns, so maybe don’t take advantage of that. Not displaying pronouns can continue to contribute to a culture where people's genders are assumed based on their presentation."
Social entrepreneur, LGBTQ advocate and CEO/founder of Pink Coconuts, a global, digital community for LGBTQ adventurers.
"People assume other people’s pronouns which is why people can end up pre-empting what someone identifies as, and as a result, incorrectly misgendering people.
People use pronouns including she/her, he/him, they/their and sometimes ‘zhe’ or any other of their choice. Anyone trans, cis or non-binary can use them.
I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary or mandatory for people to put pronouns in signatures or write it all the time, but it should be encouraged. It makes the world a more inclusive place. It says: ‘Hey, I don’t want to assume your pronouns or for you to assume mine, so here they are.’
It’s a preventative method of misgendering people who might have gender dysphoria [a feeling of discomfort or distress that can occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics] as you don’t know how someone might be triggered, especially if they’re transitioning or examining their own identity.
I personally am not offended by someone not making their pronouns public, but I would say it’s polite, inclusive and considerate to show them.”
Want to ask a question (anonymously)? Send away! Please email us here and we'll try and tackle it in an upcoming newsletter. We also welcome any feedback or comments.
Did You Know?
When the National League for Democracy, under Aung San Suu Kyi, won 43 of the 45 available seats in a 2012 by-election, Myanmar’s journalists hoped it was a turning point—the end of an era where criticising the military, known as the ‘Tatmadaw’, or the government would get you arrested or thrown into prison.
After winning a super-majority in 2015, the party ruled until the recent coup, and between 2013 and 2017, Myanmar climbed 20 places in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). But then it went the other way: At the time of writing, it’s at 139 out of 180 countries. On the streets however, the placards held by these protestors against the current coup are bolder than previous ones.
The reversal of press freedom was crystal-clear in 2018 when Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo received a seven-year prison sentence for investigating a massacre of Rohingya civilians. It took an international campaign before they were pardoned after spending over 500 days in prison, and they still remain convicted, despite false evidence. Right now, Ne Win San, an editor with the Development Media Group (DMG), a regional news agency in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, and DMG reporter Ma Hnin Nwe are facing possible prison sentences after the military sued them over a story concerning the disappearance of rice supplies from a remote village. DMG’s editor-in-chief Aung Marm Oo has been in hiding since May 2019 over fears for his arrest on a separate issue.
There are publications and broadcasters who try to report freely, such as BBC Burmese, Mawkun Magazine, Myanmar Now (whose website editor Swe Win was shot in the leg on 31 December 2019), DMG, DVB and Mizzima. But their reach is smaller. Meanwhile, state-owned media serves as government propaganda. Online news isn’t always easy to access as the military have and do disconnect internet access, on ‘security grounds’.
Reporting on the Rohingya people has never been easy. The term was banned by Aung San Suu Kyi to ‘ease tensions’, although it’s not understood why that would help. (“People who believe in Islam in Rakhine state" was the suggested alternative). It’s also been problematic to report critically on the Buddhist religion, and about Aung San Suu Kyi. "Some horrible things are likely to happen," says one Myanmar journalist in this Bangkok Post article.
The Atlantic have released the first instalment of Inheritance, their brilliant new print and digital project on ‘American history, Black life and the resilience of memory.' Highlights so far include an emotional op-ed from Anna Deavere Smith on attending a mostly white college in the late 1960s, a poem by Joy Priest entitled ‘Ghosts in Schools’, plus Clint Smith discussing the Federal Writers’ Project, an initiative that has pulled together the largest archive of testimony from former slaves across history.
Headquartered in Paris and working across five continents, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is an international non-profit organisation that specialises in the defence of media freedom. It defends imprisoned or persecuted journalists and those working in media, by exposing any mistreatment or torture as well as providing financial aid (including for the families and companies). RSF issues daily press releases and reports in French, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi –among others—regarding the state of freedom of information throughout the world and how it is being violated.
From ministers to garden-variety MPs, there's a new method of attacking media critics, writes Kimi Chaddah.
"When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak." Audre Lorde, self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”