People fail to realize advocacy as a choice is a privilege
Throughout my childhood, I accepted certain things as universal truths.
One: the television schedule never changes. I can count on the fact that, after a long day of learning whatever fourth graders learn about (fractions? The American Dream? Dodgeball?), I can hop off the bus, race down the street, and land soundly on my couch before 3 p.m., just in time to catch what Phineas and Ferb are up to.
Two: dinner definitely includes rice. Growing up in a first-generation immigrant home, my parents’ biggest fear was I’d wake up one day, forget Bengali, and become their totally Western daughter. I’d demand a pair of Ugg boots and start calling them by their first name. They wouldn’t know what to do with me. It was my mother’s hopeful belief that rice would renew my South Asian subscription for the next 24 hours.
Three: any time Asia is mentioned, no matter the room, every head will turn in my direction. I, with only seven months of living in Bangladesh and two South Asian friends under my belt, will be called on to speak on whatever issue is relevant. I like to call it a workplace hazard of being one of the only brown kids in just about every room I’ve occupied in beautiful Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Thus, I began my lifelong social justice journey without much say in it at all. What people fail to realize is that advocacy as a choice is a privilege. Like myself, most members of minorities are forced into it. Perhaps teachers are well-meaning when they do it, or maybe my peers wanted to give me a chance to speak—that’s what they’re supposed to do, right? Make room at the table, pass the mic, and shine the spotlight on the otherwise silenced? Sure.
Of course, it would be nice, too, if they took the time to do some of their own research and not leave it in the hands of a nine-year-old.
Thus, like clockwork, when anything about racialized identities is brought up, all around eyes snap to me, making an unwitting advocate of me. Only, growing up, I was a kid just like them. I didn’t have time to figure it all out.
Even so, there is a feeling of urgency shared by immigrants, racialized groups, and members of minorities as a whole, to figure this all out.
It seemed I’d have to give up a couple of 3 p.m. Phineas and Ferb viewings to learn what I had to do as a racialized fourth grader (which way to pronounce your own name? The history of colonization? What to answer with when asked where you’re from?).
After all, in this classroom of 23, you’ve been given a microphone for millions.
In suburbia, I was most people’s first diverse encounter. Consequently, I was many people’s guinea pig to mess up. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for me, the patience of young migrant and minority children is unprecedented. So, I would bite my tongue.
As a young person of colour, there is a fourth truth: social justice is a waiting game. “The other kids didn’t know better,” and “they’ll learn when they’re older,” we’d be comforted. You’re asked to be the bigger person when you’re barely four feet tall. (I’ll have you know, however, that by Bengali standards—I am the bigger person. At a whopping 1.71 metres, I currently stand 19 centimetres above the national female average. Hold for applause.)
Even so, it sure is hard to be the bigger person when you’re made to feel so small.
So, I played the waiting game. Turns out, it’s true: they do learn when they’re older—kind of. The same people who questioned why I’d gotten an award at the Catholic school I should’ve never been enrolled in, said my name sounded like a taco, and made Islamophobic comments sitting next to me in an eighth-grade classroom, would go on to post black squares, colourful infographics on their stories, and send their thoughts and prayers. There was once a time when another universal truth was that I could open Instagram and find latte art, pictures of dogs, and an Instagram post that was a screenshot of a tweet that was originally a Tumblr post.
Now, the platform is saturated with infographics that almost act as badges—I’m a good person, believe me! And many of them are. But many of them post and then turn a blind eye to their racist family members. Such is the performance of activism. Who am I to judge, though, right? Anyhow, I should be happy for them, right? They made it out the other side. Good for them. Great! Wonderful.
It’s just hard not to be frustrated. Once again, it feels like I’m on the playground being asked to be the bigger person. Don’t get me wrong—anyone who has truly recognized their past digressions, made amends, and actively chooses advocacy now, I respect greatly. It’s incredibly respectable to be able to recognize your mistakes and grow, or to reject the ideologies that you may have been taught growing up—hey, other cultures may have universal truths, too. However, I do take issue with those who wear Social Justice Warrior as an accessory they can adorn as is convenient to them. This is where we differ: the audacity of choice and the inequality of apathy. One may say ignorance is bliss, but I argue ignorance is a privilege, as is apathy.
It is such a privilege for social injustice to be objective or impersonal. It does not feel impersonal when in London, Ontario, a Muslim Pakistani family of four’s nine-year-old son went on a walk with his parents and teenage sister, only to be left orphaned as a result of a terrorist attack. It does not feel impersonal when my own nine-year-old brother, who often takes walks with our parents and his teenage sisters, is sobered by the fact that this sounds an awful lot like him. How can it feel impersonal when I have to comfort him and say that this was a fluke, a one-time occurrence and that he will be fine? It isn’t an objective event when my mom warns him to be less forthcoming with his Muslim identity, even while she adorns a hijab. It isn’t easy to feel detached when you are so intrinsically, irrevocably attached.
But racism isn’t a one-time thing, nor is it a dark, closed chapter in Canadian history. It’s the whole history. Right now, as Canada financially supports Israel and, thus, supports the genocide of Palestinians, it continues. As Indigenous people are left without clean drinking water, it continues. As Canada Day came and went, and with it the parties and adorning of red and white, I saw it again. Advocacy only when it’s convenient, easily digestible, and doesn’t disrupt the routine. As Indigenous peoples called for a cease-fire on fireworks, an exchange of red and white for orange, and mourning instead of celebrating genocide, people traded their usual pastel infographics for images of red solo cups, red and white apparel, and apathy. Why isn’t Orange T-Shirt day enough? Why isn’t Indigenous Peoples’ day enough? Why ruin their day off with uncomfortable culpability? Why can’t they wear red and white and light a few fireworks?
Because white were the settlers who stole this land. Because red was the blood they spilled as they tried to ‘take the Indian out of the child’. Because the booming of fireworks drowns out the voices of Indigenous people begging, pleading, demanding justice. Because as some Canadians celebrate 154 years, Indigenous people are more focused on a different set of numbers. 215, 751, 1,300 Indigenous bodies found—and counting. Because while some are celebrating, others are mourning. Because they shouldn’t have to be the bigger peoples while facing genocide and generational trauma.
Now, when it is most important, we should be making room at the table, passing the microphone to those with the capacity and willingness to speak, guiding the spotlight towards the otherwise silenced. Listen now, support now, be consistent with your advocacy now—not when it is convenient and comfortable.
So, if you’re on your journey to social justice, I implore you to not wear a badge of advocacy, easily removed as you pleased. Please don’t abandon the cause as you sit at the dinner table with your “old-fashioned” aunt. Because I can’t change my skin colour when she side-eyes me at Walmart the next day. Please don’t take off your badge as you let your friends agree to disagree about fundamental human rights, because my mom won’t take off her hijab when they make comments about her in public later. Please be the change you claim to wish to see. I ask that you tattoo your alliance with advocacy and denounce the inequality of apathy and the performativity of activism.