Learning to be Uncomfortable with Silence

The luxury of choosing your level of visibility is a privilege. Groups not in power are forced into hypervisibility and hyperinvisibility. You are one of a teeming mass of people who are all viewed in the same two-dimensional way. Someone to be skipped over in terms of representation within prominent and powerful groups whilst focused on when the news reports look at the latest threats. Someone to be spoken about but never with.

It’s why more of us have started caring about fights that have been around for ages, looking fondly back on the past few decades with a romantic view when for a lot of people this is just more of the same. This is the crux, that now other people are being made permanently visible, not as individuals with complex histories but as targets. It’s not that ethnonationalism has come to Europe or the USA, but that more of the population are declaring their sentiments out loud instead of just with their actions. And that when you say it out loud you finally see they are after you as well.

I think that scares people. That we who have generally been fortunate enough to avoid many types of prejudice are now being made very aware of our complicity and our vulnerability as well. And a lot of people want to approach this as if only removing certain people or parties would cure the problem and then we can all pretend once again that nothing is really that bad.

It’s the same moment of realisation that I began to have after 9/11 and I was suddenly aware that the shape of my life in the West would be greatly influenced by my surname, regardless of who I was as a human being. I was visible in a way I didn’t want to be.

In my day-to-day life on the street I am still fortunate enough to be able to have the option of flitting between being seen and unseen as who I actually am (and not just limited to ethnic background). Yet I know it’s still there, underneath everything, waiting for the moment when I am revealed and waiting to see how that will then change things. That’s what scares me about some people – that they will never choose to see this truth that lies at the roots of our society, and instead bigotry is explained away as just a veneer for other frustrations that are supposedly actually economic or class-based in nature.

The past few decades weren’t perfect. They contain moments where we saw divisions, insecurities with identities, and just moved on as if life is static. Now we are in a position where we have to be grateful we still have the ability to be fighting fires.

***

I am always slow to speak. I try to measure my words and uncomplicate everything before I make a move and that in itself is a bad habit that has left me behind the starting gate well after a race is over too many times. Sometimes it is the fear of making a mistake, of misreading a look, or of claiming something that turns out to be only half-remembered. Hesitation in these cases is a false relief – in the moment I can pretend to be perfect in my argument or desires, but always at the expense of never being passionate enough.

I am working on teasing out these complexities, and over the past year I’ve spoken things I would have resisted before. As a reward I’ve had some pain but also the clarity that comes with pain. You forget that, staying out of the fray, about how pain can be positive, that it can be a sign that you’ve identified a problem and are now an inch closer to healing.

It is Audre Lorde herself who condenses this realisation that silence is the greater regret. That is the truth, that I have “betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.” That I have been hoping to one day produce something perfect and unquestionable and speak truth to power in a way that no-one will shame me for it.

What I am truly scared of is not the AfD gains, or the slow drift of Brexit, but that I still won’t quite have figured out how best to speak – both personally and in activist terms – without having that betrayal of a moment where I linger too long to collect my thoughts, where I smooth the terms so they are somehow “more acceptable” because it is always “more acceptable” to disguise what you really feel. That I will not be able to overcome the training I have had since childhood to be respectful and quiet and not jeopardise a simpler path to success as defined by a capitalist world.

My identity in many ways has been why I’ve stayed quiet for so long, even though I have many insightful and intelligent points to make. It’s made me vulnerable and through speaking I fear I unveil too much of it and my principles, and that they can be used in turn to attack me. I want to write honestly but each time I begin I find myself weighing up the impact on others and what cost their disappointment or shame might bring me.

Yet as Lorde says; “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

The M.A. thesis I wrote, for which I got 80%, looked at the complexities of identity for queer British Muslims after 9/11 and its shaping by the political-social context of Islamophobia. It was rewarding to explore and to help expand a new area of research. Years ago I would have resisted taking this up, torn about what others would say, but also torn about whether this was a safe option in terms of advancing my professional career. When you have the luxury of choosing your visibility you can become seduced by the ease of being indistinguishable from others.

What I’ve realised with this sweep of ethnonationalist visibility is that fundamentally identity can no longer be denied the importance that it has in the mainstream. The idea that niche communities are not worthy of proper study is a side effect of these insidiously oppressive systems that we’ve normalised. Rather they are essential to understand; to see how identity is shaped on every level is to actually see society for what it is. And to remove those silences and push those areas forcibly kept in the dark into the mainstream is to improve society through confronting the ugly side of it.

It is hard to pull away from the privilege of getting to stay hidden. Of having the ability to keep the peace by being quiet. And even when the issue is just a personal one, and the cost only my own personal regret I still know I will not improve overnight. Yet I can grow more, forgive myself when I falter, and strive to do what I can to pull other voices up too. Shame and fear don’t have to be guiding directions in my life more than whatever power I give to them.

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2017, Year in Preview

2016 was quite the year – it seemed everything was shifting and that the best bet was always on the most undesirable outcome (at least for some). These past few months I’ve wanted to write about Trump, far right revivals, Castro, Austria, South Korea, the ongoing farce of Brexit, but the idea of adding to the noise without adding anything new felt a bit pointless, especially with actual Masters coursework I was supposed to be getting on with.

2016 was the year of everyone finally seeing the cracks in the walls, and the mould all over the ceiling. These were things that were already bubbling away, but each of us had selective blindness to some of it. I feared Brexit, but my sinking feeling about Trump I dismissed as excessive anxiety, reasoned out of by the sheer confidence of others’ predictions.

We’re now two weeks in to 2017 and I’ve already managed to fall into a freezing pond and set myself on fire for the second time in my life. And like a bad metaphor for the media’s understanding of the threat of Trump it took me a while to realise I was on fire because I was so into the show I was watching (who says millennials are easily distracted?).

2017, at least on a personal level, seems set to beat 2016.

Putting aside the increasing sense of doom, I don’t want to write 2017 off in the same hysterical way a lot of others are, declaring everyone will die and calling for some sort of Obama dictatorship. Yes, things are going to get worse but if you look at 2016 you can also find some good things that point to the way forwards. Sudan is an example of where protest has adapted to circumstances – instead of going out on the streets, people stay at home, showing dissatisfaction without technically implicating themselves in any anti-government activity. On a smaller level just looking through my social media shows me the way that people can pull together to help those in need in the intervening time between now and a future fix for all our messed up political priorities. You can host healing parties and socials where those from marginalised communities can meet, you can offer vital services at a discount, you can even just be making witty, insightful commentary on the news of the day.

In 2016 I discovered I was wrong about a lot of things, right about others, and most significantly I need to be more confident. For the past two years I’ve written some vague post around the subject of ‘New Years Resolutions’, regardless of if I actually had any. 2015 was trying to push out of my comfort zone and starting this blog, 2016 was trying some more and practising my Arabic, and 2017 is going to being trying harder, not only for my personal life but of those around me too. Maybe this will come about in a post-Masters political job, maybe I’ll do something on the side, but the solidarity which I feel is an important part of my leftist politics needs to be more overt than it has been in the past.

2017 is going to be tough. It’s the year of right-wing power, and more specifically the rise of a right-wing that has no time or love for people like me. It’s a year where basic things are going to be presented as shameful or threatening, whether that’s birth control in the US, standing up for immigration in the UK, being a refugee across the whole of the globe (if your news has only been dominated by the European “crises”, look at the regional issues stemming out of Myanmar alone), and countless other identities, political stances, or just plain old personal decisions.

2017 is a year where those of us on the left are going to have to reject that shame, on both a personal and political level. And true, it’s not going to seem like there’s much progress but it’s the same with fixing a house; you have to just start somewhere and keep going until it’s either patched up or collapses.

 

Things I’m Going to Do Differently in 2016

At the beginning of 2015 I wrote a little bit about what I was hoping to do in the new year. It wasn’t grandiose – if anything the piece was a tad dejected. I expected a level of failure before I even tried.

My plan was to go boldly into something that I loved, and also treat myself as someone I loved. My path has been a little mixed as I’ve certainly not come to any financial security but at the same time I am becoming more and more confident in my writing. It feels a lot like I am the mythical ship Argonaut in that famous thought experience. Slowly I too replace parts of myself, editing my humour, or how I approach work, or the way I laugh or how my hair is carved until I am not sure what is left of my original self yet I am certain I am still me, just a little better each time. 

So I have figured that this upcoming year I can build on this by returning to actual cliché goal set-up, except without any set way of measuring progress (I do still want to feel like a rebel occasionally).

  1. Seek out and accept interesting opportunities more, regardless of whether they are professional, personal, or just general fun.
  2. Practice and improve my Arabic.
  3. Actually ask for help when I need it, and graciously accept charity as well.

I think that these things, whilst not being super measurable soothe my desire to actually work towards something without feeling trapped by it. Years ago I used to set up 10 to 40 different mini-plans and they would inevitably crumble. There were times when I felt that goals were counter-productive; too often in my desire to make a yearly list I wrote aims I would later change my mind about pursuing, but would try to power on anyway just so I would get that sweet cross-out. It turns out that using this tactic just makes you miserable.

Anyway I’m in Berlin at the moment so I already feel that I’m on the right track before the year even officially begins. Currently I’m toying with the idea of finally dying my hair for the first time ever (I’m thinking a white/silver blonde because I’ve always wanted to be more like Storm). I’m trying out the boldness and so far it works.

Who knows what happens next.

Vitiligo! Buzzfeed! Photodermatology!

So today a piece I’d been working on for a while finally showed its face online. I have had vitiligo, which is an auto-immune disease that results in large white patches developing on your skin. I have the kind where it keeps things fairly symmetrical and it is all over (yes, ALL OVER) my body. When you have such an obvious change to your skin you become a curiosity to people, even when you have the benefit of not being particularly dark in the first place like me. It’s rather personal, but I also think it’s rather good:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/rulo/vitiligo-and-me-how-i-found-peace-after-my-skin-betrayed-me#.oonlPMxQ1

As a side note, for some reason everyone’s first response to “I have a piece about vitiligo on Buzzfeed” is them turning to me and saying “like, with cat gifs?”. Sorry, unfortunately I must disappoint you – there are no cat gifs (or any other kind of gifs) in the piece, and I have no idea why you would think they would be there. If however you like looking at pretty things there are some fantastic illustrations accompanying the piece so you could just consider them as an alternative.