May 4, 2015

Inviting In: On Giving People A Chance to Care

As activists and allies, there can sometimes be a surprising amount of negative energy circulated within in our own groups. Well, perhaps not so surprising – we are, after all, attempting to fight against large-scale injustices and oppressions that are frustratingly widespread, and this can feel overwhelming. Since attending UBC, I have been privy to a great number of vital, passionate, and inspiring conversations within this community about these very issues, and I consider myself very fortunate. But often these conversations are posed in response to an omnipresent “other” against which we are fighting, and a subsequent brainwashed population who unthinkingly coordinates with this other, not seeing or caring why or how these oppressions exist.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a lot of work to be done in awareness-raising; I have had enough exposure to mass media and conversations with people of many demographics which attests to this need. But a homogenized view of those outside distinctly activist circles can mistakenly create a counterproductive impression that people are not willing to engage with the reality of these issues. It is easy to forget that everyone will engage in these issues in different ways, and this does not necessarily imply a lack of concern or action.

This past year, I had the privilege of co-facilitating a workshop through UBC’s Student Leadership Conference (SLC) as a SASC representative. The presentation which my co-facilitators and I developed was on the subject of leadership in media. Our focus was on how the new and emerging world of digital content creation allows opportunities for students (and anyone) to establish a leadership presence via online platforms and social media. Specifically we highlighted the importance of combatting content that perpetuates stereotypes and oppressive discourses, focusing on sexism and racism in online communities as examples.

The finalization of our presentation content had come after the submission of our workshop title and description. The original description didn’t mention of the decidedly social justice-slant we would be taking, so we knew our audience was going to be entering the workshop expecting a general “Leadership in the Digital Age” presentation. Knowing this made me nervous. I was prepared for a negative reaction, concerned that our attendees would feel alienated or even angry by the focus of the topic. I worried and somewhat assumed that people wouldn’t “get” it, would feel attacked, maybe even deceived, and would be unprepared and unwilling to engage when the focus of our presentation became clear. This is what I was taught to expect from a presumably “anti-feminist” world. And so I was surprised when we found the audience not only readily engaging, but enjoying themselves; the responses to questions we asked were involved and critical, there was no experience of the “but why aren’t rape jokes funny?” type of response I had been prepared for. Instead, we were greeted with insightful responses and a willingness to participate.

Though the comment sheets did reflect some of the lack of clarity between our workshop description and actual content, the comments on the actual presentation were wholly positive. Of course, UBC is a difficult territory in which to navigate or evaluate awareness of oppressions, entangled as it is with issues of class, race, and its history of colonialism. We may rightfully ask who it is that has access to the SLC in order to interact with these dialogues. What is the likelihood that they have been confronted with ideas of sexism and racism in media before, and how different would this conversation look in a context unbolstered by formal education? It’s true that these conversations have a long way to go in terms of societal dissemination, but it is also true that UBC has not always been an environment which fosters these conversations, certainly not across and between student groups, and for that reason this experience is heartening.   

There is an easy tendency to fall into an “us against the world” mentality when you’re fighting against what seem like insurmountable injustices. This makes sense; the feeling of solidarity which this gives is comforting and powerful, and when you are engaged in work that can be extremely vulnerable, this solidarity can be a necessary home base. But this kind of thinking, however attractive, can be dangerous. It is important not to let the reality of the embedded ugliness against which we are fighting create internal assumptions about those we do not actively see standing beside us. If anti-oppression is our goal, that means making room and having compassion for those who do not yet recognize these oppressions, or who express their recognition or activism in methods that are not our own. My experience with the SLC was such a simple but powerful sign of people’s willingness to engage and discuss the tough issues that so often go unmentioned. I hope this sort of experience will remind us that activism is a society-wide project, and requires the inviting in of everyone, even those we don’t expect to listen. This is a scary project we are undertaking, and it can only help to remember and trust that people have the power to surprise us.

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