Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.
On being alienated by my team and community
A year ago, I signed on to be a representative of the Asian and Asian American community to the larger community, without any clue of the long ride ahead. Now, with a week left, I will fulfill what is left of my duties, but I will do it my way.
Throughout this year, my team and I, in the face of racism, defaulted onto the methods of “gladvocates.” We always put smiles on our faces, we always tried to speak in other people’s language, we always told people what a great job they were doing in trying to learn about the issues of race and how much we appreciated their efforts. Being a “gladvocate” is not my default style, but I went with it because I was a team player. It was only last week that we finally switched strategies after a year of no progress. And it was only last week that progress was finally made, after we switched to my default style of asking hard questions and pinning people to their responsibilities.
During elections for new representatives, it became clear that my team and my community were obsessed with “positivity” and “positive energy,” and it also became clear that they disapproved of an effective but “negative” strategy. At the time, my only reaction was to cry.
I have been repeatedly told, by this team and by my community, that I am not a team player. I have also been open about my mental illness and my past history of abuse, and because of this, people have repeatedly dismissed me with “she’s just crazy.” I bought into people’s ideas of me, and throughout this year, I have sacrificed much of my individuality in order to be a team player. I have constantly censored myself because I recognize how I can divide the community. I have sent the vast majority of my emails and details of pre-meditated actions to the team leader for prior approval because I am a “loose cannon.” I like to think that I have proved myself as a team play, yet whenever I needed my team, they were not there for me. Because of the structure of the team, whenever something I do goes wrong, the shit ends up back in my lap. Whenever something I do goes right, the glory ends up back to the team, specifically to the team leader. I was fine with that until now. The glory that was bought with my blood, sweat, and tears, has caused heads and egos to swell. When it came time to defend me and my actions, my team was not there for me. “Oh, stop being so negative, focus more on the positive,” I kept hearing.
I am not a negative person. If I was a negative person, I would have successfully committed suicide. Each time I tried, I always ended up at a crossroads: to either actively undo the damage I had already done to my body, or to allow myself to slip peacefully off. Each time, I chose the former. This was during a time when I could not even see the light at the end of the tunnel; the only reason why I chose to live was because I had hope that things would be better. I reasoned that if I knew such loneliness, darkness, and pain, then I must have known happiness at some point and that I would experience it again.
At the beginning of this semester, the team leader and I made the decision that I would serve as the buffer between the larger community and my team and community. I would handle all the negativity, and let as little as possible seep through, because others on the team and in the community had shown that they could not handle the negativity. I do not regret that decision, and I will continue my duties until the end of my term. I, however, foolishly expected people to understand the difficult position I was in, and I foolishly thought people would trust my decisions and my actions to further the community. I foolishly thought that people would be grateful for the difficult decisions I have made. I forgot to hope for the best, but expect the worst. My ego caused me to have unrealistic expectations, and ultimately, I have only myself to blame.
Working on race relations, racism, and power structures of oppression is inherently negative. I am not a negative person for stating such; I am just an honest person. I will call a pile of shit for what it is. Choosing to focus on the positive often means ignoring the negative. Which is more effective: staring the tiger in the eyes and choosing to fight it head on, or running away from the tiger and allowing it to maul you from behind?
To the incoming leaders: you are not special. Unless you take the time to learn from the mistakes of the past, you will make the same mistakes. You are not that powerful or influential; there are larger sociocultural and sociopolitical forces that inform the thought processes and decisions of others. If you choose to only focus on the “positive” or the “objective,” nothing will get done. I have seen it, time and time again, when a group of leaders come together to throw a program or to solve a particular issue. Everyone wants to focus on the positive, so the negatives are never discussed. And each time, the leaders ask themselves why is it that their program was not successful, why is it that they contributed nothing to solving the problem. For progress to be made, the negatives must be discussed and lessons must be learned.
I have no regrets about anything I have done this year because I learned from each mistake I made. I would like to think that my efforts have been worth it, that I have positively contributed to the world in my little way. I am sorry that at the end, I was alienated by my team and community, and I wish I was not leaving with such bitterness. I hope that next year, those who may be continuing the work I began will not be thrown under the bus, by their team mates and their community, as I was.
Dance, cultural festivals, and community building as activism and political statements
Whenever I tell fellow activists that I perform Chinese folk, traditional, and classical dances, eyebrows shoot up into hairlines. Especially for activists of race-based issues, “food fun fabric festivals” are the source of a lot of ulcers. In the world of activist hierarchy, my involvement in planning, executing, and participating in “food fun fabric festivals” takes me down a few notches.
I agree that by themselves, “food fun fabric festivals” can do more harm than good. They provide a venue for mainstream society to turn cultures into exotic fetishes while trivializing the practices of those cultures and the issues of those who identify with those cultures. However, I also think that traditional activism has limited influence and impact. I think that cultural celebrations intended to build community are a form of activism and that they are political statements.
When I dance, I am celebrating my cultural heritage and my identity. So often my identity is about what is missing and negative space, as opposed to what is there; dancing is an opportunity in which I find what is there and find power in my identity. When I plan and execute cultural festivals, I am bringing together a community to celebrate our heritage. As a community, we are asserting that there is a space for our cultural practices. We are asserting that there is a space for our community, our ideas, and our voices. We are asserting that in the realm of politics, our identity has a space; our issues are not particular because they are universal.
Surviving and thriving in the margins is an act of resistance. Asserting and creating a space for your identity is an act of resistance. Before more recognizable acts of resistance can take place, a solid foundation must be established, and cultural celebrations allow for that.
For those asking what you can do to help, please link to visiblechildren.tumblr.com wherever you see KONY 2012 posts. And tweet a link to this page to famous people on Twitter who are talking about KONY 2012!
I do not doubt for a second that those involved in KONY 2012 have great intentions, nor do I doubt for a second that Joseph Kony is a very evil man. But despite this, I’m strongly opposed to the KONY 2012 campaign.
KONY 2012 is the product of a group called Invisible Children, a controversial activist group and not-for-profit. They’ve released 11 films, most with an accompanying bracelet colour (KONY 2012 is fittingly red), all of which focus on Joseph Kony. When we buy merch from them, when we link to their video, when we put up posters linking to their website, we support the organization. I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I’m notalone.
Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited. But it goes way deeper than that.
The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them,arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.
Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.
As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”
Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention. Kony has been involved in peace talks in the past, which have fallen through. But Invisible Children is now focusing on military intervention.
Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.
Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.
If you want to write to your Member of Parliament or your Senator or the President or the Prime Minister, by all means, go ahead. If you want to post about Joseph Kony’s crimes on Facebook, go ahead. But let’s keep it about Joseph Kony, not KONY 2012.
~ Grant Oyston, email@example.com
Grant Oyston is a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. You can help spread the word about this by linking to his blog at visiblechildren.tumblr.com anywhere you see posts about KONY 2012.
The more a country insists that racism is not a problem they have, the bigger that problem actually is. Which must mean that though Mexico has a problem, it’s nothing compared to France, Britain or Germany? (This video is part of the Mexican government’s anti-racism campaign.)