Activism in a white world - how I kept mine alive and lessons learnt
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Ayushi Angresh is a rising law-student at the University of Bristol the UK. She is a peace activist, film-maker, and passionate historian, raising awareness about decolonization and the empowerment of people of colour and refugees. Previously she has been involved with organizations such as Ashoka, Amnesty, and Initiative for Peace. Currently she is working in providing legal advice to those who cannot otherwise access it, and up until the COVID crisis, was organising her own Initiative for Peace conference to address nationalism in India. In response to our request for her to conclude our self-confidence series, Ayushi wrote this powerful piece on the importance of building self-confidence by finding a supportive community and reminding yourself of your rights, when you are an activist of colour in a white world.
I study in England, where I am one of many international students who, with the hopes of using education as a tool for empowerment, travel to the very countries which disempowered us in the first place. My degree, four years of study in the system of common law, enables me to practice in most countries that are still recovering from English colonialism, a total of 41 nations including my home nation of Singapore. Most people I speak to don't understand the extent of their country's complicity in shedding blood of black and brown people globally, and the Victoria and Albert museum is, to the majority of the white English public, simply an exhibition in which they get to explore exotic cultures.
"Activism as a person of colour in white spaces is a
draining and challenging experience"
The burden of colonialism is still borne by those who were colonised, and our generation still feels the generational trauma and impact of systemic racism, colourism, and marginalisation.
Activism as a person of colour in white spaces is a draining and challenging experience, and it can take multiple forms. Some days, the extent of effort which can be afforded is just to not laugh at a racist 'joke,' whereas other days are brazen and emboldened, filled with a want, or even a need, to question, debate, fight the status quo. On the fiery days, people of colour (POC) are met with a flurry of disapproval, especially in complacent and 'politely' ignorant cultures where inciting debate, even when in favour of basic human rights, is frowned upon. So how do you take your activism further, cause more of an impact, mobilise communities around you, and do the things you love - all when you are distinctly a minority?
#1 Find a supportive community to draw energy from
The first and most important thing is to build a foundation, find a group, a community, that is your own and that you draw empathy, connection, and confidence from. 'Confidence' is almost universally misunderstood. It is not something that is a constant, or that a person can tap into with ease at any time. It ebbs and flows, with the good days and the bad ones, just like any other state of being. Knowing you are doing the 'right thing' is only a start - surround yourself with people who recognise your worth, and you will find it very difficult to forget it, even when things get hard. This is extra important when you're a minority.
"If you're spending all your time trying to get the people in your life to understand why their actions sometimes hurt, it's unlikely you will have the required energy for activism"
The last thing any of us needs when we're trying to change the world is to feel ostracised, even unintentionally, by the ignorance of our peers. We all have experiences of otherness or feeling unwelcome, purely on features we have no control over. This obviously does not mean we should 'cancel' very real, loyal, and beautiful friendships over ignorance, especially when a range of cultures and diversity is not something most people have the privilege to be exposed to. But equally, if you're spending all your time trying to get the people in your life to understand why their actions sometimes hurt, it's unlikely you will have the required energy for activism. While ignorance is taught and may not immediately deem your friend a bad person, find your balance, and your community, and make sure you draw energy, support, and love from them.
#2 Always remember your rights
The second thing to remember is slightly more structural. Power structures which enable activism through time, funding, or resources, are the same ones which are built on oppression. And as POC, we are constantly reminded of these structures. Colonialism, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the millions of statues to colonisers, Winston Churchill, and pretty much the majority of the white world are all constant reminders of how much we lack. We don't have the same level of financial power, security, or a voice, as our white community members. The system is built to overwhelm and therefore silence us.
"How do we find the confidence and therefore motivation to continue productivity
despite the systemic and structural barriers?"
Even with a fantastic community, where our white friends and family speak up to the extent that we want them to, the reminders are still there. They are structural, and ever-present. Bureaucracy stifles POC efforts before racists even hear of them. How do we find the confidence and therefore motivation to continue productivity despite the systemic and structural barriers? This is different for everyone, and we sometimes get it wrong. I remember a day where, while I was part of a team organising a youth peace conference, I had attended a house viewing with my family. Before we even entered the house, the agent informed us that the landlord was unlikely to rent to us because of our race.
"POC are excluded from the institutions
which are built from our suffering"
This wasn't the first time it had happened, and I would find it somewhat difficult to remember a house viewing with my parents where some mention of race wasn't brought up. I spent all my energy fighting a letting agent who couldn't actually make any change to the landlord's bias and had significantly less time for what really mattered, and contributed less to the conference. This was particularly hard, because Singapore is built on the backs of brown people, and the very buildings we are 'discouraged' from living in because of our race, are the ones that our race built on atrociously low wages. This form of injustice, where POC are excluded from the institutions which are built from our suffering, is omnipresent. I have found that the most effective way I draw confidence here, is to remind myself of the entitlement I should be feeling. The Victoria and Albert museum should be emptied out, and our artifacts should rightfully be returned to us. The buildings which are built on brown labour should be open to all brown people. Reparations should be paid, and Britain owes just India 45 trillion pounds. The economic, and systemic privilege which the Northern world is built on the South, and the British crown was set in black and brown blood.
"The most effective way I draw confidence here,
is to remind myself of the entitlement I should be feeling"
Not only are we entitled to the time, intellectual capabilities, and the open minds of people, we are also entitled to their resources. If the world is ever to find systemic racial harmony, POC must demand what they need, and we are entitled to have the ruling class listen, and act accordingly. The constant reminders of lacking resources are also a constant reminder that those resources must be redistributed if we are ever to effectively decolonise.
#3 Be patient
The final thing to remember, as a young, person of colour activist, is that movements are not built overnight. As confidence ebbs and flows, so does traction. Some days it will feel like your work is going nowhere, and systemic, structural, implicit racism refuses to topple. Monuments are not dismantled with one person overnight. Mobilise a community, remember you are entitled to people's time and resources, and channel those resources into taking steps that address the source of the issue rather than symptoms.
"Treating symptoms of issues rarely solves the issue itself,
and putting a band-aid on a bruise
does not address the problem below the skin"
If your project is to address housing inequality in POC communities, trying to do so by throwing money at brown and black families and hoping that will get them somewhere is solving a symptom of the issue. Addressing the structural inequality of housing systems in a way that empowers black and brown families to advocate against postcode inequality will see long-term, sustainable change. Treating symptoms of issues rarely solves the issue itself, and putting a band-aid on a bruise does not address the problem below the skin. And as long as you are working towards long term, sustainable change, you know you are working in the right direction and can remind yourself of this every time it seems like you're going nowhere.