It’s a hard time at the moment. And “the moment” refers to not only the pandemic and what’s happening with racism and sexism but to any time spent existing as a POC, a WOC, LGBTQ+ or someone viewed as Other, as ‘on the outskirts of society’ (because ‘society’ as we know consists soley of straight cis white men amiright?)
The toll on our mental health generally means that self care is vital. Protecting our peace is vital.
This is a skill that needs to be developed and actively practised, particularly whilst living amongst a capitalist society with its’ hustle 24/7 values of productivity and visibility, and heavy social media use. For an activist, or a person who is outspoken about their values (for their personal or business or both) – there is a self placed pressure to be always an advocate/educator. To represent your community, to add your voice to the conversation because of lack of representation, because of heinous hate and violence against your community, because it’s so important.
And it IS SO IMPORTANT. But, so is staying well.
I write this because I had a situation recently in which, I did not call something out. Something racist against East Asians, in a white space – an online community of female founders/businesswomen. I did not educate a white person and try and prompt change, instead I left the space.
Now, I’m the kind of person who ALWAYS says something. From challenging my teachers at school, arguing with drunk strangers in smoking areas outside bars, calling out work superiors and being forever labelled “difficult”, making family dinners uncomfortable by not letting things slide – to my detriment usually, I say something.
I am also the kind of person who readily leaves spaces that do not serve me, toxic environments and people, buh-bye. There can be a push and pull between the two, and I’m here to validate the latter.
The situation: A prominent Cool Female space, I’ve been a member for several years, it has some wonderful women doing great things, and upholding good values, some genuinely excellent intersectional feminists in there, myself included (meek humility begone!). However, the founder I’ve always found a little problematic. The brand she created always felt a bit “white feminist” - but the rock and roll edge tricked me. Rock and roll always tricks me, ever since I was a grunge-loving punky teenager, because it promotes values of The Outsider, of anti-establishment and emotional turmoil of being misunderstood. However, it’s also an incredibly white cis, often misogynistic space, in which I was almost never represented or really accepted in terms of my gender or skin colour/heritage.
Anyway in this Cool Female space, the founder’s new business launched, and the name was an appropriation of an East Asian symbol. A very common Japanese figure that is easily recognisable as East Asian imagery, also popular to Chinese culture. To be perfectly honest, it’s often appropriated here in the UK - to the point where I have an Oliver Bonas candle in its’ image because I found the artwork so fricken cute, and because I’m problematic as well SMH.
But she had chosen to name her company this, right amongst the Mahjong Line https://www.thecut.com/2021/01/the-mahjong-line-accused-racism-appropriation.html debacle, the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, the rise in Asian hate crimes, and a good 6 months after the BLM protests in which white people assured us they were “doing the work”. This particular Founder gave her platform to Black business owners for a few months, organised Diversity & Inclusion workshops for her membership, all the ‘correct’ things to be doing. And then chose to name her new business, from a place of East Asian appropriation. So...I guess you learned absolutely f*ck all, and the ‘anti-racism’ stuff was all performative for your brand?
The truth is, when I saw her new brand name, it cut me to the bone. Perhaps too much. I realised then just how affected I’d been, emotionally, by the rising tide of anti-Asian sentiment (and off the back of the anti-immigrant movement Brexit), the daily images of Asian elders who looked like my family killed in hatred, my peers being spat on in my UK streets, that bloody Domino’s ad – it had all taken a real toll on me.
I crafted a well intentioned message to her, a DM to the Instagram of her new brand (launching in March 2021) – and I realised I didn’t have it in me. I couldn’t access my voice, usually so full of conviction and passion and punk-rock hard hitting clarity. I felt overwhelmed by my bruised heart, by the whiteness of the space, feeling like one voice speaking to a thousand heads all turned the other way, disinterested. I wrote a tiny-voiced friendly “Hey lovely, I guess you don’t realise, but...” message. So polite and apologetic, I hated it. I sent, and instantly deleted it. I realised that I really didn’t want to deal with what sending the message would bring. The gaslight-y message back, navigating the faux-friendly tone, the burden of having to ‘prove’ something is appropriation, having to stand up for my community in a way that does it justice when I felt so very small and sad, the guilt when I inevitably did it badly.
And also – who was I ultimately helping? What was the ‘victory’ here? Who would my emotionally-triggering and draining efforts be for? To spare a cis white woman steeped in privilege, who cannot be bothered to do her own research. And, there is NO WAY she didn’t know the imagery has an ancestral home, that it belongs to a different culture with rich meaning that is not hers to take – she knows, she simply feels entitled to it.
So, I took a few days off social media, tended to myself a bit – and ultimately, cancelled my membership with the group.
I didn’t have it in me to have the conversation – which is a bit laughable, as I have spent a lifetime having much harder conversations – but, we are allowed to be affected by racism, to be traumatised, to be in pain. And we are allowed to protect our peace. We do not *have* to cut our wounds open and bleed all over white people who could just as easily do some cold basic due diligence and make another choice. Something that takes zero emotional toll on them, to spare poking at our already open wounds.
There is an immense pressure on those of us with voices, to use them. However, and I learned this from years of working in charities – you cannot pour from an empty cup. Our mental health comes FIRST. And the onus sadly falls on the wrong people when it comes to injustice – on those it affects. On those it hurts, who are even as they speak of it, being eroded by its’ daily little cuts. The community does all the speaking up, educating, content creating – but what of the silent masses?
When I was younger I wanted to be a documentarian, to educate and shine a light on injustice – people surely wouldn’t let injustices occur if they could only see it, understand it! I unconsciously carry this energy into my adult persona – the sense that surely people would all be outraged as me, if they only knew. They must not know, let me tell them! But the truth is, my truth is, my energy is better spent talking to my communities of interested people, than to the disinterested.
So to my community, of Asians, but also of activists, of women, of Others, I say – we must take care of ourselves.
We cannot control the opinions or behaviour of others. We can be committed to fighting injustice, and committed to protecting our peace. We do not have to over extend or over share ourselves. Our voices and energy are precious. Only advocate and educate as much as you are able without compromising your mental health. If we spend energy building up our community, we are better supported individually. We can let things slide when we need to, safe in the knowledge that another of us will pick it up.
I think of it like staggered breathing in a choir. When a long note is sung, it can be sustained indefinitely, eternally, because it’s a collection of voices singing as one but is not only one. Each individual can take a breath, safe in the knowledge that the note continues on until they can rejoin it, then allowing someone else to breathe. That’s how we fight the good fight yet don’t burn out, how we take time to grieve and heal without dropping the message - by bringing our voices together.
An aside: The founder’s brand I refer to here is as yet unlaunched – I’ve shared it with a trusted network of BESEA peeps, so we shall see.
Author: Steph Dylan Cawitan
DeclarASIAN Blog Contributor