may 17, 2020

Decolonizing Healing: Reflecting on bell hooks', Sisters of the Yam

“Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you are well.”

—Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

bell hooks references Bambara’s beautiful words in the introduction of Sisters of the Yam. I needed this book. Truly needing her writing in times like these where I am consistently juxtaposed. I mean, reality was difficult to deal with before covid-19; hundreds of thousands of people were and are dying everyday regardless of the virus or not. In 2016, it was estimated that 8,000 people die from hunger everyday. How am I supposed to just pretend that is not happening?

There has been no clear answer for me. I simultaneously wish to remember and ignore. To hold close, fight for, with all those who are hurting, but in doing so, I am ignoring my own hurting. The weight of carrying the world’s trauma on your heart is no easy feat. It is of course easier than experiencing the trauma itself, but the goal of liberation is not for one of us to experience the horrors the other is experiencing, but to find ways to break free and liberate those very people from the oppressive state itself. To do so, we have to be open. Intimately ready. Completely immersed in understanding and compassion. Those are not easy feats. 

Healing is no one step process, where I magically unravel the years, decades of simulation, ignorance, and learnings. It is simultaneously infinite. But it’s longevity does not excuse me from actively practicing healing. I embody this, but it is often easy to forget. bell hooks seldom lets me ignore the work I must do, to arrive to the revolution, to participate in the movement as wholly, fully, and intimately as I can. For the revolution and healing are inexplicably intertwined.

Like me, hooks makes claim on the ways self-care and healing have been made into a white woman’s practice. Healing has traditionally been that of black and brown women, of poor women, lesbian women, disabled women, fat women, dalit women, ‘third world’ women, detained women, migrant women, immigrant women. Healing has been utilized in the truly darkest of times, for that is when it has been needed most. Healing is no superficial practice, it is a deliberate engagement individually and collectively, with the necessary political consciousness, to resist, transgress, oppose, and transcend.

She writes,

“This book, however, like many other self-help books for women, disturbed me because it denied that patriarchy is institutionalized. It made it seem that women could change everything in our lives by sheer acts of personal will. It did not even suggest that we would need to organize politically to change society in conjunction with our efforts to transform ourselves.” (12)

With a frame of consciousness that transcend the individual, we must still find pathways and mechanisms to heal that are personal to our lived experiences. Individuality does not necessarily mean our practices cannot be illuminating of the experiences of others, but that we must deliberately create blended paths that combine both scales of experience into our healing practices and journeys.

hooks writes,

“Knowing when to quit is linked to knowing one’s value. If black women have not learned to value our bodies then we cannot respond fully to endangering them by undue stress. Since society rewards us most, indicates that we are valuable, when we are willing to push ourselves to the limit and beyond, we need a life-affirming practice, a counter-system of valuation in order to resist this agenda. Most black women have not yet developed a counter-system.” (69)

It is difficult to develop such a system. I recall Sara Ahmed, a feminist queer theorist’s, phenomenal work on feminist resistance in everyday life, as she writes “sometimes: to survive a system is to survive in a system”. Without deliberately placing blockades around and through these systems that attempt to limit, force, derail, and stress our work and bodies, we can very rarely survive without intentional effort to do so. This is a harrowing reality: we must work deliberately, continually, and purposefully to survive these multiple oppressions, to heal with, through, and past them.

This process of healing is a process of consciousness, of decolonization, of (un)learning. hooks further eloquently elaborates:

“We have resisted continued devaluation by countering the dominant stereotypes about us that prevail in white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy by decolonizing our minds. Here decolonization refers to breaking with the ways our reality is defined and shaped by the dominant culture and asserting our understanding of that reality, of our own experience.” (10)

In times of covid-19, I understand truly, that healing can be brushed off as ‘unimportant’. Like I asked before, how can we focus on healing when thousands are dying every. single. day. I still don’t have an answer, but I know I practice healing with intention to the collective for I can only show up as closely as I have met and showed up for myself. That is non-negotiable. And I hope you find the process that enables you the flexibility to explore your liberation as simultaneously your own and beyond yourself during these times.

Note: you can access a pdf copy of this book in my book club: https://kanishkasikri.com/access-book-club/

april 15th, 2020

(Re)Design of Our Survival During COVID-19

Reckoning. Apocalypse. World-Ending Prophecy. Capitalist Failure. Conspiracy. Propaganda. Coronavirus. Covid-19. To name the struggle takes a recognition of it. To recognize the struggle we must name it. What then comes first?

COVID-19 hit. And it hurt. Currently, there sits over 1.3 million active tested cases, and over 73,000 recorded deaths. The truth of the matter is not so much how high the “official” number keeps going, but that millions of people are not being tested, are not having their deaths recorded, are not accessing the necessary health care services whether it be because of their spatial location, their race, caste, class, gender, religion, and/or sexuality. People are suffering. That is fact. Do we know precisely how many? That is not fact.

I hesitated to write today. To put pen to paper and attempt to contextualize something I am not intimately intertwined with—luckily, at least not right now. I recall Patricia Hill-Collins in these times as she writes, “survival is a form of resistance”; in the midst of the “we need to be productive!!!” tweets and messages online, I cannot help but find them insulting. In such survival of ours, there is hope, promise, and resistance. COVID-19 is as much a continued struggle as we would look at a war, a global outcry of death and destruction. Its end is not some silver lining to strive towards, carrying the bodies of millions on our backs, its end is through a deliberate shift—shift of what we consider normal, because “normal” is only what we adjust to and create going forward. I hope we do not forget that.

My hope extends particularly for and towards women in the home, who imbue and live through the violence, disciplining, and punishment that has taken on a greater hold of their lives in these domesticated times. The WHO records absurd numbers of domestic violence complaints. The UN Secretary General has advised that COVID-19 has hit women the hardest, who face violence not only through physical and medical means of the virus, but through the private, purposeful, systematic and structural violence legitimized and authorized at the various entanglements of patriarchal bounds. We have all heard that those most vulnerable are those left behind, and while media and government officials have made explicit the homeless, the racialized, the precarious, the poor, the migrant, and the “in the developing world” worker, we have not made salient the women, the housewife, the financially dependent, the trafficked, the prostitute, the othered who is seldom analyzed when disaster strikes. These are the people being left behind, who we cannot reach, correction: who we do not wish to reach.

I feel less of a duty, and more of a forceful pull to speak to, with, and through the crisis, for it is not only one of epidemiological concern. COVID-19 hurt not only because it is a pandemic, which historically have wiped out millions, but because it unravels the cracks, the vestibules, the shortcomings of systems we are meant to emulate, strive towards, love with our open hearts. Industrialized capitalist democracy. COVID-19 hit the hardest on these nations not because they are more biologically or geographically susceptible to its reach, but because of their structures. The state that demands them legitimacy are not structures capable to handle the crisis because they were not built to aid, assist, protect its citizens but to aid, assist, and protect its profit and economic vitality. I will not sit here and argue or even show that those countries hit hard are systematically much different from the rest of the globe—we all live within binding, oppressive, vexed systems of colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It is impossible to escape it bounds. Nor will I argue the importance of economic prosperity in the very DNA comprising the Global North. I only wish to reflect on how we can lift the fold, understand, situate the ways this crisis can be an opportunity for revival. Redesign. Reconstruction.

We are sitting at the brink of the quite possible death of hundreds of millions. I hope the number is much lower, but that hope does not dissuade nor does it provide substance to forget that these deaths are treatable. We have the opportunity to pave new paths, mechanisms, toolkits to craft quite literally a brighter future. For us non-essential workers, we have the time and space to understand and calibrate how and what we want these next few months, years, decades to look like. I do still know, feel, and experience the continued fear, stress of the unknown, of the economic, of the physical that has grasped our world. For the essential workers, I thank you so desperately for your continued work. Together, as cliche and morally hopeful I seldom sound, I believe we can birth new designs to not only pave more effective paths for this pandemic, but so that when a crisis such as this hits again—and it will—we can find the means to ensure it hits differently, not just hoping it does not hit at all.

april 3rd, 2020

exploring a day in the life of violence against women

I hurt. I hurt everyday. My heart aches, my chest tightens, my breath quickens until I’m breathing so loudly people begin to stare. I want to say this is a rare occurrence. That I don’t feel like this over ten times a day. But I cannot. This sorrow consumes me—it destroys me. Let me walk you through it. I read a line from a news article, “girl gang-raped and then burnt alive.” I look up from my phone to the television, I hear the telecaster prompt: woman stalked and then killed by her ex-husband. I can sense despair in her voice, but she shows no emotion—objectivity is what is needed in the news. Emotions cloud facts. I pick up my keys, throw on the biggest jacket I can find hoping it protects me from the cold weather—or at the very least from the coldness of those around me.

Getting into my car, I turn on the radio, and I hear the next story. Young student brutally assaulted in her dorm. Raped. Tortured. Serious injuries reported. And that’s just the local. The global news seems to creep in as the narrator does a top five in five minutes recap. I don’t yet hear about much other than what x country did to another, or what protests look like here, or what one president said about the other. Oddly enough, hearing this news makes me feel better. If this is worthy enough to be in the top five, maybe there is nothing worse out there. A new narrator usually comes on at this point—generally a more conservative viewpoint. He begins to speak about specific countries.

                                   Myanmar. Burma.                                                                                           

My ears perk. This was my nani’s home. He then mentions a new number of women being trafficked for marriage or sex slavery or something else in the region. They are not any different from me. Some other country will generally pop up at this point. Women killed, raped, tortured, decapitated, trafficked, the list can go on. The newscaster will not linger, however. There is a brief pause as he moves to the next story. His voice need not falter. His tone need not change. He will then usually bring us back to America. Is that not where the story always ends up? He will most likely mention something about the impeachment, a quick summary of the same regurgitated information they repeat everyday. If he is feeling a little more talkative that day, he may mention the border. He will not mention the atrocities, nor will he “pick a side”; as if any side other than not caging people up can even be valid. He will maintain the same tone, the same expression, you can even hear the slight slur of the smile lingering on his lips as to not seem unprofessional. His objectivity rings in my ears. Could I maintain that objectivity, I’ll ask—do I want to?

I might turn on some music at this point, bring out Spotify and play something relaxing. Something to stimulate my mind away from these thoughts. It doesn’t work. Not like I want it to. I park my car and get out. On my right, I see a billboard. Some jeans company. It resembles the Dolce & Gabbanna “gang rape” ad of the late 2000’s. I still remember all the pushback. Here, I see a woman in black, lace underwear standing in heels I imagine to be as tall as me. Sexy, I should think. Around her are five men. On the floor is a pair of jeans. Her jeans are around her ankles. One man has none. Another has his zipper lowered. One has his hand on her lower back. She stares at me. They stare at her. I stare at them. What should I think?In these twenty seconds between my car and the building, I have made a connection to these strangers. One that left me uneasy. Would I be her with those jeans? Do I want to be her? Do I want to be the men? A photographer stood there. Commanded her to dress as such, first having the thought run by the creative team. It was manufactured. Every detail made to encode a feeling. Power. Should be felt, should be experienced, should be had. Who has that power? Who defines it?

I open the building door, press the elevator button, and make my way up. I stop by the break room; the news is playing while I make some tea.

“Sad isn’t it?” he asks me with a hand in his pocket, coffee in the other.

“Sad,” I respond. Need we say more?

I walk to my desk, put my headphones in, and begin working. He trails behind and finds his seat. He rolls over to me, seemingly motivated in the quest for help, but instead asks me a series of questions about that news story—as if educating him is the task I hold dearest. He never does ask if I have the time to chat, or if I’m a bit busy at the moment. Ignoring my reluctance, he still proceeds: “What is rape culture? What does it look like? When did it come? What does that mean about me?” The grandest concern for him surrounding rape culture is not its accompanied violence, but that it brings a mirror up to his face, and forces him to ask, am I rapist? Am I complicit? How do I fit into a system that implicitly demands my domination over women?          

I tell him that I say this not because I believe men are instinctually dominating or because I do not believe they can change their behaviour, but exactly because I believe these relationships can change. I believe we can solidify the relationship between us all outside of the bounds of dominance and submission. I try to stress my optimism even in my despair. That I have hope that one day our world can and will look different. He seems perplexed by my answer. Clearly it was not the pat on the back for being a “good guy” that he had grown accustomed to. Forced to face your own complicity in a system that is made to keep you “asleep”, unaware, and unconscious of your role in the continued systematic genocide of women is difficult. It is not more difficult than the beatings, torture, rape, slavery, prostitution, trafficking, decapitation, and murder of women everywhere. I let him feel his win of trying to learn, however. A soft smile accompanied with the slightest words I can muster.

“Good job for trying”, I whisper. Not all battles I can fight today.              

I used to hear the women from these stories cry, scream, shriek, yell, asking me who the fuck I thought I was to read their stories, hear their tales, gape at their terrors, and then just move on. Forget. Distract. Stimulate. Over and over again until their names are a distant memory if I even knew them in the first place. I repeat this cycle. It’s like clockwork. When I begin to go home, I do the same in reverse. The next morning, I do the same. Come the weekend, I cannot recall any of the stories as vividly as I can recall my breakfast that whole week. It stayed with me, I thought. But, did it? Their pain stayed with me, but did I stay with them?

I’m hurt that I cannot remember their names, or even remember if I knew their names, but I can remember the details of almost very task I worked through that week. I hurt. I hurt as much for the violence of the world as I hurt for my apathy to it.

I read the news again, trying to find the stories and piece them back together. It’s not hard. I may even write their names down. Weave their tales together on scraps of paper until I’m drowning in pain I can hardly handle. I tell myself I mustn’t forget. But I do. I try so hard, but I still do. I cry. Sometimes it loud and full of misery. Sometimes it’s a lone tear that hits my phone. I wipe it away. The sorrow consumes me. I wish it would end, but it does not. Warming up some water, some tea keeps me company. Provides me the warmth I crave in a world that lacks it so desperately. They are me; I am them. We hold no difference I can conceive. I care. I mourn. I weep. And then, the cycle repeats.

march 20th, 2020

tokenized wokeness: the rise of non-violent white saviours to fix the world

Throughout these past few months, media channels have been bombarding us with discussion of Greta Thunberg, political figures of the United Nations, the infamous Donald Trump, and their reactions to the climate crisis. In this sphere of polarization and the rise of comfortable/mainstream activism where people want tangible change without giving up their privileges—regardless if this is even possible—we must be critical and vigilant when there are these heavy endorsements of Greta and her forms of advocacy by world leaders, celebrities, and mass media; for it has become increasingly easy to equalize advocacy with action, and white saviours with activists. So, I ask you a simple question, whose answer may be immensely convoluted: why Greta? Why is Greta Thunberg the face of climate change activism today?            

There is a difference between attacking Greta because of her advocacy in questioning the audacity of world leaders in their lack of action against climate change and recognizing that certain bodies are always centered in global discussions—that of white Eurocentric perspectives.

But, let me just say, when Greta asked,

how dare you?

The power, the emotion, the rawness of that question, it inspired me. It was, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “one thing to know something intellectually and another to feel it emotionally”.                                                       

However, there is a difference between applauding this advocacy and working to dismantle the narrative that places certain bodies as the center perspective, as the only perspective, in public discourse, academia, and activist spaces. Recognizing the embedded nature of political dynamics to favor the less radical body does not mean that those with platforms should not utilize them in dismantling our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy. Rather, we need to actively work to recognize the mechanisms of popular advocacy and understand how these modes of prioritization are rooted in other forms of systematic exploitation and oppression.    

I applaud Greta, as should all of you, while still recognizing that those disproportionately affected by climate change, rarely if ever access platforms that allow them to voice their own lived experiences and embodied knowledge. If we never center marginalized voices, can we ever hear, understand, and change their realities? Greta, unlike many marginalized people does not face the continued blame, degradation and consequences of the climate crisis; we must then ask: why are communities who are continually exploited by transnational structures demanding ecological destruction, not the ones that are able to organize strikes, protests, and policy changes according to their own lived and embodied learnings? Why is Greta, somebody who has a platform, who is white, and residing in the Global North considered the face of a movement that does not affect her in the same capacity as it has the majority of the South?

World leaders, celebrities, journalists, news outlets, mass media, they will praise Greta and others that look like her and hold her privileges and will place them as the voice of climate change. This re-orienting of the white saviour and activist is nothing new. The white rescuer, protector, liberator has been practiced for centuries now, whether it was at times of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the continued colonization and genocide of the manufactured “Third World”, or the co-opting and appropriation of the gun reform and climate activism movements today.

For instance, the Parkland shootings in the United States revolutionized the way the media portrayed gun reform as those of primarily white advocates. When preventable disaster struck Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2018, claiming the lives of 17 students, black teens rose and stood up to the forces demanding the deaths of children, and shouted #NeverAgain repeatedly throughout the nation. They organized protests, marches, gun reform rallies, but their advocacy was not taken as seriously as that of their counterpart white student activists. This is when the Times put the white Parkland survivors who had gone through tremendous trauma, on their covers. Who chanted their names as heroes, brave, courageous activists repeatedly throughout the news while casting similar black victims of gun violence as vicious, gang-affiliates, “known to the police” perpetrators. Who cast them as the holy light against the corrupt NRA, who by the way supported gun control and reform when the Black Panthers carried them.

Why are we pretending that gun violence was not a systematic racialized and gendered issue before February 14th, 2018? Where are the black women founders of the Black Lives Matter movement—Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza (the one name I did not have to google)? Where are the organizers of the #SayHerName Campaign of 2015, who demanded Washington University publish their study that found nearly 60 percent of black women killed by police were unarmed? Where are the other awareness campaigns, like Project Orange Tree led by black and indigenous women who wear orange because historically that was a call between hunters not to shoot? Where are their stories, activism, and lived experiences?

It is not that Greta and the Parkland survivors should not speak to their own experiences, but that there is an incredible silencing of perspectives that differ from the idea of the dominant activist body that dictates solutions. People of colour advocates, especially black, indigenous, and “third world” activists are seen as the radical body, the othered body, the “colored” body. And when I speak about Greta and the Parkland survivors, I am not attacking them as much as I am attacking this system that utilizes them to maintain a conformist and white supremacist power dynamic.

Greta will be praised mainly because her forms of advocacy are nonviolent and are not rooted in the dismantling of racist and classist forms of colonial power that are embedded into climate change. Climate change is not an isolated issue. The climate crisis is one of a racial crisis. It’s one of a sexist crisis. It’s one of a colonial crisis. It’s one of a capitalist crisis. Greta is not advocating for justice that dismantles these intersecting layers of oppression. Accordingly, political leaders and mass media can praise Greta and center her as the climate saviour because her advocacy is not one that questions and challenges their own compliance and dominance in the continued genocide of our planet and its peoples.     

The voices of people of colour, women, poor, disabled, fat, immigrant, refugee communities are not centered precisely because they are working to dismantle that power structure beyond superficial layers. In the face of whose activism to choose, middle-to-higher class, rich, white, straight men will choose the activist that allows them to keep their comfort and privilege. By working to dismantle the consequences rather than roots of climate change, Greta can utilize these nonviolent forms of resistance and it works great for her, but we cannot and should not equate creating a climate strike day or organizing awareness marches, as equivalent to those who put themselves and their lives in danger every day. Who are on the ground doing the work, who are sitting in jail for protesting, who cannot find housing because they were displaced from their homes, who cannot find employment because of their past advocacy, who are surveillanced by the state, who are killed every single day, fighting for justice in a system that values everything but their lives. I think of the The Chaski Warmi of the Abyayala, a tribe of indigenous women demanding that the United Nations put indigenous culture and livelihood over mining and unsustainable development in Ecuador. To be honest, they are the only indigenous activists I know without having to search and sift through media coverage. Embarrassingly, I had to look up 15-year-old, Autumn Peltier, an indigenous water activist fighting against the exploitation and degradation of indigenous peoples and land in Canada, who is completely unknown to me even while I have grown up here.

I hope that just because Greta is inhabiting a less “radical” body, we do not put her actions, protests, and forms of resistance as superior than those of continually marginalized communities. Greta’s work and advocacy are an integral and important step of climate and environmental justice. However, let me be clear: we are aware, but awareness is just not enough.