There are three slogans that immediately come to mind when I think of 2020: whether from work emails, local business ads, or neighborhood storefronts: In these unprecedented times, We are alone–together, and Black Lives Matter. How did an organized political and social movement, which first came together in 2013, after the US justice system showed its favored hand in acquitting Trayvon Martin’s murderer, become the loudest cry of 2020?
The May 24th murder of George Floyd in broad daylight sparked a resurgence of activism across the United States and abroad. His, and many other Black lives have become casualties to systemic and ingrained prejudice, which has aggressively attacked the lives of innocent individuals—often going about their daily lives. The fact that this act of brutality by white police officers was caught on camera opened the door for a spate of brutal killings preceding May 24th to come to light. One of the earliest among them was the murder of twenty-six year old Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020. Joining the cry of “I Can’t Breathe!” was a fierce reminder to, “Say Her Name!”
This chant, first initiated by the African American Policy Forum, was meant to reinstate the urgency of recognizing not only Black death in its numbers, but in its intersectionality. In her TED talk regarding the importance of intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw (one of AAPF’s founding members) highlights the disparity in acknowledging male and female deaths. She asks the audience to stand for a litany of names, sitting only once they’ve heard a name they don’t recognize. The familiar names of Black men are read to a mostly standing audience—once the names of women are read off, the number drops drastically. This, Crenshaw reminds her audience, is why we must “say her name”—the bodies of Black women do not receive the same urgency or mobilization.
It seemed in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death, that we had finally heeded Crenshaw’s advice: we said her name, we posted widely on social media to call for the arrest of her murderers. However, we were quickly, and rightfully condemned: unlike with George Floyd, merchandise and memes made Breonna Taylor’s body a marketing strategy for us to feast on. What day wasn’t a wonderful day to call the Louisville police and demand that they arrest the cops who murdered Breonna?
On September 23, 2020, the verdict was clear: we hadn’t made Breonna Taylor a movement, but rather a media spectacle. We had failed Breonna Taylor. News first emerged that only the stray bullets discharged had been condemned, reminding us how little we valued the bodies of Black women. Then we learned that the officers who had fired their weapons at Breonna had never even been charged.
While it is an exercise of our democracy to protest and demonstrate against these injustices—what has been left of this summer of activism except a capitalist machine reawakening from the drowsy haze of March-May quarantine? What workplace, or institution, didn’t send an email condemning police brutality—or at best, a senseless murder? My own sphere as a graduate student of English, and writer, called it a reckoning: were we highlighting Black voices? Were we publishing enough BIPOC writing? We had been thus far focused on the optics of not being racist; now we had to learn how to be actively anti-racist. Ibram Kendi’s books flew off the shelves as book clubs formed, Zoom invitations flooded our inboxes as we put the pressure on our mourning Black colleagues to educate us—tell us how we could help them.
As a non-Black woman, there is a limitation on how much I can claim in a space that was carved out for a much more marginalized group than my own (Indian-American, and fairly well represented in academic institutions, if not my own department). However, watching this intersection of space occur within my own communities has been a reminder of the everyday microaggressions that I have seen culturally normalized. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has, quite literally, been a lifesaver for those who fell through the cracks of a system that didn’t recognize their varied experiences and identities. So if we know the importance of this in 2020, then we must be applying it widely, right? Well–these intersections only work when we actively choose to recognize them.
For example, Islam is the third largest religion in the US, and while many of the mosques follow de-facto segregation based on immigrant community pockets, there is in fact a much larger community that often gets overlooked in the public narrative of American Muslims. Black Muslims make up one of the largest demographics in the US. Yet it took waves of BLM protests to remind immigrant communities of this. In my own twenty some years of experience I have witnessed first-hand acts of microaggressions against Black Muslims that even the most devout of our community would deny.
Black mosques exist—this bears repeating—Black mosques exist, despite my (Desi) community’s apparent ignorance of the fact. Each Ramadan we hold fundraisers, inviting only for one night a local imam with a radical idea: raising money for a mosque just across town that we didn’t know existed. Why? It primarily served the Black Muslim community. We would, for one night, remind ourselves that there is no superiority among Muslims, raise a meagre sum, and then go back to campaigning for a (boys only, of course) basketball court in Stage Three of the mosque construction dream plan. No wonder then, that I would receive emails as a community point person during my undergraduate years requesting locations of nearby mosques in Baltimore, with the local lists shot down until I suggested a larger Desi mosque out of town.
With such a framework in place, we were not prepared for the activism asked of us as Desi-Americans this past summer. A sign in itself is not enough. In the end, amidst a scramble of companies, organizations, and institutions attempting to attach themselves to the right side of history, it remains clear that the intention was to keep themselves on the right side of their consumer base, making BLM “just good business”. A storefront sign becomes just part of the window display, and we decide we’ve talked enough about race.
I don’t know what the next few days will look like (hi, 2020) but in order for us to atone for commodifying this movement—one with literal lives on the line, I’m looking at each “intersection-ed” community. It’s time to step up and speak up for what unifies us, not lay complicit in what divides us.
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