Yes, your lives matter too and that’s why Black Lives Matter

To my Malaysian friends and family.

Over the past few days, I’ve had some quite intense and difficult conversations with many of you about racism, specifically related to Black Lives Matter and how some of us are responding to it. Many of these conversations are about using the “All Lives Matter” argument against those showing solidarity with BLM.

So, I’m penning some of my thoughts down on here from these conversations – partially as a resource I can direct people to when the inevitable conversations keep happening, and partially because I hope it will shed some light on the issue for those who are going around “All lives matter”-ing.

I was initially hesitant to put energy into this, particularly because for a while now, I have been subscribing to Reni-Eddo Lodge’s wisdom (you can read a short version here or buy her book, which I believe sold out across the UK over the weekend but I heard it’s currently in reprint), but I am also aware that so much of the discourse – naturally, no doubt, because this is the system they live in – about the oppression of black people is framed against whiteness (or white supremacy).

This means that the language that movements like Black Lives Matter use, might not always speak to those of us from other part of the world where white-ness is not always the default – at least in our discourse (it still is, to be clear, and I’ll get to it later below).

The reason for this is clear. Black Lives Matter is a US movement, albeit one that has been gaining traction over the past few years, especially in other predominantly white countries.

This is an important distinction because one of the biggest criticism from those I’ve spoken to re: “all lives matter” are saying that it’s not just black people whose lives matter. Yes, absolutely – but that is not what they are saying.

Black Lives Matter isn’t saying that other lives matter less; they are saying that racism is bad, and wrong, and systemic and in the context that they exist in, black people are suffering – blindlessly killed – at the hands of the white institution.

What does this mean for those of us then in countries like Malaysia? To support Black Lives Matter is not to suggest that any of our lives matter less. Black Lives Matter is reaching out for help – to amplify their voice, to stand in solidarity, to be anti-racist, to donate – and what many of us who have been posting stories, images, links and more (as well as having conversations like these), is responding to this call and standing by them.

What groups we stand for in the battle against racism doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive. My friend, the thespian Jo Kukathas, eloquently wrote on Facebook:

“Rather than say don’t stand up for BLM, stand up for that as well as the other injustices that most compel you to stand up and speak … As the BLM movement gains traction worldwide we Malaysians can add to the list of other people being treated unjustly by the state and by society here – orang asli, migrants, Indian men, indigenous people, Africans, refugees, stateless people and ask why. We can also ask why we still have a race based political and economic system of government where privilege is not yet a dirty word.” 

Jo Kukathas

Yes, each and every one of these lives matter. But in responding to Black Lives Matter by simply saying that “all lives matter” (some are going even as far as to say that the focus on black people in itself is racist) is essentially silencing the voices and experiences of a large group of people – again, within the context of predominantly white countries – who have been oppressed, dehumanised, murdered over and over again.

Side note: I think we also need to look inwards at ourselves and ask the difficult questions about our relationship to racism, and why some of us feel like black lives can’t matter unless ours matter first. I am trying to read a lot of books now featuring minority voices to learn more, and to ask questions of myself. It’s not always comfortable but it is necessary (happy to talk more about books to read, hit me up). Update: Linking a couple of social media posts by Malaysians I have come across for us to think about our own anti-blackness/browness: click here and here.

The term “All Lives Matter” first emerged in the US in response to Black Lives Matter as a mechanism to deny this oppression, to validate the very racist institutions that perpetuate such injustices on black people, and by white supremacist. Words have meaning and when you say “all lives matter”, what you’re essentially doing is amplifying the voice of white supremacists hell bent on maintaining the status quo.

The fact is that even though white people are a very, very small minority in Malaysia, we too have suffered at the hands of the very system Black Lives Matter are fighting again. You and I rightly believe that racism is bad, and that each and every one of our lives are important. We believe this because chances are, many of us have felt victimised by racism (all our different ethnic groups in Malaysia – whether majority or minority have screamed discrimination at one point or another).

This is unavoidable in Malaysia, of course, because the fabric of our political system is rooted in race. But race is a construct of our colonisers – yes, white people – who sought to divide us to maintain their rule and power against us. So, you know all the fighting that we are doing against each other, they started it. And the legacy lives on.

So, why are we all having such a visceral response to global event surrounding Black Lives Matter now – whether we support it or otherwise? That BLM is a US movement gives us the distance to talk about race because it is so difficult to have those conversations in Malaysia about ourselves. We were all raised to speak about it in whispers, if at all. We worry about the Sedition Act. Newspapers might get shut down by the Printing Presses and Publications Act. Our posts on social media might get us charged under the Multimedia and Communications Act. Until recently, we’d get kicked out of universities due to the University and University Colleges Act.

All of these laws have roots in colonial legislation. Our silence – even today, over 60 years after Merdeka (at least for Semenanjung) – is still being legislated by white legacy. Let’s not even start on the world order where white countries are seen as “leaders of the free world”, or in the case of Australia, “deputy sheriff” of Asia.

Many of us Malaysians are standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter because like ours, black lives matter. We are standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter because the institutions that are oppressing them are also (and have been for centuries) doing the same to us. We are standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter because we see them and we hear them.

Your life matters too. I see you, and I hear you, and I stand by you. But I also see, hear and stand by alongside the black people in the US, UK and in other parts of the world. The only way that every life can matter is when Black Lives Matter too.

Why I don’t think the #blackouttuesdays black squares worked

I uploaded a couple of posts from black people and organisations (in the US and the UK) yesterday onto my Instagram Stories asking people to stop posting the black squares on their social media to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the protests across the country (and other parts of the world) following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.

The black squares flooded social media yesterday in response to a movement started by two black women in the music industry for Tuesday to be a day of reflection – it asked that those in industry to pause their operations for a day – as part of their #theshowmustbepaused initiative.

The posts I shared were concerns by those who noticed that the #blacklivesmatter hashtag was filled with the black squares as opposed to vital information about what was happening with the protests on the ground, and how people can help. I removed them however after a couple of conversations with friends who had DMed me about how these signs of solidarity can happen alongside the sharing of all of this information.

Others like Lizzo also told people that if they wanted to post the black squares, then to use the #blackouttuesday hashtag instead. So, I took her lead and replaced those posts with a suggestion that if people wanted to use the black squares as their way of showing solidarity, to just avoid using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Nonetheless, all day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the black squares did more harm than good.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that people from across the globe are showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I think there’s a lot to be said about visibility and awareness, and I know from private conversations I’m having, that the events in the US are making my friends and myself question our own relationship to racism.

The discomfort I felt yesterday about the black squares were rooted in two thoughts:

Our behaviour as users

I think as social media users, we also enjoy being part of something larger than us, and that makes it easy for us to latch on to campaigns and initiatives like these, often without thinking about the implications of our actions. It’s partly to do with us as humans, but also to do with how social media platforms work – all the features they offer us encourage, or rather push us towards, this kind of behaviour. Everything that can needs to go viral. And we lap it all up. This is the affective nature of social media.

The political theorist Jodi Dean described this quite aptly in discussing affective networks.

The loops and repetitions of the acephalous circuit of drive describe the movement of the networks of communicative capitalism, the ways its flows capture subjects, intensities, and aspirations. Accompanying each repetition, each loop or reversal, is a little nugget of enjoyment.

Jodi Dean, Affective Networks

To be in a loop, of course, means that there is no break. This is when fatigue can set in, and consequently, drive through a sense of hopelessness (my friend Amelia and I wrote a piece about the networked affect related to the Bersih movement in Malaysia about this). Being stuck in a loop can also have a another effect – the repetitive images of black squares yesterday likely flattened the tension, sentiments and anger that has driven the Black Lives Matters movement to the peak of our consciousness over the past week. In this sense, the black squares served as both a dampener and a diversion.

Social media as ‘platform’

Following on from the above, I think social media platforms refusal to take responsibility (yes, yes, I know Twitter’s @jack is in favour at the moment because he is seemingly standing up to Donald Trump, but Twitter’s history suggests that it is not the noble organisation we may think it is) for the activities that occur on their platforms. Just as how they say that they are not publishers, but merely a platform through which publishers can push their content.

There’s a lot of debate about this, of course, and more learned scholars than myself as engaging in more informed discourse surrounding this issue. But I think what is clear is that this sense of being able to choose what their responsibilities are make it easy for them to – at best, take a hands-off approach to moderating content, but worst, pro-actively silence voices they disagree with (whether through censorship or being complicit by silence and refusal to act).

What I mean by this, at least with regards to the square boxes, is that the social media platforms – and I will call out Instagram as a key example of this because that’s where I saw the most squares (at one point, I counted at least 10 square boxes in a row) – could have done something about the flooding of #blacklivesmatter with those images. They could, if they wanted to, just remove black squares or at least amplify the other images from the hashtag. They could also fix their algorithms so that just because I liked one black square that it doesn’t show me millions of others (or at least 10 in a row).

Again, Jodi Dean can help us understand the effect of thinking of social media platforms as a bastion for the strengthening of democracy, as she discusses what she calls communicative capitalism.

The concept of communicative capitalism tries to capture this strange merging of democracy and capitalism. It does so by highlighting the way networked communications bring the two together

Jodi Dean, Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics

No doubt, the past decade or so have shown many examples of how the existence of social media platforms have helped citizens around the world speak out to power, injustice and oppression. But to merely accept this at face value risks taking a deterministic view of social media (as platforms), but also trusting Platforms to have our best interest at heart. The fact is, they don’t. It is not surprising that Instagram did not appear to have done anything about those black squares; it is owned by Facebook, and only days ago, its CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg chose – in my view – to stand on the wrong side of history by actively choosing to wash his hands clean of issues surrounding hate speech and race (including a threat of violence by the US President).

Without wanting to speak for them, this is what black people are marching for. They exist in a system where the institutions (actively) work against them.

By the time I went to bed last night, my timelines were filled with black squares – and not just when I was looking at the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. I know that many people who understood the nuances of the campaign were still sharing links, images, posts on what was happening on ground and how others – especially non-blacks – can help (donate, be anti-racist, etc). I saw some of them yes, and I also saw many angry post by black people upset that the images from the protest – including violence against the protestors by the authorities – that have filled the #blacklivesmatter hashtag has been drowned by black squares.

The problem is, I had to actively look for these posts amid a sea black squares (using the #blackouttuesday hashtag only) so even a lot of other information weren’t coming through and that is why I don’t think that #blackouttuesday worked.