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.

This is not a passive aggressive post – this is me calling you out.

“Whenever we beg for nuances, for our difference to be articulated, for more diversity and accuracy in how our communities are described, in the characters written for ‘black’ actors on stage, on television, or in film, our voices are either silenced or ignored”

Inua Ellams, Cutting Through (in The Good Immigrant)

I am reading this great book right now, and I’d encourage everyone – not just those from ‘minority races’ – to get a copy.

That line from Ellams hit hard and reminded me of this incident in one of our PhD programme’s work-in-progress sessions where a colleague was presenting a chapter of their work, which attached the descriptor “a fan of colour” to quotes from interviewees. This distinction was important in the work because they were making a point about the voices of “people of colour” in a white-dominated fandom.

I did ask, however, why they opted to describe the individuals as “fans of colour” (to anonymise identities) and not, for example, just describe where they came from or what they identified with. I would, for example, always prefer to be referred to as Malaysian rather than a BAME person (Black and Minority Ethnic, as is so often used in the UK). They paused for a moment and said, it’s not something that they had thought about before.

Which, to me, is a good enough response – that’s the purpose of these WIP sessions anyway. I acknowledged this, saying perhaps it’s something to consider and tried to explain why I felt so. But their supervisor – a white person who was also chairing the session – cut me off and said (I paraphrase), “I don’t see a problem with using that phrase” and proceeded to call on the next person.

I was mortified to be called out like that in the room. For one, what is academia without discourse. But more significantly, I was extremely offended that my voice as a ‘BAME’ was shut down so quickly by a white person in a position of power.

I think back to that incident because I still feel that I didn’t articulate well enough why I thought my colleague should reconsider her phrasing. In discussing the diversity of communities and cultures that make up ‘black’ people in England, Ellams so articulately wrote: “Despite these obvious nuances, phrases like ‘black-on-black crime’ or ‘black community’ are used to suggest a monolith, it is portrayed as dysfunctional, rebellious, animalistic and mutinous.” Part of me wishes I was this articulate about the conflation of identities in making my point.

But I think also of what is happening in the US at the moment, where according to Ellams, the term ‘black’ was “an act of defiance, self-identification, and as a way to distance themselves from the ‘African’ label, which had abundantly negative connotations at the time”.

I think of the anger I’ve been feeling over the past couple of weeks at the injustice surrounding ‘people of colour’ in Malaysia, the UK, US and around the world, and the number of white people – my friends – who have responded with “not all white people” or “this doesn’t affect you” and more.

I think about how they have to just be better. Not just ‘white people’ but anyone who wields power and have utilised that privilege to silence minority voices. Over the past couple of weeks, the Malaysian authorities have been hauling up ‘illegal’ migrant workers, leading to clusters of Covid-19 infections among those communities – and many people think this is a good thing.

This is not a passive aggressive post – this is me calling you out.

Racism isn’t just about violence against people from other races. It’s not just about lynching, about hurting. Staying silent, silencing people, perpetuating systems of injustice, making excuses for other people’s microaggression – these are acts of violence too.

It’s not enough to just be not racist, or a bad person. But can you be a better person? ‘Fans of colour’ isn’t necessarily wrong or offensive, but is that enough? When you have the power and opportunity to craft your own words – and the privilege of the PhD viva to defend your decisions – why not opt to see these people. To give them a voice. To elevate their identities. To humanise them. Especially if the critical premise of the discussion is that these are marginalised voices in a white-dominated fandom.

Not being racist is not a passive act. Not being racist requires action – whether it’s speaking out against oppression, defending others in the face of injustice, and calling all of these out. That’s what we mean when we tell you that you have to be ‘anti-racist’, instead of just ‘not racist’.

It will be difficult, and uncomfortable, no doubt, but that is the every day reality for many ‘people of colour’. So, what can you do? Lots of people are already sharing things online. Keep at it, even if you feel like you’re alienating your audience (that discomfort you’re feeling is theirs too so normalise your speaking out). But more than that, call out any injustice you see in your daily lives (especially if you’re in a position of power), actively defend anyone being treated unequally, write to your MPs and other politicians, send letters to the editor, donate to groups working on the ground (yes, share your wealth).

As far as what is happening in the US is concerned, donate if you can afford it. I made a small contribution to the Minnesota Freedom Fund a couple of days ago to help bail out protestors who are being arrested. But they’ve been overwhelmed with responses and have suggested other organisations to donate to: read for details if you can help

Do better friends. And actively fight against inequality and injustice. In solidarity. ✊

Note: I originally wrote this for Facebook but decided that I should post it up here too. So there was never a title for this; instead, I chose a line from the article which best reflected my intentions although it makes no sense without context.