“I am woke”: a student’s take on Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement has become international in scope since its beginnings in 2013 Image: Wikipedia

The #DerayatSOAS event last week was at full capacity, the crowd full of eager faces, myself included. We had come to listen to Deray Mckesson, an American civil rights activist and educator. Deray is a prominent member of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and is known for his activism on social media, mainly Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. He has been active in the Ferguson, Baltimore, Maryland and Missouri protests. Deray, dressed in his signature vest, gave a motivating speech about the movement, his involvement and the lessons that can be learnt from BLM as well as the way forward. Deray stressed the need to organise people who are sympathetic to the movement, as “no one is born woke”.

Deray’s motivation to join the BLM movement stemmed from the fact that he wanted to see what was really going on in places like Ferguson. After making the decision to go, he appealed for support on Twitter by asking if anyone would host him while he was in there: “does anyone have a couch for me to sleep on?” What he realised is that “what was happening on the ground and what was being represented in the media were conflicting”. BLM activists used social media platforms to counteract the media narrative and bring light to what was happening on the ground as it was occurring.

Political activist DeRay Mckesson with his SOAS fans

Political activist DeRay Mckesson with his SOAS fans

The public outrage against black people being killed as a result of police actions is what has fuelled the BLM movement. Its success is measured by the fact that it became mainstream. The video evidence and raising body count of black lives who died at the hands of police have shown that there is a deeper systemic issue of police brutality that affects all Americans but especially black Americans. Deray views this mainstreaming development as a victory, as both the public and black people now understand that there is a problem of police brutality in the US. Furthermore, BLM has become global with the movement spreading to other countries. I myself became aware of BLM whilst living in Australia.

Intersectionality and BLM:

The truth about the complexity of identity and intersectionality is that we are all complex and beautiful. Intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” (Oxford Dictionary). Marginalised groups, including those with disabilities, indigenous people, refugees and migrants, Muslims, people of colour and LGBTQI+, experience greater levels of discrimination because they are not part of the power hierarchy. Deray as a young gay black man touched upon the importance of intersectionality by recognising the multiple identities that a person may have and how this impacts their views and experiences of the world.

BLM and being black and Muslim

As a Muslim, Somali woman who has grown up in Australia, I have an intersectional experience. Experiencing many identities and falling within many groups does have its benefits. It allows me to have a stereoscopic view of the world and of global issues. I have access to groups and shared cultures, as a Muslim, as a black person and as a woman. However, I have experienced layers of discrimination as well. This rich lived experience has made me more tolerant, resilient and creative. Issues arise when groups I am a part of fail to see how the layers of my identity can impact me. Some black people may not recognise that as a Muslim, I also experience Islamophobia and that further marginalises me. In the Muslim community, other Muslims may not recognise the issues that especially impact black people or the importance of advocating and supporting these issues. Furthermore, many men may not understand the impact of barriers that especially affect women in a patriarchal society. Those in positions of power and privilege relative to others may be blind to the oppression of the marginalised group.

The way forward:

As a Muslim, Somali Black woman I am “woke” to the issues of race, gender and Islamophobia because I am part of each especially affected group. As no one is born woke, the role of allies, as Deray said in the event is “an invitation to help, to use your privilege to centre oppressed people … the oppressed people should lead”. There’s a role for everybody.  As Deray eloquently put “protest is not just about being on the streets, protest is about truth telling”. There are many ways that you can become an ally; you can tell the truth about injustices or systems that discriminate or marginalise people, you can protest, and you can organise with others to bring about change. A knowledge and awareness of intersectionality, can help us to better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and address the barriers that marginalised groups experience.

Lucky Giirre is studying for an LLM in Human Rights, Conflict and Justice at SOAS. She is also a Chevening Scholar – Somalia 2016/17.

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