Walrus Talk – Yasmin Jiwani on How to Fight Oppression

Below you will find the transcripts of The Walrus Talk that Dr. Yasmin Jiwani gave in Toronto on November 6, 2018.

Hello, my name is Yasmin Jiwani.

What does racism feel like? What does being the other feel like?

I came across an excerpt by a psychiatrist who provided the following testimony about the impact of sexual assault. She said:  “We all have a sense of invulnerability that allows us to get up in the morning and believe that bad things are not going to happen. That sense of invulnerability is destroyed after sexual assault; it’s as though one is out in the world without a skin.”

Being in the world without a skin - that really hit me…this is exactly what racism feels like – something visceral, vulnerable, being the other. The experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, Islamophobia – all the ways we exclude, silence, stigmatize, dismiss, trivialize the other – these are forms of violence.

It’s like living without a skin.

My work is about examining and disrupting the way we look at violence.  Through studies of media reports and court cases, I challenge the way we compartmentalize violence. Rather than seeing violence in a singular way, something to categorize as one thing, something to turn away from, I want us to we look at violence in a multifaceted way – look at it like the sides of a diamond which, though appearing different under different lights, are parts of the same object.  Acts of violence are much more than they seem. More than the stories told about them.

In 1996, Reena Virk was murdered by schoolmates in British Columbia.  Media reports and court documents portrayed the case as one of girl-on-girl violence.  She was a girl, murdered by another girl but the other parts of the story were untold, and when subsequently reported, under-emphasized. She was a South Asian girl, brown, different, bullied and beaten. She was burnt with a cigarette butt on her forehead, and then violently murdered (point to your forehead if you wish).  Much more than the story we heard.

The impact of words, of reporting, of narratives about violence is wounding and more long lasting than blows to the body. One only has to think of the 50,000 hate messages that Liberal Member of Parliament Iqra khalid received when she tabled Motion103 last year to draw attention to Islamophobia. Messages of sheer hate, peeling away the layers that make one safe. Like living without a skinViolence as multifaceted, that diamond with many hardened sides.  Race, sexuality, faith, culture, all of our sides.

It’s complicated… imagine what it is like to be at the intersections of all these forms of violence – what if you are a person of colour, with a visible or invisible disability, sexually non-binary or queer, of a different faith and culture - what happens then?

It’s complicated because our systems aren’t designed to handle complexity. And yet, so many of us are at the intersections of all these violence(s). But we are called upon to identify ourselves through one or perhaps two lenses – that of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability or faith. And these categories of identity are used to classify, categorize and sort us into streams – leaving invisible those of us who are situated at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression and violence.

My research encourages a complex view, an intersectional lens, ways to see the whole individual, and to teach students to read and see acts of exclusion – in culture, in media, for the complex stories they are – for the violence(s) that are embedded in them.  Our role is to counter laws and practices that ask us to separate or section ourselves into parts that are readily intelligible – versus those that create noise – meanings we can’t decipher.

I want to suggest to you that acts of exclusion are acts of violence with complex meaning – and our systems – judicial, media, cultural – emphasize single parts. Things that catch our attention but force us to look away. So that you won’t feel like you are living without a skin.

So, what can we do? What will be our antidote to cultural forms, news, media so infused with violence and exclusion?

First, resist essentialism in all things.

Essentialism refers to the belief that everyone who looks like they fit into a particular category is the same. Because not every brown person here is like me– nor are all women the same, or all men are same, or all indigenous peoples the same.  Simple, obvious, yes? Yet media reports reflect essentialism everyday. Recall the Project Thread fiasco here in Toronto with the arrest of 24 Muslim men for their alleged links to terrorism - their first names were Muhammed.

Second, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Seeing acts of exclusion for what they are – complex pieces, like a multifaceted diamond, hard to crack, won’t be easy.  But, we need to recognize the rock of power for what it is.

Finally, join a movement. Knowledge is good but action is the leverage. The thing that connects us is learning – amplifying our own complex voices together chips away at essentialism, at one way of seeing racism, sexism and so much more. On the ground, in movements big and small, take the risk of feeling without skin, of connecting with that other.

I can’t promise you a thick skin. But seeing, reading acts of exclusion for the violences they are, is a start.

Thank you.

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