Updated: Mar 12, 2021
My Performance as a Brown Muslim Woman
To position myself in a white world, society has labelled me the ‘brown muslim woman’, and I have adopted this identity with open arms. By this I mean that my embodied experience has meant I have always been positioned as ‘the other’, standing in opposition of some Mainstream Norm. I have learnt to use these socio-political identifiers, especially online, as a means to amplify my voice. I have learnt to use it as a means to champion the voices of others similarly labelled. I have learnt to use them as a way to connect with others. However, I have come to wonder if this sparknotes version of myself is reductive?
I realised that I habitually construct a polished projection of an idealised self. I present myself in the way the social setting demands. Our identities are much like a performance we give, catering to the different audiences in our lives. Sociologist George Herbet Mead, conceptualised this formation self in terms of the ‘me’ as the social self, and ‘I’ the response to the social self. Basically, this means that selfhood is not innate but rather formed through social interaction with those around others. Through performing our identity the way others have understood it you continue to construct and affirm this identity. I realised I had built my own identity through this ‘performative-ness’. As a woman observing the hijab, I feel like I have been able to gain interesting insight into the formation of social identity. See on the one hand, the spiritual significance of the hijab is undeniably sacred and personal, yet the continued dominance of orientalist and Islamophobic imagery and paradigm in the Western mainstream consciousness, has meant that my personal and private choice inevitably reflects on the hijab's collective visibility and its conception by others. So basically, I perform my identity in the way I keep up with my Instagram, in my attempts at activism and advocacy, and when I place the hijab over my head to step out the door.
The performance of identity is not inherently a bad thing. However, when you define yourself through these external markers, it raises the question if you have come to conceptualise yourself as an ‘Other’. If you have come to mistake performance of identity as identity itself. In the social media age, where we have to act to exist, this is easier to do than ever before.
My Performance as an Activist
Last year I wrote a piece about climate action on a private and public scale, asking myself to turn intentions into actions. I made everything I did visible, sharing every little eco-switch from my keep cup to my ethical toilet paper (shoutout @whogivesacrap #pleasesponsorme). However, a year on, and I feel like I have completely put aside the whole movement. I moved on swiftly onto the next cause that was calling me to pay attention and ‘do something’. In the end, despite my genuine intentions and efforts at activism, I wasted my energy on big proclamations and promises that were left behind as I became more educated on the nuances of the issues. While still invested in wanting to consume ethically, I have had to reflect on my initial performative fervor, and consider how much I really care about the climate crisis, or am I trying really hard to convince everyone (including myself) that I do?
There is a distinct difference between doing something, and the expression of doing said something. And although this sounds really obvious, it often isn’t. Especially, when social media blurs the line between action and opinions on action. For myself, I really had to interrogate whether I am politically engaged in a meaningful way, or if I just appear to be? Have I convinced myself that speaking out and showcasing political action is akin to the reality of actively being so?
To do or ...to seem like you’re doing ??
There’s that quote that's been circulating “it's not enough to be not racist, you must be anti racist”. I had always thought, as a woman of colour, that I have an inbuilt anti-racism chip. But the difference between being ‘not racist’ and anti-racist, is that anti-racism consists of tangible, meaningful action outside the realm of the internet. I make my posts and I have important discussions with my family and friends, and my ‘solidarity’ tends to end somewhere after that. But like the Sydney train service, the struggle is staying consistent. To be a true ally and show actual solidarity is to be proactive and maintain momentum. Author Jia Tolentino writes, “Online reward mechanisms beg to substitute for offline ones, and then overtake them.” I took one quick look at my Instagram, and knew that I had definitely fallen for this reward mechanism-- the feeling where I post something and feel good in the moment and then place the real work in the background of the other things I need to do. The word for this phenomena is performative allyship. Although I mean well, the only person it serves most of the time, is me, myself and I. When I post, it is a microscopically meaningful action and an expression of genuine principle. Yet it is also to signal that I am good. I make that post because it is intrinsically what is expected of me in order to be labeled a good person-- a politically aware person.
Performative allyship, at its worst, is like a ladder laid on its side blocking the way. It is an obstacle that real action needs to wade through. The most outrageous example in recent times was posting of black squares under the hashtags #BlackoutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter that proliferated on social media in the wake of the BLM protest of 2020. The squares were an easy, cost-effective way corporations, brands and individuals with a presence on the internet, could show their 'wokeness' and masquerade as activists without breaking a sweat. The terrible irony of the whole thing was that the initial idea of the collective action event initiated by Jamila Thompson (Senior Director of Marketing at Atlantic Records) and Brianna Agyemang (Senior Artist Campaign Manager at Platoon), was to show solidarity with the BLM protests by halting the music industry. Thompson and Agyemang, both black seniors in the music industry, were trying to hold the multi-billion industry which routinely and predominantly benefits from Black art accountable. Business operations within the music industry and other major brands were meant to pause under the hashtag #TheShowWillBePaused. It was intended to highlight the way these entities were obligated to "protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy". Instead we got what we got, and performative allyship was not only useless in the creation of change it actually proved detrimental, and resulted in experienced Black activists having to counteract its effect.
This is not to minimise the positive movement social media has enabled. But we need to be more critical of the things we consume. I want to ask myself these questions when I make a post. Do I read and deeply understand everything that I share? And what is my purpose in sharing it? If it is to raise awareness, then great! But if it's to add to the noise in order to assert my identity, then I need to stop and think about how else I can make an impact.
All the world's a stage, but can we be more than merely players?
The more self aware I become of my performance of identity the more I can see the way this affects the way I exist in the world. The way I showcase everything from my religious existence, to my racial existence, to my political existence. I may not spend my free time sitting at home, thinking about my ‘brownness’ or my ‘womanness’ or my ‘muslimness’, yet when I interact with the world around me, it is through these identifiers that I am visible. When I describe the team that makes up The Pvblication in a nutshell, I am often inclined to say “ 6 women of colour”. Sometimes I even add our ethnic background for a little extra seasoning to create a better connection with our target audience.When I am engaged politically more often than not it is in the online sphere. That in itself is not bad, but it not is not nearly enough. Ultimately, our performance of identity is a powerful tool to communicate with the world. To assert yourself, and proudly own the identifiers that were historically used to subjugate. However, we must go beyond the performance of identity alone, and be more critical of ourselves, our viewpoints, and to differentiate actions from appearance of actions.
Amazing editor: Mariam H.
Tolentino, J., 2019.Trick Mirror. [S.I.]: Random House Publishing Group, pp.1-29.