‘You must be the change you want to see in the world’. Gandhi, of course, famously said this and every ‘liberal’ ‘leftie’ has at one time had it as their iPhone screen background in the course of their teenagehood. It sounds inspiring, liberating and rewarding, but I’m sorry to say, its sentiment is one of the single most dangerous fallacies of our time.
First it must be said that there is and must be merit in simply ‘being’. ‘Being’ can be very political if, say, you are existing in a space not meant for you. ‘Being’ can be much more than a passive state and become an active form of rebellion when you are ‘being’ a member of a marginalised group in a space that is difficult to navigate (say, for instance, Cambridge University…).
However, it also has to be said that this idea of simply ‘being’ the change was perhaps one of the saddest lies I told myself growing up. And in some ways, when not detracted from the dominant discourse, it becomes one of the most effective ways for dominant groups to continue to marginalise oppressed groups.
Let me explain:
Starting with the latter, the idea of ‘being the change’ is, to me, a danger to current social justice movements. It implies that ‘being’ a feminist, ‘being’ in #solidarity, ‘being’ an ‘ally’, is enough. It implies that the ‘passive’ sense of being is revolutionary enough to change the world we live in. That to proclaim yourself as something is not just the beginning of a process of learning, but the end goal.
I would instead propose that it is not enough to smugly congratulate yourself on having a non-white friend at Cambridge – you may be ‘being’ the change but how far are you willing to be it? Would you call out somebody making a problematic but ‘not-meant-to-be-malicious’ race joke? Would you actively step in or stand up for this friend if the circumstance arose? More than that, could you really extend the meaning of this to supporting and making a space for students of colour? When you go home and chat to Uncle Stevie or Cousin Emily who’s a bit of a casual racist would you still call them out then?
It’s not enough to declare yourself a feminist. You may genuinely believe that gender-based oppression is harmful but how committed are you? Would you listen to, rather than talk over, women whose experiences maybe differ from your own thoughts? Would you consider the ways in which oppressions can be felt differently? How far would you go? How much would you actually change or begin to think about your behaviour?
It’s not enough to find yourself ‘enlightened’ by the experiences marginalised groups share with you. Not enough to write #solidarity on the end of your tweets. Not enough to ‘start a conversation’. And I say this not to belittle those of you sincerely trying to change your worlds in small ways, but I say it to caution you. Do not let the end point ever simply be ‘being’ the change. Destroying the noxious nature of our cultures and societies is severely undermined if we each go about quietly working on internal change. Again, I stress that this is a vital part of the process – but, not enough.
One day you need to stand up. One day you need to do more than ‘be’ the change. The mind is a powerful place, the imagination can be a training ground – but it is a privilege to simply focus on changing ourselves – the real fight still awaits.
Secondly, let me explain the harm I did myself by believing that ‘being’ the change was enough. I interpreted ‘the change’ in terms of the dominant narrative of white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, imperialist capitalism. And whilst I hardly blame myself, it did me a lot of harm that I see continues to be done to those around me.
I came to Cambridge full of Ghandi-esque fervour almost two years ago now. Years before, somewhere along the line I had internalised the idea that I could be the change. The change being that I could be the brown girl who ‘made it’. I could be the hijab-clad woman who did it. I was used to being the only person who looked like me at the middle-class tennis club I attended; used to the strange and exoticising comments I would get when working the till in the local charity shop; it was neither an insult nor a badge of honour when people told me ‘you speak very good English’ – it simply was. I was the change. I was being, as the great imperialist Thomas Macaulay had hoped the Indian elite could become in 1837, ‘the brown englishman’. I was truly ‘changed’. Little brown head-scarved girl who turned up at Cambridge and turned in every essay on time; stayed very hush-hush about running off to pray; always ordered ‘vegetarian’ instead of the more problematic ‘halal’. In my mind, that meant I was the ‘change’. The change I wanted to see in the world was people like me doing the things I believed only white people did. I did those things and considered the change complete. Only, it wasn’t.
It wasn’t nearly complete because I wasn’t ever perceived as the girl who defied her racial stereotype, I was seen as the exception to it. I was the exception to it because I strived to meet a different stereotype: the ‘white man’ stereotype. As long as I spoke ‘good’ English, knew my pop-culture references and did well at school I thought everyone around me would realise that I was as capable as them. And they did. That was it. I was the one who slipped through the stereotype net. I was the coconut, the oreo, the questionably-Asian ‘Asian’. The change that I made was to become the brown version of the white people I wanted to be like. The change I made was wholly to myself and not to the systems around me. Again, through no fault of my own, but through an internalisation of what ‘change’ and ‘progress’ looked like.
In following the ‘head down’ idea of working hard to prove my worth I had justified ‘colour-blind’ rhetoric. I had hidden and helped hide the fact that I was not white. I had become ‘acceptable’. The danger in all of this is that people didn’t see my successes as proof that actually their entire prejudicial frameworks were incorrect, but instead that I was the exemption. And most dangerously and painfully of all, I began to believe it. It has taken me years to realise it but I internalised the idea that colour did not matter; that the meritocracy was fair; that positive discrimination was a farce.
I never considered that ‘success’ was not the colour of snow and instead perhaps I could be my own version. I swallowed the idea that tennis, pop culture, doing well at school – were all ‘white’ things and that in enjoying them I had become less authentically Asian. I bought wholesale into the idea that I was the ‘exception’. I tried to ignore my reality rather than claim it, and the people around me followed suit.
In assimilating myself I forgot myself. A poisonous strain of white-entitlement filled my bloodstream and I began to believe that I was the only brown girl who could do ‘white’ things; that I was the only Muslim woman who’d play judo; the only person who secretly prayed in Topshop changing rooms. In short, in ‘being the change I wanted to see in the world’, I changed nothing but myself, and in doing so, sold myself short.
To really ‘change’ things I realised it was not enough to ‘passively’ ‘be’ the change in accordance to what white imperialist heteropatriarchy wants change to look like. For me, whilst ‘being’ at Cambridge is important, I am no longer happy to let that be passive. As already emphasised, to be anywhere in a system not built for you is radical and painful and hard work, but when the time comes, which for me it finally has, I think you begin to realise that it is not quite enough just to be. It’s not enough to quietly get by because that is how you slip under the radar; how people don’t see you as ‘brown’ or ‘Muslim’ and congratulate themselves on being ‘colour-blind’ all thanks to your well-conditioned assimilation. Of course it is not my ‘job’ or ‘responsibility’ to make people change their stereotypes, but for me, being loud about being brown became a right that I had been denying my own soul. Being quiet changes little, sadly. Being quiet allows people to begin thinking that the reason you are one of the few brown or Muslim women here is because you are like them, it consolidates the idea that to be like them is to be better, to be best. It reinforces the idea that brown and black and Muslim people are not here in droves… maybe because they are inherently incapable.
So whilst I say to those of you vehemently shaking your heads – you’re right, you owe no one anything and it is your right to get by in and survive in the ways you best can – I also say that perhaps there comes a time when that is no longer enough. For me that time has come and I am no longer prepared ‘be the change’ because ‘being’ the change for me meant undoing myself and becoming assimilated in order to fit in. Speaking ‘well’ in order to be heard. Writing ‘like a white man’ in order to be read. Those days are over because for as long as I did not shout about being brown; as long as I didn’t make people uncomfortable by excusing myself to go pray; every time I hid the fact that I was ‘other’; every time I believed myself to be less brown because I was being successful – I did a disservice to myself and to all the changes I wanted to make. I let people forget that I was brown and Muslim, let them forget that there are systems of inequality and that privilege exists. I let them forget that I am ‘other’. And I forgot too.
Today I am here to proclaim my brownness, and my Muslim identity. I will not silence myself any longer by meeting ‘success’ on its whitest and male-est tangent. I proudly reclaim the notion of ‘other’ with deepest sincerity. I am other. I am marginalised. I am not mainstream. The institutions I attend and the languages I use to make ‘acceptable’ arguments were not made for me to succeed. But I am here powerfully. I am here in a significant way. Not to work passively with my head down, but with it up, high, proud. I don’t need to ‘be’ the change because I already am – I was the change long before I began to try to meet impossible standards. It is not me who needs to change but the world around me. I am brown, I am woman, I am Muslim and I am here.