Written by Nali Simukulwa 

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Content warning: police brutality. 

‘Activism’ is a loaded word. Containing so many histories, it evokes powerful images of struggle, strength and unity, images all tinged varying shades of sepia; our colours, coloured by history. 

The bouncing cadence of the verb rouses action in itself - the voice must first climb before emphatically landing on resounding consonants. It's almost onomatopoeic, a reminder that this word is not a title to be brandished but a responsibility to be borne. 

"I was silently at war with my identity; an already insular and complex struggle, made worse by the obliviousness of the white people around me, so hearing a white woman acknowledge racism felt like being thrown a life boat."

 
To me, 'activism' evokes memories of sitting in a history classroom, thrilled to be in a lesson where I felt seen. For a couple hours a week in October, the British education system dropped its facade of colour-blindness and acknowledged injustices. Albeit, only those in America falling neatly under the caveat of ‘ages ago’ - quickly shutting down any attempt of White British introspection.

Despite the fact we were being taught sanitised half-truths about the origins of racial inequality, I felt vindicated. I was silently at war with my identity; an already insular and complex struggle, made worse by the obliviousness of the white people around me, so hearing a white woman acknowledge racism felt like being thrown a life boat whilst drifting out further and further from the shore. The potential that I could at last be heard and understood was electrifying. It felt like a flame of hope.

But flames need fuel, and the blinding nature of white privilege rarely provides adequate basis for critical race analysis. So, when in the same breath, the White history teacher stated that Black Americans responded “in kind” with their “own sort of racism back” during the civil rights movement, the fire extinguished. I raised my hand to explain why her remark was harmful, and continued to silently reckon with my Blackness.

"I was one of few Black faces in a largely white space. ... No amount of coiffing and primping would make me feel good enough because I was trying to contort myself to fit the margins of a beauty standard never built to accommodate me."


The struggle lay in the singularity. I felt completely alone and not without reason. I was one of few Black faces in a largely white space. My struggles felt perpetually left of centre, too niche to be voiced amongst my white peers who were learning how to navigate a world completely different to the one I lived in. 

When the pressures of teenage girlhood bore down I began to crave conventionality like it was a drug. It was not enough for me to rush and buy some foam curlers, or lip gloss. No amount of coiffing and primping would make me feel good enough because I was trying to contort myself to fit the margins of a beauty standard never built to accommodate me. With whiteness in such abundance, it was the norm to be left behind: skewing perceptions and causing me to loathe my Blackness.

There was a dichotomy in the lives of me and my friends then. I do not begrudge them their ignorance at the time, but I wish I was afforded the same carefree ease of growing up and never having to confront what it means to exist within your skin. 

"I clung to the concept of activism as a source of hope, assured that I could assuage my pain through action and education."


It was social media which granted me some of the answers I was searching for. There I discovered the leagues of Black Women who had gone before me, felt how I felt and voiced my thoughts better than I thought I ever could. I’d struck a gold mine and suddenly all I could see was the beauty that lay in Blackness. I was christened into the world of neo soul and was soon singing Solange with the solemnity of hymn practice as pictures of Ruby Bridges and Nina Simone were being stuck to my walls, replacing the vogue cut-outs that once were.  

Further trying to understand my identity, I clung to the concept of activism as a source of hope, assured that I could assuage my pain through action and education. When I listened to recordings of Assata Shakur and read the words of Audre Lorde, I knew I felt true empowerment. 

This wasn’t like the scraps of recognition I was accustomed to when teachers showed the class people that looked like me hanging from trees. My blood didn’t chill and my legs didn’t shake. When I read, it felt like I had finally let myself exhale after holding my breath for too long. It felt like looking at my reflection in a mirror and really seeing myself for the first time. 

"I remember the sea of faces around me all resembling mine; troubled, ardent and Black. My first foray into public activism showed me the power of community solidarity but it also taught me that we are often the only ones who show up for us."


I realised that what I thought had been empowerment in the past was indignation. And it was rightful. With my increasing education, I developed a new vocabulary. I began to recognise the comments that made me feel wrong as Microaggressions. I saw the way the systems around me perpetuated inequality and I didn’t want to keep quiet about it. 

I attended my first Black Lives Matter protest at age 14, after the death of Mzee Mohammed in police custody in Liverpool. I remember returning the stares of passersby as our voices bounced off of the buildings surrounding us, filling the air as we took up space. I remember the pained voice of his mother as she chanted “My son’s life mattered.” It still brings me goosebumps. I also remember the sea of faces around me all resembling mine; troubled, ardent and Black. 

My first foray into public activism showed me the power of community solidarity but it also taught me that we are often the only ones who show up for us. I look back at myself then and I do feel proud - I wanted to help and did what I could - but remembering the fragility of younger self, so much of me wishes I never had to spend my weekend pleading for my right to exist without fearing for my safety. 

"We have been facing the realities of oppression our whole lives. We did not have the privilege of awakening to systemic racism only when Instagram made it inescapable. "


Seeing images of Black children at recent protests brings all of these emotions back to the surface. Black children are not afforded the luxury of a carefree childhood. Ignorance is not an option, our survival demands an awareness of our position in the world, even before we can articulate what it is we feel. We have been facing the realities of oppression our whole lives. We did not have the privilege of awakening to systemic racism only when Instagram made it inescapable. 

After hearing of the murder of George Floyd my heart sank as it does upon learning of  every Black life lost in this way. I withdrew from my white friends, I struggled to get through the days without crying in anger or despair and seeing the sudden outpouring of support on social media made it worse. 

I’d always thought that recognition was the salve I needed to soothe the traumas I’d faced existing in dark skin. This amount of attention and backing should have lightened my burden but it did not. I was overwhelmed and distraught and this all felt like too little too late. 

"The insinuation that this movement can be reduced to a passing trend is insulting, especially when coming from non-Black people who have previously been silent on these issues."


And so, seeing so many “Now that BLM is no longer trending” style posts just weeks later, feels like a slap in the face. After a lifetime of white indifference at best; denial and silencing at worst, these posts feel like an attempt to gatekeep the movement, almost imposing a time-frame within which outrage is acceptable, as if our pain does not span history. 

Perhaps these posts are intended to work as a reminder to white people to stay aware and not slip back into the complicit habits of generations passed; but the insinuation that this movement can be reduced to a passing trend is insulting, especially when coming from non-Black people who have previously been silent on these issues, and simply do not have to carry the weight.

"Coverage of this movement will inevitably wane but our lives will continue to be affected by racism. The widespread coverage has given some insight into the grief of the Black experience ... No longer can people claim they are blind to our struggles."


I fear social media and the desire to condense information into chunks palatable enough to hold fleeting attention is causing this trivialisation of the movement. The word ‘activism’ is slowly being co-opted and debased, divorced from its original connotations of sacrifice and action until it also encompasses clicking ‘share’. 

To an extent, it's heartening to see so many becoming aware but the 14 year old in me feels betrayed. I became involved in activism as a means of survival. I saw no other way to navigate the heavy emotions I felt. But my involvement came with a sacrifice: my childhood lost its naivety, its chance to be carefree. 

Coverage of this movement will inevitably wane but our lives will continue to be affected by racism. The widespread coverage has given some insight into the grief of the Black experience and it has allowed me to take ownership of my feelings once more. 

So much of my pain came from being dismissed by those who lived as though they were unaffected by race and so endeavoured to shut down those without such privilege. No longer can people claim they are blind to our struggles, from now on all ignorance feels poignantly wilful, more so than ever before. 

Our lives have never been a trend. Our pain is not to be tried on for size whilst it is popular then discarded again once it is not. Our lives will continue to matter not only when eulogised into hashtags but also while they are being lived wholly and fully. 

Photo credit: Sushil Nash