Holding Space and Speaking: Why, When, How We Say the Things We Say About Injustice

if you are not angry


Below are some notes and observations about how, why and when we choose to speak and what we choose to say on social media – but also in general. This is about how we respond to injustice, and how we respond to those who respond to injustice – and while specifically about recent events, can also broadly be applied to larger conversations about any kind of narrative about the marginalized and oppressor.

In the wake of Brexit, the shooting of LGBTQ people in a club in Florida, the latest killings of Black people in the USA by the police, and other such international crises, different kinds of people are speaking up on social media platforms. The following thoughts are about those who materialize to criticize those who choose to speak their minds against these crises of justice, these failures of democracy, these violations of what is right and good in the world. This is about those who pop in to say ‘Who cares?’ or a more distilled version of that, ‘Why do you care so much about what’s happening so far away?’, or those who feel they can make inane jokes about these matters when others are grieving; those who can trivialize that grief, that rage; those who patronize others who are enraged to say that they, the non-caring, have understood the issue better than the enraged; those who speak to only say, seemingly, nothing more than they don’t care about this thing that you care about – or worse, that they feel the injustice you are grieving is not really ‘injustice’ at all.

This is very interesting to me – it’s not just a matter of morality (though I think it is just that), it is a matter of semantics. It is very interesting to me how people build their arguments, and indeed why they do so, and more importantly – when and why they choose to put forth these arguments. It is a question of, why have you chosen to speak in this moment on this matter?, and is there a concept of sometimes, simply, not speaking?

Social media gives everyone the platform to ‘speak’, even when we often have not earned the right to speak – in particular spaces, on particular topics. Thanks to the Western Liberal ideals on which much of social media is based (‘Freedom of Speech’), we no longer even believe that we need to earn the right to speak. We think we are just born with that inalienable human right to speak – but some of us more than others. It gives us the opportunity to say things which carry no meaning and have no relevance. It even gives us the opportunity to tear other things down, and really not achieve anything else with our words.

It is interesting: because it is a matter of knowing for yourself that there are things on which you should not, need not, speak – either because it is not your space, or because you are ignorant about the facts, or indeed, as you claim yourself sometimes, it does not affect you. Here are some questions I often ask myself before ‘speaking’: do you have something interesting to say? Do you have something substantial to say? Do you care?

If anything it reveals: who among us constantly wish to hold space, and who among us are willing to, even used to, giving up space, being silent and sitting down. And this is a matter of privilege, I observe – there are those of us who have always had space, automatically; those of us who have never had to prove ourselves or our right to speak, those of us who have never had to fight to be heard.

Further, it reveals more about you than you think it does. Not only have you now revealed yourself as someone who thinks themselves to be, by default, interesting, you have also revealed yourself to be someone who is openly admitting they do not care about injustice, problematically, in forums where people do care.

If you do not care about the killing of Black people in America, perhaps you don’t have to say anything around conversations about the matter, among people who do. Keep scrolling. If you haven’t been someone that has cared – in general – about the struggle of Black people in America, if you haven’t spoken up before about their oppression, then perhaps you don’t need to step in to critique their resistance. If you are only stepping in to critique their resistance – to say it’s not about race, to say that somehow the injustice and violence against them is justifiable and explainable – and you have not given any of your space to critiquing white privilege / white supremacy before that, then you are only revealing yourself to be someone who does not think the continued oppression of African Americans is wrong. If your own reproduction of the narrative has not been balanced, and the only moment you have spoken up on the entire topic of racism in America is to say Black Lives Matter is doing something wrong – then you are a part of the problem.

If you do care, but want to point out genuine contradictions in other people’s reproductions of events – to say they are building unfair narratives, if you have a critique of the things they give their space to, if you want to say ‘Why do you care about Black Lives Matter when you didn’t seem to care about Tamils being killed here/people killed in Syria?’ etc. then be very sure of what you want. Perhaps do not make sweeping generalisations. Ask yourself, is this true of all, or at least most of the people who will read your statement? If it is not true of all or most of them, and only of a few, why not engage those people privately? Would this not be a more effective and sincere method of engagement?

If you are keen to make a public statement – perhaps try not to sound righteous. Perhaps time your comment better and word it so they don’t feel reprimanded for grief and rage which seems a natural reaction – perhaps wait to ask the question genuinely, wait until people aren’t grieving Person/People X (as much) to say “Let’s not forget Person/People Y”. Perhaps don’t ask it the very day Person/People X has been killed. If you do, know that you run the risk of sounding as though you are saying that Person/People X did not matter.

If you do care about the murder of Black people but also really care about reminding us of our own unbalanced narrative, if your objective is to ensure we truly remember and grieve fairly, then why not use your own space to remind us that there others we should be grieving too, and say it like that’s what you are saying – why not write “as we mourn the murdered Black people in America, let us not forget those dead in _________ (insert place), instead of saying ‘WHAT ABOUT BAGHDAD?’ on comment threads under other people’s status messages? Try to see – when we say Black Lives Matter the day after two Black men were killed in rapid succession, on the spot, by police officers, we aren’t forgetting Baghdad or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Syria. If you think we genuinely have forgotten, or have failed to grieve them ever, then ask genuinely. Remind us genuinely. Use your own space constructively to do so.

Remember our contextualized focus on certain things over others in certain moments does not mean exclusion – remember when we say Black Lives Matter, for example, we are actually asking everyone to end exclusion. We ourselves are asking for more inclusive, fair, just narratives.

If you are trying to point out the inherent bias in much of the mainstream media we consume, to say it privileges first-world news over third-world news, that’s a good argument – but please make sure you note your critique of the media and the way we consume it clearly. Again, try not to reprimand grieving people. Try not to patronize us.

If this is the case: you better be someone who has given space to all these issues. You better be someone who has shown you care. You better be someone who has talked about all the issues you are raising – and not just someone stepping in to moderate or trivialize other people’s rage.

If you are not trying to genuinely remind us there are other injustices in the world (in a timely, non-patronizing, relevant manner), and you are also not trying to point out the bias in the way the media behaves and the way we behave with it – then hold on, what are you asking? Are you simply asking people to care about justice for some people but not others? Do you think our struggles are not linked? Why are you pitting injustices against each other? Why are you trying to narrow things down when people are actually quite broad in their grief and rage sometimes? If I care about minority rights here in Sri Lanka, I should care about the killings of coloured people in America. If I care about minority rights in Sri Lanka, why shouldn’t I care about Islamophobia in England? Why shouldn’t I care about the brutal murder of queer people in Orlando? If I didn’t, I would be the worst kind of hypocrite. I wouldn’t be someone that cared about the principle of human rights at all.

If you do not care about people’s struggles, then please, you don’t have to speak. Stop occupying those spaces. Leave it to the people who do care. If you have a critique, make sure you have earned the right to have that particular critique, on that particular matter, and to have us listen. This means, generally, we need to know you are someone who cares about the matter – we need to know you are not speaking only to reveal your own prejudice, that you are not speaking only because you find it impossible to not hold space everywhere all the time. We need to know your voice does not pop up only to criticize or make fun of those who are outraged by injustice.

Here’s another observation about privilege: you tend to not listen when someone is saying ‘I am being discriminated against’. When a community, or someone from within a community, is speaking about their reality – listen. You don’t get to say anything. You don’t have to say anything. You certainly don’t get to say ‘No, that’s not discrimination as far as I’m concerned’. Try and understand – it’s not about you or what you perceive to be the problem. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like to you. It matters what that someone/community is saying. You don’t get to ascribe meaning to their reality. Only they get to do that. Take your cues from them. Let them lead.

Finally, we should all do what we can to educate OURSELVES. It’s not anyone else’s job. Don’t pop up with arguments that have been put forth and then wholly defeated in public discourse a long time ago, as though they’re legitimate.

I can only quote that brilliant Jesse Williams speech here again, a lesson on morality and on semantics —

‘The Burden of the Brutalized is not to comfort the bystander;

If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression;

If you have no interest in equal rights for Black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do – sit down.’


One response to “Holding Space and Speaking: Why, When, How We Say the Things We Say About Injustice”

  1. Suranji Nimalendran Avatar
    Suranji Nimalendran

    Hi Subha, Thank you for sharing. Very well written. Please may I share this with some folks? Was nice to see all the photos of the cousins on FB. How is grandmother? How are you. Hugs, Suranji Nanda Sent from my iPhone


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