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Interview: "Moving beyond racism is to unenlighten ourselves"

Interview with Roni, a Black student activist at LSE.

2020 will be remembered as the year that dramatically changed our ways of socialisation, breaking with our usual conception of interpersonal intimacy. Aside from our personal sphere, this shift impacted the political dimension. How can we mobilise for social change, when public assemblies and mass protests are a health hazard? Is the current environment a prefiguration of the victory of neoliberal individuality against more communitarian life activities?

However, despite social distancing, 2020 also saw global mass mobilisation against injustice. After the news of a number of heinous murders of Black American citizens at the hands of the police spread on social media, protests erupted all over the world, marking a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement originally started in the US in 2013. Fundamental in carrying the movement were Black digital activists across the globe, spreading information and ways of action to the - white - general public and demonstrating that the Internet can be a site of political resistance.

But what does it really mean to engage in digital activism as a minority? The consistent online presence that this kind of work requires can exact a heavy emotional toll on people, especially by exposing them to the reiteration of trauma and to the aggressions - or even just to the expectations - of the majority-dominated public. To discuss these aspects and to learn more about the intimate side of racial relations in our society, I decided to interview a Black student activist. Thus, I met Roni, 21, Sociology student at LSE and founder of The Unenlightenment Project, an Instagram page providing information and resources - including fundraisers - to fight systemic racism in the UK. Roni also runs the page’s associated Medium blog, where she publishes short essays about racism in and outside Britain.

I spoke to Roni over Zoom on an early-January afternoon, asking her about her work, her views on how to overcome structural racism, and her experiences with racism and activism as a Black woman in the UK.

Hi Roni, thank you for tuning in. Can you tell us about the origin of The Unenlightenment Project?

I started The Unenlightenment Project on Instagram last summer, in the midst of the BLM protests. I felt like I didn’t know how to get involved, as I had loads of things to say but wasn’t sure how to get them out there. And then I thought: ‘Well, if anyone else can do it, so can I. I can make an Instagram page and just put out the thoughts that come to my mind.’ I don’t post really regularly, like a lot of big activist pages do. When something relevant happens I just throw myself into it and write about it to get it out there as soon as possible.

The Black Lives Matter protests in London were a momentous time, with white demonstrators mobilising to avoid the toppling of monuments linked with slave-traders. How did witnessing those events shape your resolution to get into online activism?

I wasn’t at that specific protest where they were actually guarding the statues, but I was at an earlier one with some friends. I felt like it [the British movement] was kind of missing the message that we were getting from the US. In the UK, we saw this sort of vague message about racism being bad, diversity, and opposing the Tories. I felt we needed to be a bit more direct, and that pushed me to write specifically about what all of this is actually about.

In an article you wrote about Black History Month in Britain you address your position as a Black activist locating herself within a history of trauma. How does your public work interplay with your emotional sphere as an individual?

I think by writing about locating myself in trauma I was reflecting my own feeling of a kind of disconnect existing between the various Black communities throughout London and the UK. I was trying to figure out where I could place myself in that context. Obviously I have my own personal relations to other Black people, but how do I elaborate this in a way that really shows where I am; and what does the past mean for me? That was also my issue with Black History Month in the UK. Again, it’s mostly about very general ideas of racism being bad and of celebrating really great accomplishments by Black people. But it doesn’t really say where that’s supposed to take us.

Where should anti-racism take us in your opinion?

The general hope, at least for me, is a move towards a communist or socialist society in which we’re directly concerned with the prevalence of anti-Blackness throughout the world and we specifically fight to raise Black communities globally out of poverty, which comes with class and its racialised nature. To me, a classless society is specifically anti-racist and ungendered because race is class and gender is class. They are just different words to talk about the same thing.

It seems many activists’ aspirations, such as your own, are really at odds with a white-dominated public culture that seeks to be politically correct without looking deeply into the structural roots of the issue. What’s your take on this view?

I really agree with that. My feeling is that there’s such a low-level discussion of race [in the UK] compared to the US. They have very deep-rooted problems just like the ones we have in the UK, but it seems like there’s still some capacity to acknowledge the concept of race. In the UK we’re still debating on TV whether race is a thing at all, and whether it can affect anything. It’s like we’re constantly trying to explain ourselves without ever getting to the point of actually discussing the effects of racism.

The genesis of Western public culture as we know it today is traditionally situated in the Enlightenment period. Does The Unenlightenment Project’s name refer to this?

Yes. Just before I started the page I had written an essay about the Enlightenment period, how it introduced both binarism in thinking and the idea of race, and what affects that had. So, my argument was that moving beyond racism is to unenlighten ourselves, to move out of a binary framework where we have the white majority and then everyone else being othered. So I came out with the idea of unenlightenment, building on the work of other sociologists.

So is it about regaining the individuality of the non-white person?

Yes, it’s very much about moving away from thinking about people within this binary where to be Black is to be the antithesis of whiteness, towards thinking about our relations to each other. As individuals we have our own specific struggles and our differences, but at the same time our differences can be related to each other. To describe this condition, I came up with the term differential affinity. For so long we were just grouped together, so many traits just became the overarching stereotypes about various races. A more positive society will be one built around thinking about our differences but also about our relations to each other, and this idea was kind of my mobilising way to move forward. Also, I feel like a lot of the discussion about racism is really bogged down by the question of where people who are white middle-class liberals fit into this and how they're supposed to relate to supposed “anti-whiteness”. And I’m kind of sitting here thinking: well, you are not necessarily immune to oppression just because you're white middle-class. You surely are largely sheltered from that, but you can also get some sort of negative experience, for example if you’re a woman. Even just being in a capitalist society and being driven towards profit and things like that has a massive effect on your mental health. These are just some simple ways of finding relations to each other.

How do you interpret instances of violent white defensiveness, such as the far-right protesters gathering around slave-traders statues during the BLM protests?

I think it’s just a physical manifestation of already existing problems. It really shows how ready white people are to mobilise to protect their power in society. The protection of those statues can be compared to the recent Capitol Hill events, for the ease with which white people can go out and just commit acts of violence in the name of white power with no consequence. And they know there’s no consequence, because the entire state and the nation are built around protecting that power.

Speaking of public monuments, the Tate Modern is currently hosting Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, a huge fountain that the New York-based artist sculpted for the museum’s 2019 Hyundai Commission. The fountain is inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, but it overturns the original’s significance by visually referencing the Transatlantic Slave Trade and colonial history. How important is the creativity of Black artists in the wider struggle against a white supremacist public culture?

I think a lot of the art world just works by reinforcing this one idea of what art means and what is considered more primitive or modern. A lot of work by Black artists gets pointed at as just being about race, rather than being allowed to be an expression of the artist’s livelihood. I think the expression of your livelihood is such an important thing. For me, creating The Unenlightenment Project was also about learning myself, so as I write I'm thinking about what the future might look like. And I essentially get to work through it with other people listening and interacting.

Is it difficult to balance your own individuality with the involvement in a wider social movement in your work?

It’s very much a reciprocal dynamic. A lot of the posts I make will be about something I might have seen online which immediately related to thoughts I want to get out there. I really think the main purpose of the page for me isn’t to cater to what the public wants to hear. It’s more about what my problem is with something in the public discourse and how I respond to that, creating something out of it.

Do you believe it’s important to challenge your white readership to be effective in your action?

Yes, particularly because I'm obviously not going to have outright fascist or racist people following this page. It's most likely going to be white liberals, and I think often in big activism pages they write content thinking about what their public wants to hear. It's kind of like coddling, and I made a whole post asking why we should coddle people who aren’t interested in these discussions at all, who clearly don’t care. My purpose is not to build an indirect conversation with them, but just to say what I think as a Black person, and if that grates on you then you have to think about why you have an issue with the way I express myself. By getting rid of the kind of politeness that we have to observe so that our ideas can be recognised, I'm trying to cultivate a following who understands that i'm not going to coddle them. I'm just going to say exactly what I'm thinking; you take that and work on it yourself.

Do you think the public implicitly expects minorities to educate the privileged majority on oppression?

Yes, and I think this view is disturbing, because it plays into a lot of existing racist stereotypes particularly about Black women. We've seen it recently with Stacy Abrams in the Georgia election, or with Black women voting for certain candidates and everyone being like: ‘Black women saved us!’ But you can't leave this all to us. On the one hand I do believe Black women are and will continue to be at the forefront of political movements, but on the other hand we're not going to just do all the work for you if you don't show any sort of internal change or any action towards actually helping us in a material way.

Another problematic aspect of anti-racist mobilisation is the wide circulation of Black people’s death in the media. The video of George Floyd’s murder played a decisive role in igniting BLM protests around the world. But how do you, as a Black person and an activist, experience this hypervisibility of trauma?

I think Black death becomes something to be consumed, as opposed to thinking about the fact of the death itself. Everyone is sharing this video of a man literally being killed and for me and for many other Black people it’s so traumatising to see yet another person being killed for a reason you could also be killed for, to think who could be next. Could this be my brother, my mother, my whoever? It's really weird to see that become a pop-culture reference. The same happened with Breonna Taylor’s death, which happened around the same time [as George Floyd’s]. It became a kind of trend on Twitter to just tweet things like: ‘Get rid of the cops that killed Breonna Taylor,’ or to make it into t-shirts. It immediately gets repackaged in something to consume, something to pay for, and that really exemplifies the dynamics of race and capitalism, the way in which Black death is consumed and the idea of white life thriving on Black death.

How do you protect yourself from the emotional impact of your activism?

By getting offline sometimes. Over the summer I just had to log off for a bit, but then it was painful in the sense that when I came back and found that my entire timeline was essentially still all about people who'd died. You almost feel bad that you aren't doing something, but I guess as a Black person I’m also a part of this experience and it's okay for me not to constantly burn myself out to make sure that I'm always contributing to whatever work has been done.

Do you find having a safety net offline is important?

Yes, I think I'm really lucky to have all my friends who are comfortable with having really intelligent discussions about these things. It's so different from having the same kind of discussion online, because I'm in the comfort of my own home and I can talk to my housemates about how this makes us feel in a really casual way, particularly with Black housemates. I don't even need to really say anything, I don't have to put it into words. It's like no longer having to explain myself, just being like: ‘You guys, you know, it hurts to be here right now.’

Thank you for sharing this. How do you envision the future of The Unenlightenment Project?

I just hope to be coming up with new ideas, especially for fundraising because my worry is always that, doing so much writing, I’ll just become the typical academic whose work never reaches the actual people it’s supposed to help. So I want to keep writing, but also to materially benefit the people I'm talking about. That's why I set up funds for queer Nigerians or for the #EndSARS protesters. Hopefully I’ll do some stuff for the homeless people in London and we'll see where it goes.

Do you see yourself more as an activist or an academic going forward?

I hope to do both. I've applied for a masters, hopefully I’m going to continue to study sociology and become a professor, but we'll see where life takes me. I often hear my family say, you know, that I’ll become more conservative as I get older, and that's my biggest fear! I feel like my goal in life will be to make sure that I stay true to my beliefs. ‘Cause otherwise, who am I if not the things I believe in?

To donate to the Queer Nigerian Fund, visit the GoFundMe page.

To read Roni’s articles, visit The Unenlightenment Project on Medium.

To follow The Unenlightenment Project, visit the Instagram page.

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