Updated: Sep 23, 2021
To be seen by someone with their eyes closed.
To be seen by someone with their eyes.
To be seen by someone.
To be seen.
We live in a society in which representation is of great importance, it makes us feel seen. In many respects, this is a positive thing, because we all have our voices being heard on different platforms. However, there are situations in which representing becomes a task for people from underrepresented communities. The concept of being seen is more complex than general representation can fix. I would think back to when I went to Tilburg on a trial study day for Journalism. During my day at the college, we were asked for our opinions on headlines, photos, and articles. The point was for us to explain whether we believed they were appropriate for publication or not.
It is when we were asked about the photo of Alan Kurdi, (the three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish descent that drowned in the Mediterranean sea in 2015), that every other person except for me agreed that this is a photo that was rightfully published. This is a photo that when people saw it, they started paying attention to the refugee crisis in Syria. So I wholeheartedly agreed that it was of help. However, what they failed to mention was that this is a photo of a three-year-old boy who has passed away, and was being spread all over the world while his family watched.
The discussion that followed my statement was about empathy, and how in order to trigger it, this photo needed to be shown at the time. Which made me think, is a sentence describing his death not enough?
“A three-year-old boy passed away after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, he was a Syrian refugee, and he was seeking what we forget to appreciate: a home.”
I couldn't help but wonder, why is it that we as humans are not capable of recognizing one anothers' pain unless we have experienced a similar kind of it. Why is it that we have this tunnel vision, which we cannot snap out of? How do we reach a point at which we familiarize ourselves with one another? The answer is simple, by focusing on intersectionality. You are probably wondering what exactly that is. Well, it is a concept that was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar, with the intention to shed light on the struggles of black women. She wrote the following: "Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LGBTQ+ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” This is a black woman, who saw, recognized, and translated for the rest of the world to understand her position in life, and that of other black women.
Intersectionality exists because of a black woman. This is something I repeat because it is this identity that is needed for this concept to exist, for black women to be treated like black women exist. She describes it as there being no frame for black women, to be seen, remembered, or held. An important message that she has gotten out there is to 'Say Her Name' when referring to the black women who have suffered from police brutality and died because of it. So it is up to us, to say her name, read her story, and take preventative measures in every way we possibly can. On top of that, we have to amplify voices unheard, because there is power in having a platform.
Which brings us to my friend Amel Ali, who is a Muslim black woman and a Hijabi, she is a woman whose voice goes unheard, whether she speaks or not. She described it to me as people looking at her and having immediate preconceived notions as they speak to her. Amel has told me things that indicated certain levels of ignorance from specific people in her life, for instance when she said to me: "When I tell my coworkers, or student counselor, about the fact that people have said racist things to me, the first instance is for them to deny that this person was racist." However, she interprets it as people not being able to fathom some of the things she goes through in life, things which they will never have to experience. So for someone to understand her, it either has to be someone who has had similar experiences in life or is emphatic and aware of the world we live in, a world with multiple complex identities. Representation helps people understand demographics which often go unseen in society. Ilhan Omar is a great example to Amel. In 2018, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, marking several historic electoral firsts. She is the first Muslim, Somali-American, the first naturalized citizen from Africa, and the first non-white woman elected from Minnesota. So, it is when people hear these voices, understand their complex experiences, and include them in the narrative, that they themselves get a better understanding of the people around them.
Our communities mirror our sense of complexity. The differences within result in beauty, as they are used to educate one another, resulting in solidarity. However, negative outcomes from differences are unavoidable. What a person does not recognize causes discomfort, and when they do not see themselves in someone else, this causes for questions to arise, questions that lead to irrational fear. A danger behind intersectionality is that it can cause people to compartmentalize others by looking at identities as if they are checking boxes. Besides that, the relation between two complex identities are not further analysed or elaborated on. For example, when you are a black trans woman, there is a high probability of facing discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community for being trans and black, and within the black community for being trans.
This is something that is not surprising when you think of the quote by Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” She was a woman who recognised other complex identities, and proudly presented her own as a: “black lesbian feminist warrior mother”. She was part of several communities, so a sense of community was important, but a sense of understanding one another within communities was even more important.
When you face islamophobia as a Muslim individual, you have that community to fall back on for support. But if no one from the community is around, and you ask the question: “What did I do to deserve that?” someone who has listened to the way you experience life, in order to understand you, will be able to say “Nothing, nothing at all.” and in that moment, that will be enough. When a person recognises you for who you are, it causes for a sense of trust. Like when I was walking down the street near campus with my friend one evening, and after a man spat on me, and spoke to us in a language of hatred which was foreign to us. She was able to take us out of the situation, and able to tell me I did nothing, nothing at all for it to happen. She continued to tell me so, until I stopped trying to justify his actions by blaming myself. We have further established trust and understanding of one another. In that moment I was a brown woman, and she was a white woman, but we both understood each other as women. While this united us, she also understood that me being a brown Hijabi might have been the cause behind this man's actions.
So know that the second you talk to someone who you do not understand, they might open up, and this establishes a sense of trust if you ask the right questions. Like when I decided to wear the Hijab, and had this experience 2 weeks after. I did not mind questions, because it is when we have this conversation on intersectionality, that we get to a world in which fear leads to questions and not violence.
As a lot of people say, we are born with naivety and limitless love for one another, what we need to do as we grow older is to find ways to get back that love, and instead of naivety find understanding. Because, there are things that unite us and things that differentiate between us, but eventually these are things that teach us a deeper understanding of one another.
So, who are you? What is it about you that you feel like defines most of you? A hard question isn’t it? I myself am Muslim, Pakistani, Dutch, and a woman, but most importantly, a person of the people.
By: Kinza M. Hussain
Kinza Hussain is a student of International Public Management and a member of the Collective. team. Since she was 16, she's had a knack for writing poetry, which is also when she developed her interest in politics and activism. Which is why she likes speaking out about issues. In the future she hopes to be able to make changes that will have lasting positive impacts on the lives of others. While as of right now she keeps herself busy force-feeding her friends Pakistani food.