Resisting injustice and bigotry means fighting, but that doesn’t only mean bleak and barren media, stories, and bodies draping our cultural landscape.
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. elections, I called for academics to educate and resist. I still want to see more of my colleagues doing outreach and advocacy, whether it’s through blogging, tweeting, or finding any way to reach outside the ivory tower and share our specialized knowledge with people who will benefit from it. As an educator, I know my strengths, and I’m willing to use them for good.
But there are many ways to resist, and not all of them look like stark, stoic knowledge dumps. Not all forms of resistance look like taking to the street, because not all of us are cut out for that, and that’s okay.
My writer friend Shveta Thakrar wrote this piece titled #beautifulresistance which I urge you all to read. In it, she encourages us to recognize that the stories we’ve been taught are often wielded as weapons against us. And when we resist these overarching narratives, when we do so artfully, that is a very valuable and valid form of activism.
When I resist, I’m not just resisting for my own sake. I’m not just resisting for the people I know and care about. I’m resisting for everyone, even the people who fear those like me. Even the people who actively choose things that will harm us all. I do so because I know they’re reacting to deeply embedded stories of exclusion. Stories that taught them their fear. Stories that taught them I am lesser than they are. Stories that taught them it’s okay for tax money to fund rich Melania Trump to live outside the White House while they themselves are denied public health care and education, and that this is the government looking out for them. Stories that create a binary of “us” and “them.”
Stories that have no basis in reality—there is no “them,” only “us”—but potent stories nonetheless. Tropes long overdue for retirement.
So let’s change the narrative. #beautifulresistance
Writers like Thakrar (and me, I guess) have one tool set with which to do this: words. But there are others, and they’re ones I love too: dance and adornment.
I know that discussions of belly dance needs to take into account the possibility of cultural appropriation. Orientalism, colonialism, and imperialism have irrevocably shaped how belly dance is perceived and practiced, and we need to do our best to engage with these topics ethically and honestly.
But if you love dance, you love diversity. And if you, like me, are teaching and performing a non-Western dance in America today, you are helping assert that other cultural art forms deserve representation in this country, even as our federal government is escalating xenophobic policies.
Similarly, engaging with body art is a human universal. Our adornment choices indicate group membership in aesthetically patterned ways. And in this context, it is partially about beautification, and partially about resistance. Human creativity is vast, and while we still need to be aware of the potential for cultural appropriation when we borrow body art from other groups, merely engaging with expressive culture outside our own asserts that cultural contact is worthwhile. That we don’t need to fear others who look different from us.
I’m not trying to make a facile assertion that we’ll all live happily ever after in a blended multicultural society if everyone just chills out and borrows all the adornment and dance from each other. I understand that some sacred traditions need to be kept private and separate, and safeguarded by the people from which they originate.
I am, however, stating that it is a small and beautiful act of resistance and education to borrow what’s appropriate and wear/perform it publicly in a society that gives xenophobic bigots amplified voices and power. For one thing, bringing a bit of beauty into this increasingly-dystopian society is a tiny fuck-you to despair. For another, we fight intolerance by foregrounding tolerance. (and again, I’m not trying to say that marginalized groups should “tolerate” oppressors stealing their stuff, but rather than people from mainstream groups who feel threatened by displays of cultures not their own should think long and hard about why that is)
When we opt to beautify resistance, that doesn’t mean shutting down dialogue about how to do it better next time. If we borrow, we do it respectfully, or we work within our own traditions. But we recognize that worldview is often conditioned by expressive culture, and thus we fight fire with fire, shaping our artistic output to march to battle with the stories that infect others with enough fear that they would harm us for it.
I’ll close with Thakrar’s inspiring words:
To me, that is the essence of beautiful resistance: We focus on inclusion, we act on behalf of social justice and autonomy, we look within and around the globe for art and different experiences and values. We broaden our worldview where closed-hearted totalitarians would have us shrink it to the narrow confines of propaganda and control.