so you’re woke. now what?

on november 9, millions of americans woke up and for the first time realized this country is racist, and sexist, and classist, and many other -ists. maybe you’re one of them. maybe you started wearing a safety pin (0.5 woke points), or maybe you called your senator about #noDAPL (3 woke points), or maybe you took a class on intersectionality in college (5 woke points).

i’m just kidding. there is no such thing as woke points, because wokeness is not a competition (use of ‘woke’ while non-black: minus 50 woke points). in all seriousness, i’m noticing an epidemic of people who are beginning to have a social justice political analysis, or who have had a political analysis for a while, but who do not have a method to act on that analysis. 

it’s great that many more people are beginning to develop their political consciousnesses. please continue! read here and here and here and here. but while i do believe social media is an important aspect of 21st century discourse production, sitting around saying what’s wrong with the world is not going to change it. and i say this as someone who sits around quite a bit saying what’s wrong with the world. 

one issue with the sole focus on social criticism is that it tears things down, but it does not build. and creating is harder than destroying. as an educator, i am always thinking about how to create entry points for people just discovering the work. what enables me to have empathy for people wearing safety pins is reflecting upon when i was, quite frankly, a privileged little shit, and what it took to get me to this point, and where i still need to go. how do we move people from wearing safety pins to being on the front lines of resistance?

working in community-based art for the past few years, this is where i think socially engaged art is helpful in providing an entry point to praxis. perhaps people don’t know how to organize a campaign. but they can make a visualization on paper. and i’ve seen that one material realization of an idea be the starting point for many, many more forms of material realization. i’ve heard many participants in community arts project say, “i never thought i could be an artist”. maybe it’s time we find a way to change that phrase to “i never thought i could be an activist”. 

having a political analysis is meaningless if you cannot practice your words: if you constantly flake out on others, if you speak but never listen, if you perpetuate toxic masculinity or colorblindness while criticizing patriarchy or structural racism. but praxis also looks different for every individual. for some it’s getting involved in organizing efforts. for others it just looks like staying alive. however, it is up to you to be self conscious of your praxis, able to articulate it in relationship to your political analysis, and willing to self reflect and self challenge. 

as a political educator, i commit to the task of sharing tools, building bridges between analysis and action, and constantly learning and holding myself accountable. here are some places where you can start, and i’m more than happy to share resources offline or directly. 

in these times more than ever, we must hold each other close and love each other, and in the words of dr. cornel west—“never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

(so stop with all that ‘all we need is love’ crap—seriously!)

the strange orientalism of ai wei wei

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Photo: Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei, at Brooklyn Museum, ELLEN QBERTPLAYA

my parents think ai wei wei’s father, ai qing, writes bad poetry. my parents also think donald trump will save the u.s. economy, so their opinions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

still, there’s something refreshing about hearing a chinese person’s opinion on chinese art. i don’t hear that often living in the united states. instead i hear opinions from people who have never set foot in asia, not only about ai wei wei, but about the legacy of communism and about tibet’s right to be free.

i want to clarify that i’m not denying the trauma of Maoism which i still feel in my body to this day, and i’m not denying that china has committed severe human rights abuses in tibet. there’s this metaphor that i use to explain gayatri spivak’s argument in “can the subaltern speak?”, which is that when your mother tells you to finish your food because there’s a starving child in africa, your mother doesn’t actually care about the child in africa in this situation, even though their starvation is real. the african child is the subaltern through which another power justifies its regime of domination. so is the tibetan monk. and perhaps, so is ai wei wei.

when ai wei wei was imprisoned by the chinese government in 2011, i remember many US-based artists showing up in protest for ai wei wei’s freedom. but how many of those artists in that same breath wore clothes that were made in china? documented their protest on iphones made in chinese factories with abysmal working conditions? and how many of those artists are conscious of the hong kong umbrella revolution*, and the jailing of chinese feminists?

in a recent exchange with tania bruguera at the brooklyn museum, ai wei wei was invited to discourse on his work regarding freedom and dissidence. but freedom for whom? dissidence against whom? i often wonder if ai wei wei would be considered such a champion of freedom if legacies of orientalism and fear mongering against communism did not paint china as one of the ultimate representations of unfreedom. i also wonder if dissidence is acceptable and glamorized only when it is a dissidence towards a “foreign” government and not a current global superpower whose quest for empire has decimated the lives of millions. certainly i don’t claim that the chinese government is blameless, just as i don’t claim that there are no starving children in africa. but in the context of ai wei wei and western art, the china being evoked for brooklyn audiences is a western imaginary rather than my diasporic reality.

i used to joke that the US-based ‘free tibet’ movement was analogous to a minority group of chinese citizens raising awareness in asia about freeing native americans from US occupation. but it seems like the chickens have come home to roost as the UN sends an investigation into human rights abuses against indigenous water protectors at standing rock. in a country where 1 million black people are incarcerated, water protectors are brutalized and held in dog kennels, and the current presidential election makes me seriously consider what life would be like if i repatriated to the homeland, i’m not comfortable with saying that we are freer here, then we are anywhere else.

*though hong kong’s colonized road to democracy is another complicated subject.