The toll of online anti-racism work and why I still persist.
Alyssa Ho tells us about the emotional labour of challenging racism and provides tips for anyone wanting to speak up.
Late last year, I started using Instagram as a platform to share my thoughts on anti-racism. I did so to bravely capture my emotions and experiences, to allow people to understand, learn and empathise. However, I soon found myself engaging with people, mostly white people who frequently tried to convince me that BIPOC’s experiences with racism were up for debate. It often felt like entering a discussion where people could disguise their hatred, fear and ignorance under the label “freedom of speech”, arguing that everyone was entitled to an opinion.
I look back and can’t believe that for a single moment of my life, I let someone make me question my very own lived experiences, especially those who have never encountered racism in their lives and never will. I hope to inspire people who wish to use their voice and platform to share their stories, to speak up for and with their communities and for those who have been silenced for far too long.
A topic that I was passionate about discussing and providing education on was the fox eye trend and why some in the Asian community find it insensitive and offensive. To those who’ve lived a privileged life and have not been on the receiving end of being taunted for the natural shape of their Asian eyes, it’s “harmless” and we just need to “get over it”, but for many of us in the Asian community, it reminds us of a painful past. Of growing up feeling Othered because we didn’t seem to belong. It reminds us of people pulling their eyes back at us in a derogatory and dehumanising way, to do nothing more than hurt and humiliate us. It reminds us of growing up and feeling like our eyes are a feature that we should be ashamed of and that what we should desire is a closeness to white beauty standards and features.
When I started sharing commentary on the trend, I soon realised just how much resistance there was, how passionate people were to argue that racism doesn’t exist, rather than accept that what I experienced is real, and that had nothing to lose by believing me. I found that many who would rarely speak up against racism had so much to say when I did. From strangers to “friends”, whenever I spoke up I heard things like: “It’s just a makeup look, we’re not trying to mirror/make fun of your eyes”, “Stop being so sensitive”, “Why’s it always about race?”, “You’re racist for calling us a racist”, “You should take it as a compliment that your eyes are now considered beautiful”, “What a joke.” And a long list of etc. I wish more people understood that this isn’t about me telling you what you can/can’t do, I’m trying to bring to your attention why it’s harmful to a community. For you to look within and be more aware and considerate of how things that you may not completely understand right now, and can so freely do, can affect those who have been hurt, oppressed, discriminated against and victimised for the very same thing. It’s so much deeper than “we’re not allowed to do anything anymore.” It’s about listening to the voices with lived experience and paying them the respect they deserve.
When I started speaking about why having an Asian fetish was wrong because you’re projecting your own stereotypes, fantasies and assumptions onto another person and therefore don’t truly see or accept them for who they are, I was told that people are allowed to have a preference and again, we should take it as a compliment.
When I wrote a piece titled, “Dear White People”, I was told to be careful with the language I use and that it’s counterintuitive to what I’m trying to achieve (namely, fighting racism) because apparently, categorising white people as… ugh, white people is offensive. However, it’s perfectly fine for white people to call me Asian and more often than not, endlessly point it out as though that’s all there is to me and my identity.
When I started highlighting the normalisation of racism against Asians, I was told by rather small-minded individuals that we’re not marginalised or even a minority because there’s so many of us in the world. That we’re privileged in comparison to other BIPOC and therefore don’t have a right to speak up about the racism we experience. That we’re apparently wealthy and thrive in our careers (cue Model Minority myth) and somehow, that protects us from racism. I started growing tired of Asian voices being tuned out because no one ever seems to listen to us or take us seriously when we speak, even when we scream from the top of our lungs about the injustices and hatred we face.
At first, being challenged, gaslit, tone-policed, ridiculed and called a bitch and bully got to me. I would read what people responded and it made me physically shake. I felt like I owed them a response, that I needed to immediately defend and justify myself. I felt like they deserved that from me. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I had to take it down a notch, maybe I had to change the way I spoke because of how people could misinterpret and maybe I needed to stop speaking up because mentally and emotionally it was all too much.
Then, as time went on, it didn’t bother me as much. I accepted that it was a part of the work. If anything, the resistance I was met with showed me that I needed to speak up even more. I realised that people would go to great lengths to uphold their privilege and to not be called a racist, even when their actions said otherwise. I finally understood that I can’t exhaust my emotional labour for those who aren’t open to understanding me and my experiences, as well as that of fellow BIPOC. The more I allow myself to get caught up on those who are trying to silence me, the less time I’m dedicating to fighting for those who are being silenced.
My main piece of advice when taking part in anti-racism work and this new era of online advocacy is to be prepared to come across people who will fight with you to try to invalidate your emotions and experiences. However, just know that this isn’t meant to be a fight. This is about BIPOC finally feeling empowered to speak up and all that matters is who is willing to hear us out and fight with and for us. This is us taking centre stage, picking up that mic and having our well-deserved moment. It’s about the next person you can inspire to use their voice because they don’t want to stay silent anymore. It’s about acknowledging that you’re allowed to feel hurt and angry and that you can vocalise it. It’s about not being afraid anymore and caring more about those you will impact and inspire rather than the ones who will refuse to listen, no matter how loudly and clearly you speak. This is about you and feeling brave, free and empowered to use your voice, the one that’s always mattered. The voice that people have tried to keep silent for far too long because deep down they knew just how powerful it is.
Alyssa Ho is a 27-year-old Vietnamese Australian from Melbourne who uses her social media platform to speak on anti-racism amongst many things. She is particularly passionate about raising awareness on the racism and injustices faced by the Asian community.