February 03, 2020

Rethinking Allyship & Resilience: An Evening with Vivek Shraya

Willow Leach
Educational Program Assistant at SFU's Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

We start in the Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Downtown Vancouver, the house packed and buzzing for the keynote event of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), observed throughout January at SFU. But soon, our speaker is introduced and a hush falls over the crowd as she approaches the microphone. Suddenly, we find ourselves looking out from a balcony in Edmonton at Pride celebrations colourfully dancing down the street below us. 

As Vivek Shraya—an artist whose body of work includes several albums, short films and books from nearly every genre—reads from her books, I’m Afraid Of Men (2018) and graphic novel illustrated by Ness Lee Death Threat (2019), the audience is enthralled, attentive, eager. You could hear a pin drop in the room as she carries us through how her body has become a shield and an ornament. 

We are guided through a narrative that depicts the bitter realities of moving through our society as a queer person of colour, the events that shaped who Shraya is today, and the vicious transphobia that prompted the making of Death Threat

Paola Quiros, SFU’s Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office’s Educator, leads a conversation with Vivek on being an active bystander, and the importance of allyship with Queer, Trans, Black, and Indigenous identities and People of Colour (QTBIPOC). 

Being an active bystander is uncomfortable. 

When prompted to speak on the silence of bystanders in situations where they could intervene, Shraya lends them her support. 

“We assume allyship should be comfortable,” she says. In reality, it is not. Being an active bystander is uncomfortable. It is rare to find moments when intervening in a difficult situation isn’t challenging for everyone. Not only is it difficult to see a person hurting at the hands of another, but bringing yourself into that space can be petrifying. 

Shraya speaks to how important this is to note. That the effort and energy it takes to step in can be as terrifying as it is draining, and that it’s okay to account for your own safety and wellbeing. She remarks that the first step to allyship is to recognize that it is hard work, and then you can follow it with seemingly smaller actions of support. Pairing with that, there is no form of support that is too small. Every action counts, and every action makes you an active bystander. 

There is resilience in stepping back. 

While the narrative pushed by the media and our peers is that being resilient in speaking out as a person who has endured trauma, Shraya disagrees. 

She conjures the image of a trampoline when asked about her own resilience, and the pressures from the people around her to be brave or fearless. She explains that resiliency is not a destination, but part of a process. There are moments when we cannot always be present and strong, though that does not negate that our experiences and emotions are valid. Shraya draws an image of us falling back into the trampoline and invites us to feel our weight against it, pressed down in a way that feels nearly impossible to get up from. 

Knowing your capacity for what you can and cannot handle, and when you need to pull back, to shut down, to be as vulnerable as you need to be, is where resilience lies. 

Shraya also notes that fear comes from a place of strength, and with the pressure for QTBIPOC identities to push narratives of resilience in their lives, there is a certain level of catharsis that is assumed to come from sharing life stories. Catharsis, Shraya says, is not one of the feelings she experienced while writing I’m Afraid Of Men, despite the assumptions. It was painful and difficult, and remains to be. Shraya wants folks to know that those feelings are okay. 

Making art is not going to magically fix complex layers of systematic oppression that weigh down on marginalized people. While fear comes from a place of strength, so is sharing the fear and still living through it, and expressing that there is no miraculous cure for pain and trauma. 

By being able to see resilience and the strength in expressing fear as a part of taking care of your own needs, we are able to make space for folks to live in the ways they are comfortable with. 

We need to challenge the ways in which we are complicit. 

At the end of the conversation, Shraya asks us to leave with one final takeaway: to be less complicit in the hate and harassment we see online. 

Often, we see the internet as a place where real people don’t actually exist, and where our actions and words have no real meaning or consequence. But Death Threat shows otherwise, and so do Shraya’s remarks about being an active bystander online. She describes it feeling to just as uncomfortable as it does in real life with the associated shaking, sweating, and high blood pressure. 

Resulting from the power that being behind a computer screen gives people, QTBIPOC folks are more likely to feel as if they can live their truths within the online environment. On the flipside of that, so are those who send hate to them. Combining that with the discomfort that comes with intervening and the lack of clear anti-oppressive policies from social media platforms—which are populated with real individuals with feelings and fears—people are discouraged from stepping in. 

Throughout the event and within this piece, the role of an active bystander and maintaining allyship has been discussed, with no real discernable solution yet offered. However, with Shraya’s final call out and her wish for the pressure to be off marginalized people to be unwaveringly resilient, we can start with making more space for folks to speak their truth. Shraya encourages us to follow QTBIPOC artists on social media, to support the stories they want to tell, support them monetarily if we can, and to not add more labour to the work they already do surrounding their communities. 

Allyship exists in many forms, from small actions to larger ones, but they all result in the same impact: a safer space for marginalized people, one where they can be lifted up and humanized.

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