by Justin Looi
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
At this very moment, there are children in cages.
At this very moment, entire families are being separated, doused in water, then locked in freezer rooms while being denied diapers, food, clean water, toothpaste and soap.
At this very moment, Chinese Muslims are being systematically purged and disappeared from their homes, locked in re-education camps and punished for practising their faith.
At this very moment, in many places all over the world, indigenous people are fighting tooth and nail to protect their water, their land, their traditions, and failing.
Why should I care?
It is difficult to struggle day-to-day through an existence stuck in capitalist definitions of worth. After a daily slog through traffic, work and mini-hierarchies, who would want to turn on the news and see the amount of suffering in the world? Even in Malaysia, we have plenty of our own unseen, hidden and suppressed issues being sidelined in favour of headline-grabbing sex scandals and pearl-clutching. It is so much easier to hide behind a curtain and close one eye.
To unwrap this, we shall need to understand intersectionality, the branch of feminism that covers how factors like race, class, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation and many others overlap.
A simple example of how intersectional politics work would be a case of someone being discriminated against based on their race but favoured due to their class. Affluent members of every race exist, but their race plays a part in how their wealth is viewed as a whole, and how they are viewed as representative — or an exception — of their community.
This has been understood for a long time, but more scholarship and study in the matter has given us the vocabulary and experience to properly express intersectionality. There are many avenues through which discrimination (racial, gender, etc.) can take place simultaneously — someone facing discrimination for one aspect of their identity may have a privilege afforded by another. A straight woman in Malaysia may encounter gendered hiring policies, but will not face homophobia or transphobia. A man may be racially discriminated against, but he is less likely to endure public sexual harassment from strangers. A publicly gay or trans person may (and will, most likely, in Malaysia) face abuse, but if of a sufficient economic standing, can shield themselves from the worst of it.
The purpose of intersectionality is not, as its detractors love to proclaim, to focus on “identity politics” — which is simply to pit people against each other to distract from their common enemies — but to use shared experiences to uplift each other. For example, no union action would be complete if it did not include disabled workers, working parents and demands for collective anti-discrimination rules. One’s class cannot be separated from their gender, ability, race or any other factor that determines how they are treated by institutions and people. The key is finding the intersection between these aspects of us.
To bring all this back to the beginning: why should I care?
Moral quandaries aside, this is not a case of expending emotional labour needlessly at tragedies we cannot change. This is choosing to learn and help in a concrete manner. Too often, Malaysians, helped by a heaping bounty of xenophobia and isolationism, fall back on the “(problem) is happening in another country, and we are Malaysians, so we must focus on our own problems first” excuse.
First of all, this is transparent derailment meant to sidestep the topic. Also, a lot of people who say this line don’t actually care about local problems anyway. However, in all cases, they miss the point: a lot of the problems in other countries have similarities to that of ours.
The border “crisis” in America is the eighth stage of genocide that is the culmination of years of demonising Latino people based on their race, arranging laws so that inhumane treatment can be justified in the name of “security”, and creating a state of such xenophobia that atrocities are excused against the “other”. Is it not, at the very least, a warning to a multicultural country with generations of racial tensions and severe dehumanisation of foreign workers?
At home, we are treated to Muslim faith leaders demanding bans of other religious symbolism but somehow crying Islamophobia, all while our country cosies up with a China that opressess Uighur Muslims. Is this not a blatant and disgusting act of hypocrisy that betrays their true loyalties?
The Orang Asli in both East and West Malaysia face even more destruction of their ancestral homes and contamination of their water supplies to satiate our greed for palm oil, all while we boast about its (questionable) benefits and blame the European Union for increasing global pressure to stop felling entire forests for plantations. Is this not an echo of the violent state suppression of indigenous populations in Canada and Australia for the defilement of their sacred sites and springs?
Capitalists gain from a divided people. To see our struggles as separate, to fail our siblings in arms, to blind ourselves to the painful act of acknowledging power dynamics — a complicated, but manageable, topic — while we huddle in isolated pockets, we are picked off.
Why should I care?
It is difficult to start the revolution within yourself. To acknowledge layers of privilege would mean acknowledging power: the power that activists and revolutionaries can take advantage of to protect, amplify and push. Class comes with visibility and legal affordability — post bail! Donate to your comrades’ surgeries and legal funds. With race and language come media permeation; use your tools to spread awareness! Translate and speak to the powerful and downtrodden; all are part of the struggle. Straight people: stand with your queer friends! Boost their voices, listen to them, take part in but do not objectify their struggles.
There is always something you can do.
Not all struggles are equal, but all struggles are our struggles, whether or not we choose to acknowledge them. To quote a nine-year-old girl from Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men:
“All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!
have a duty!”