Omega: Many people see the United States as increasingly politically divided. Some blame the media for inciting or perpetuating misunderstanding and bad will. In a climate so easy to “otherize” for the sake of ratings and clicks, how do you think media can foster alternative conversation and how do you personally handle political disagreements?
Jamia: That’s why media literacy should be taught in schools, it’s so important for us to learn it early on and throughout our lives, because when people understand the mechanism that the media is—how media is funded, who shapes decisions—then they can be cognizant and mindful while they consume media about how they absorb these messages and make critical decisions, because it is the biggest public education tool that we have and has so much power and has shaped so much of our culture.
Fox News recently walked up to me at the airport and asked if they could interview me about flights because they were saying there’s a conversation over whether the government will begin regulating flight cost. It was framed to me as, "What do you think about the government overseeing private industry?" Because I understood what was happening, I said, “Well, checks and balances are the American way, so I’m really excited that the government is going to be looking into checking and balancing these fares, so that all people who need access to transportation can get it.”
If I had heard that question without understanding context, the outlet that it was coming from and all of the literacy around that, I wouldn't have been able to make sure my framing was shaping the message I wanted to express. When people do media, they think that it’s more important to directly answer the reporter’s questions; actually, it’s important to get your message out.
The media understands this, so that’s something all of us should be aware of as we are active participants in media and especially in social media. We can weigh in and it’s more democratized than ever before.
Omega: Do you ever find that when you’re able to frame things in a personally empowered way that your footage isn’t used?
Jamia: You know, that has happened to me but I feel really good about the integrity of my statements. Sometimes media can be reductive, but it’s worth trying.
Omega: The complicated intersections each person lives at within their race, class, gender, age, etc. have been termed “intersectionality” as a way of acknowledging and locating people’s experiences belonging to many communities at once. Can you talk about how your understanding of yourself informs your leadership and coalition building?
Jamia: Intersectionality, as I understand it, is the framework for understanding the intersection of systems of discrimination and oppression, and how these connect to and construct our identities in the world. So I show up in the world not only as a woman, but also a black woman who is Christian, cisgendered in a heterosexual marriage, raised upper-middle class, has a visual disability, but is also able-bodied. The privileges I have in those identities come with me in various spaces that I’m in and connected to, as well as the oppression that I experience because of the reality of our society.
It’s important to think about this when thinking about systems of injustice and social inequality because without that knowledge, I could have a reductive approach to the work. Everyone is showing up with their varying identity privileges as well as experiences of oppression. These things need to be explored, recognized, and respected in order to build good partnership and coalition work and in order to really be in pursuit of liberation for us all.
When I plan events, I think first about how to provide childcare, because even though I don’t have children, it’s important to me that people who have children be in a space where they can have access to affordable or free childcare. They need to be able to show up as their full selves without having to feel like they’re marginalized because of their status as the parent. Another example of this would be asking people on their nametags and when they introduce themselves to include the pronoun they use, so there’s no assumption that we can assign gender to the people in the room, and we can all have our own ability to introduce ourselves based on our vision of our identity.
Keeping intersectionality in mind whenever in conversations is acknowledging who is in the room and whose voices are left out. We can’t have a holistic conversation without those acknowledgments about the values, beliefs, and assumptions that are in the room or not, the privileges and oppression that may be present and not present if we’re moving toward a world where everyone is equal and everyone is treated with respect for their lives.
Omega: How we place ourselves intersectionally, shifts sometimes over the course of a life as those categories become more fluid, particularly in gender. Where is your current edge in growing that understanding, and how do you meet those challenges?
Jamia: We’re in an interesting cultural moment right now as people are asking this question. There are several pieces I’ve been reading that explore these broader questions around identity and the fact that gender is something that is constructed. Race is something that’s constructed.
It’s been difficult because I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, and I think they’re very different. I very much respect Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to share her story and it’s been harmful to see some media outlets conflate those stories. There’s a very different thing happening with someone (Dolezal) who seems to have willfully misled people about her history and heritage to leverage a position on a political commission, to garner employment opportunities, and to secure speaking engagements about African American hair. This coupled with a long pattern of deceptive claims (including tales of hunting for food and living in South Africa and being born in a teepee) that have been refuted by her family as a different matter entirely.
I saw those two circumstances as very different, but they weren’t different for everyone. I think we’re in a really important moment where we’re going to continue to ask these questions. It’s a complex conversation to explore because it brings up broader questions about what race really means, what gender really means, and these nuanced questions are sometimes challenging to explore.
What intersectionality allows for is people recognizing all parts of their identity. Even some things not seen by the naked eye that are still a part of your identity, and history, and inform who you are and the oppression you might experience in society. That has been hard for me to explain to people, who might say, “Well, your cousin looks white, I don’t understand why he self-identifies as black.” But he was raised by his mom, who was a light-skinned black woman, in a completely black family, in an African American culture, and has experienced oppression as part of this family even though he looks like Justin Timberlake.
I was just with a friend who is a white woman and has an African American husband, but her kids look white. She’s worried about what this Rachel Dolezal conversation and the case with Andrea Smith—who presented herself as a Cherokee Nation professor, writing on Native issues of social justice and inequality, that now the Cherokee Nation says doesn’t have any indigenous background—means for her kids. Does this mean people will have to pass a racial litmus test in the future to prove who they are? That is not okay, either.
I’ve often thought, "If I have kids, what will it be like if they look like their father, who’s white? How will I explain how their African American identity also fits in?" All this stuff is getting a lot more complicated in public discourse but is good, because you need to have these conversations. They’re not going to always be easy for sure, these questions are very complex, but they need to be grappled with so they do not drive us into otherizing in our communities.
© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies