Interview With Hari Ziyad: Finding Visibility and De-centering Whiteness
We are lucky to have people that walk through life challenging the world around them with each step. Writer and artist Hari Ziyad is one of those people, challenging the norms that whiteness has established for how we identify ourselves. Hari’s work has been featured in various publications, including Black Youth Project, where they are a contributing writer, and RaceBaitR, an online publication they have created.
Recently, Hari was featured as part of the Other Boys NYC docuseries highlighting and emphasizing stories of queer and trans men of color. In their video, Hari highlights their experiences with a predominately Black Cleveland, Ohio and the contrast of a diverse New York University, working through their non-binary identity and having Hindu and Muslim parents, and hopes that the world as we know it will soon be destroyed. Black Youth Project caught up with Hari to learn more about their experiences and beliefs touched on in the video.
Black Youth Project: How did you end up a part of the OtherBoys NYC series and why was it important or necessary for you to participate?
Hari Ziyad: The creators, Abdool and Adam, reached out on the suggestion of someone that lifted up my work and I seemed to be a good fit. I think it’s really necessary to bring gender queer Black voices to the forefront. I also wanted to offer a critique of representation. There was an emphasis on representation and all the amazing things it can do, and in my work I try to push back. I don’t think representation alone is enough. The type is much more important.
BYP: Was there a specific moment when you realized there was an intersection between your Blackness and your non-binary identity? How have your intersections as a Black, non-binary person in the world influenced your writing and your interest in writing?
HZ: Yes. So, I came to really understand my gender, especially, at the same time I was really investigating what it means to be Black. Those things were already tied to me and I didn’t really identify that way and I don’t know if non-binary completely encompasses how I experience gender, the reasons are usually wack and I can’t connect. Junior year (at NYU) is when I realized that I did not have to stay on campus and I didn’t have to be involved on campus. There were other communities in New York, the Black queer community and gender-queer community. It helped me understand my gender and I also realized that it was very tied to my Blackness. I don’t know if non-binary really encompasses, I think that these words for gender and sexuality, a lot of that stems from Black people were not meant to have a home in these spaces and so I’m really thinking about my gender and sexuality in what it means to be Black.
I’ve always wanted to tell stories in one way or another. I picked up a camera when I was like five. I used to film myself against a background then film the background, and I learned how to cut it so it looked like I disappeared. As it relates to the media I felt erased and I went to film school to tell my stories and fix my problem, address this deep feeling of being invisible in the world and that’s the way I would tell my story. Always keeping the audience of Black queer people in mind with everything I do, that’s where I am now.
BYP: You mentioned there needs to be more of an embrace of Blackness and the way we create, live, and sustain ourselves in order to change the structure of society, “this is something we need to tap into.” From what I see, you embrace that by emphasizing life and living outside of whiteness. How can this embrace of Blackness change things and can you share some other examples of what that looks like?
HZ: On a personal level, I try to do this in my work and it has changed the way I interact with the world. One is not worrying about white audiences as a writer and that has changed the kind of conversations you can have without fearing white tears or how they will respond. It really allows you to take a step further. On a large scale movement level, I see recently the conversation has been around violence and violence against police. Even if you disagree with the violence, if you’re not thinking about whiteness you’re not going to feel compelled to say something. Like, when the shootings happened over the summer and #BlackLivesMatter came out against them and I thought that was interesting because it was like handing over control of the narrative. This could be much more dangerous for people doing the much more radical work. Like Korryn Gaines, we pretty much justified that by saying, “violence is never okay”. A part of this work is going to be dangerous, it’s going to be ugly but we have to create space for that.
BYP: In the video, you talk about how some of us may be using the same tools that got us here in the first place in reference to Trump. What are those tools and what are some ways of thinking or actions that should be used instead?
HZ: I think that conversation, I was talking specifically about electoral politics but not just all electoral politics. I was talking about liberalism and Obama, Trump wasn’t really a coincidence. But also, in terms of discourse, by holding the presidency as like this esteemed position that people should invest in and aspire towards we’re giving legitimacy to anyone in that position. Who’s compelled to vote and why, we center that when there are so many other ways, I would argue, effective ways to create change but electoral politics always takes precedence. The same we we don’t allow the uglier side of things space in the movement, we don’t allow the organizing or uprisings to take center stage in our work and we will always be back to an answer that starts with the voting booth. I don’t believe the system built to oppress us is going to give to us. I don’t think everyone should stop voting tomorrow, but I think the way we center voting leads to these kinds of processes that elected Obama and Donald Trump without giving us a voice.
BYP: What would a positive shift in how we think about human beings and gender look like and sound like?
HZ: I think a positive shift about human beings looks like recognizing how we talk about humanity and how humanity is defined by the state. Like they say, “we are all human” but obviously we don’t all have the same benefits of humanity and this idea of humanity is based on definitions by white people. This comes from the work of [Frantz] Fanon, the idea that whiteness is always in contrast with something non-human other and recognizing that’s by design. Forcing into the human normative construct isn’t going to change that there’s a “non-human other” being abused until we reject that construct entirely. The way that we do things and the way we become human has always relied upon the dehumanizing of other people. We have to think of how to create other ways of being that don’t rely on how we think of humanity. I think the same thing applies to gender, kind of rejecting this notion that there is a normative human that we should all aspire to be.
BYP: How do you hope sharing your story and opinions on identity will help change things?
HZ: I just want to create more spaces where people can have these conversations. I don’t think I have the answers but I do think I have the means as someone that has a platform and so that’s all I’m trying to do. And then hopefully facilitate more radical things as I also learn how to do more radical things. What am I equipped to do is create space where we can protect our core and protect our people doing the dangerous work above ground.
Watch Hari’s part in the Other Boys NYC docuseries below: