By Tariq Luthun
This week, the story of Ziad Ahmed–a Muslim-American teen who was accepted into Stanford after writing #BlackLivesMatter in his application–went viral. Since the story dropped, many have come out in praise of the young man for his seemingly bold decision to write the politicized phrase on such an important application not just once, but 100 times. In this article for The Root, the author opens by asking the reader if our activism is “performative or substantive,” insinuating that Ahmed embodies the latter in a way that few others might.
— Ziad Ahmed (@ziadtheactivist) April 1, 2017
I understand that Ahmed’s is a noble gesture, and I’m not interested in policing the joy many people (both Black or non-Black) have expressed over the viability of #BlackLivesMatter being accepted in such a way by an institution of Academe. In his own words, Ahmed said that he finds it “refreshing to see that they view [his] unapologetic activism as an asset rather than a liability.” That said, I think this moment calls for us to push back against the implied narrative that our right to exist needs to be co-signed by institutions that exploit us. More importantly, I need my Muslim/non-Black PoC kin to pause with all the praise and uncritical acceptance of this move as something harrowing.
I’ll preface by saying this: Ahmed has some of the greatest credentials I’ve seen for someone his age. Additionally, I don’t doubt that he’s truly invested in this work, and seeks to become more invested. Ultimately, this is less about him (he doesn’t consider an application “activism,” but he did want to “make a statement”) and more about what lies at the crux of the distinction between what is and what is not performative allyship–especially in an era rife with individuals seeking to build their personal brands.
— Ziad Ahmed (@ziadtheactivist) April 4, 2017
Usually, this personal brand-building takes the form of opportunistic shows of allyship i.e. submitting an application featuring #BlackLivesMatter being written 100 times, and then posting the results to Twitter for the world to see. At a certain point, each of us needs to evaluate the threshold between when our actions no longer benefit those we claim to be advocating for and instead cross into territory that winds up centering us.
When interviewed, Ahmed said he wasn’t even expecting to get into Stanford. Typically, when people find themselves against the odds, they take chances they normally wouldn’t. How could they not when they have nothing left to lose? We can’t be sure if this was the case with Ahmed, and we would need to see if he made the same gesture in his other college applications to answer the question of whether or not this was opportunistic on his part. Had he approached other college applications similarly, there would be less to question. Instead, this need for clarity places us into highly speculative territory that most of the praise he is receiving overlooks.
What we do know is that there is a long and treacherous history of those considered to be allies turning their backs on the very same marginalized communities that accepted them as soon as such “allies” are offered something worth their while (in most cases, it’s the acceptance into whiteness and white institutions). Unfortunately, there is a certain level of recognition offered to those who are novel agents in a movement (see: Sam Whiteout, among others).
In this case, it takes the form of a non-Black PoC Muslim being praised for simply restating what Black people have been actively fighting for. We can’t be sure if a Black student would have seen the same results, but it’s unlikely given the way #BlackLivesMatter has been met when coming from the very lips of Black people. As a result, I argue that it is, in fact, performative for non-Black people to flaunt their politics around Black solidarity and reap the benefits that come with being optically progressive, which is how this story became news.
When speaking of optics, we have to question the decision to publicize this. It was not simply that Ahmed decided to write #BlackLivesMatter, but that he chose to broadcast it after the fact. Some of you may recall the 2014 Grammys in which Macklemore proceeded to sweep his way through the majority of rap awards–awards that the general public believed would go to Kendrick Lamar. Noticing the backlash he was receiving–or in anticipation of it–Macklemore texted an apology to Kendrick Lamar and proceeded to post the screenshot to Instagram.
What should be clear is that an apology is something you offer to the party you feel you have wronged. The second you begin flaunting the fact that you apologized, one has to question how genuine the apology was to begin with. The same can be said of the sincerity of one’s proclamation of something like “#BlackLivesMatter,” especially in the public eye.
Some could argue that this story of Ahmed’s action actually contributes to #BlackLivesMatter and the causes it aligns with. But, judging by the way this story has been covered, this action ends up centering Ahmed and Stanford as deserving of praise, while Black people are still having their very mattering lives ripped from them on a daily basis. To act as if using this hashtag–something born out of the work and blood of Blackness–to get into college will somehow offer significant aid to the Black folks it pertains to is a long-shot.
At best, this is a prime example of allies and institutions reaping rewards of their novel proximity to Blackness and social justice. At its very worst, this is yet another example of non-Black people stealing Black labor for their own benefit–regardless of whether or not that was their intention. Ultimately, Ahmed’s actions are not all too different than Macklemore’s: it’s one thing to act with conviction, but another to use that action to build (or defend) your personal brand while those more marginalized than you suffer. “Substantive activism” isn’t about flaunting our progressiveness to those who like the way our words sound, but about actively placing one’s body in the way of harm that might befall those we claim to be advocating for.
Then there is the role of Stanford–a university not even one year removed from the turmoil regarding the sexual assualt case of school swimmer/convicted rapist Brock Turner. While praising Ahmed, many also give Stanford kudos in the same breath for being so open-minded and progressive. Regardless of if Ahmed was accepted under any premises of this story going viral, it does raise the question about how institutions’ admissions can continue prioritizing “progressivism” while higher-ups continue to fail the litmus test. Moreso, what does it say about us and our movements’–both Black and non-Black PoC–thirsts for validation that we are so ready to praise an institution for simply accepting a student that claims #BlackLivesMatter, but shows no record of taking that very same stand itself?
This only furthers the decentering of movements and identities predicated on #BlackLivesMatter. Try conducting a Google search on “Stanford,” and you’ll find an odd juxtaposition of Ahmed’s recent news smattered against the backdrop of administrative pages and news of sexual assault mishandling. Try doing a search to glean some information about how #BlackLivesMatter is received on campus and by the school, and instead you’ll be met with story after story about the young activist who got into Stanford for proclaiming “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times in his essay. So, do #BlackLivesMatter now that Stanford has found it inspiring, or is it just the latest trendy Social Justice Thing™ for institutions to latch onto?
As non-Black agents, we need to be cognizant of how much recognition we afford institutions and/or fellow non-Black agents simply due to their proximity to Blackness. More precisely, we need to be aware that we–as bystanders to a given action–can contribute to what is and isn’t performative when we inadvertently center allies in lieu of the actual people whose lives are at stake. Such is the case with Ahmed and Stanford, as I’ve seen a number of Muslim peers and other allies praise Ahmed–among others–and lose sight of the premise behind #BlackLivesMatter, and what has us here in the first place.
Tariq Luthun is a Palestinian-American strategist and Emmy Award-winning poet from Detroit, MI. He is currently an MFA candidate for poetry at the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Among other things, Luthun is the Social Director of Organic Weapon Arts Press and co-founder of the PoC-dedicated literary arts series FRUIT.