“To be honest I’m tired of older (white) people dismissing the internet as an illegitimate site of political work. Frankly, it’s racist, ableist, sexist, and transphobic,” writes Alok Vaid-Menon from somewhere on the road. Half of the trans South Asian art and activism duo known as Darkmatter, Vaid-Menon, along with collaborator Janani Balasubramanian, will be touring conferences and universities up and down the east coast through the end of January. “Ya no kidding,” Balasubramanian asserts. “I’m over folks who have historically had power and dominance over ‘real-life’ spaces (white cis able-bodied men) denouncing the Internet as a site of political and cultural work. I think the Internet has surely been a tremendous space—coupled with on-the-ground grassroots struggle—to develop and carry out movement strategies. I believe in linking the two.”
They’re reacting to a piece in The New Yorker published in 2010, where Malcolm Gladwell criticizes “Facebook warriors” for utilizing a platform that he feels encourages weak ties over strong ones, that “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” Though Gladwell himself is a person of color, the argument he makes in his piece, “Small Change,” echoes a larger racial issue that Darkmatter seeks to dismantle. There’s a problematic worldview shared by many predominantly white people; one that, influenced by their inherent privilege, invalidates the experiences of many queer people and people of color. For the marginalized groups that Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon are trying to reach, Gladwell’s assessment reeks of internalized Eurocentricity, and a point of view rooted in the past.
“Yes, I draw a lot of inspiration from Internet culture because—guess what!—that’s where my communities tend to congregate,” Vaid-Menon explains. “I’m talking about queer and trans people of color who don’t often experience safety in traditional social movement spaces that are dominated by white cis straight people. I’m talking about people located outside of urban queer enclaves trying to make sense of their identities and desires. The Internet has given a space for so many of us to heal, hate ourselves a little less, and become more politicized. Do I think the internet is the end all? No. Do I think we need to get better at making the netroots tap into the grassroots? Yeah! But guess what – we young people are already finding ways to do that and we don’t need to be patronized by older folks and their misguided nostalgia.”
To their credit, the Internet has been good to Darkmatter. The duo recently broke 10,000 fans on Facebook, where commitment to their message, fluidly combined with humorous, accessible posts to their fans—“Rest in Peace Zoboomafoo! We will miss you! We take solace in the fact that you are finally free from control of creepy white men. Mainstream America may pacify your dissent but we affirm and amplify your resistance!”—fosters upbeat communication and a perpetually active and engaged community. “It’s hard for us to think about our ‘fans,’ because so many of them are our ‘friends’ and our ‘comrades,’” Vaid-Menon says. “If you like our art, chances are you have some dashing politics. We’re not really interested in building a platform; we’re interested in movement building. We appreciate how our followers don’t just show up for us, but show up for issues that matter and do their own political work (whatever it may look like).”
For them, these issues take shape in the problematic gay rights movement and the current political climate for the queer community, specifically people of color. Vaid-Menon says, “Gay rights as they have increasingly become articulated are really about a politics of recognition (“I love gay people!”) rather than a politics of redistribution or reparations (give indigenous and black people compensation for histories of and contemporary exploitation). Gay rights are a tactic in which the liberal class can get away with doing the same old racism but still seem ‘progressive.’ Gay rights are only about enfranchising upper class and/or white gays and lesbians to assimilate into the system, not actually about overhauling or redefining the system.”
“Marriage is not about love; it’s about state control,” Balasubramanian says. “Marriage, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Hillary Clinton’s statement that ‘gay rights are human rights,’—all are distractions from violences that have happened and continue to happen. They also form this huge lie and façade that allows people to claim they are ‘allies’ or ‘progressive’ just because they endorse the incorporation of gay people into oppressive institutions.”
At their workshops and corresponding spoken word shows taking place this weekend, Darkmatter hopes not just to open eyes and expand worldviews, but to create a space where people can speak their truths and be heard. “I think so much of this world is about apologizing for our feelings. I think we have so few spaces to genuinely feel, to submit ourselves to the chaos of all of the violence that surrounds us. We’re also trying to create spaces to agitate, mobilize, and organize! Our dream is that the people who attend our shows will: 1) be re-committed to community organizing and political activism if they’re already doing it, or 2) become inspired to start participating in social movement activity. In this way our space is a bit group therapy and a bit political education session,” Vaid-Menon says, tongue slightly in cheek.
Balasubramanian echoes this vision, and has their own hopes. “There are so few spaces where people come to you with all their vulnerability, pain, openness, creativity. Creating spaces for imagination filled with revolutionary blood is what I’m looking for in every art-venture I take on,” they say.
“And while we encourage people to snap and moan throughout our shows if there are ideas that resonate (because fuck respectability politics), my favorite moment in any performance is when the audience grows totally quiet. You know you’ve really hit on something when people are unable to respond except with their rapt attention. I make words so we can build silence together: uncomfortable, agitational, transformative silence.”
DARKMATTER PRESENTS: #ITGETSBITTER SPOKEN WORD SHOW. BU MORSE AUDITORIUM, 602 COMM AVE., BOSTON. FRI NOV. 14. 5PM/ALL AGES/FREE.
DARKMATTER PRESENTS: GAY RIGHTS ARE WRONG: a workshop. NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, DOCKSER HALL ROOM 240, 416 HUNTINGTON AVE, BOSTON. SAT NOV. 15. 1PM/ALL AGES/FREE.