Courtesy of Jamil Khan.

INFLUENCED: Meet Jamil Khan—An Unflinching Advocate for Social Justice

This young South African influencer is pushing for people to tackle society's difficult conversations on social media.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

In May this year, a Black woman killing time before a job interview, was arrested by Cape Town police for no apparent reason. The video of the incident, posted to social media, caused a national uproar. For Jamil Khan, one of the more disturbing aspects of the case was that the arresting officers were Coloured. A Coloured South African himself, Khan took to Twitter to make his point.

"The fact that the Coloured community by and large is deeply anti-Black is clear for all to see." He tweeted in response to the video, "It is violent and potentially deadly. This allegiance to whiteness is the most mind blowing thing because it benefits us little to none."

His statement got thousands of likes and retweets. Khan went on to say how unsurprised he was as this kind of bigotry had been part and parcel of his own upbringing. He continued: "It is an exhausting reality but one that must be strongly condemned. This is one example of why it is important to understand white supremacy beyond White people."

While many Black people responded, citing their own experiences with Coloured people especially in Cape Town, Khan also received push-back from Coloured people who felt he was making sweeping generalizations—an argument Khan viewed as Coloured people trying to escape accountability for their actions.

Khan, a scholar currently doing a PhD in Critical Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, is not afraid to wade into public discussions of inequality and injustice. While his academic work is what informs the information he shares on his social media platforms, his edgy aesthetic flies in the face of the stereotypical definition of what it means to be an academic.

For Khan, advocacy extends far beyond what we've come to know as "fleeting Twitter outrage". He lives and breathes the work that is centered on balancing the scales of justice for those individuals whose humanity has been taken away. His experiences with attempting to change society's perceptions on a number of disenfranchised communities have mirrored what the late anti-Apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela, described as a difficult and long walk to freedom. "I have sacrificed a great deal," Khan says and adds that, "I can't blame people for not wanting to give up those privileges, especially those who have so few."

We sat down with him to talk about why he's so passionate about being an advocate for humanity and some of the challenges that come with assuming that responsibility.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you say you identify as being a social activist?

I think it's something that automatically gets attached to me. One would have to define what that means. I feel like activism often gets boxed into a very small space, and it's required to perform a particular kind of activity. So generally I don't refer to myself as one. I do believe that within a broad scope of what activism is and can be, I participate in activism. But I don't generally. I haven't accepted it as an identity. I just believe that I'm somebody doing the work that I believe is important, hoping that it will also benefit others. And if that is social activism, then I might be one.

But I tend not to internalize it, also because of the implications of that, and where it might lead. I generally shy away from internalizing identities or roles. So I feel like in some ways, activism tends to end up being a destination. And once you've arrived, you tend to stay.

What are some of the things you've been particularly passionate about in terms of advocating on social media?

Regarding my training, a lot of the work is intersectional and it's about understanding all axes of power. It's about understanding how systems of power co-construct one another and intersect and interlock. And so from that perspective, that broad scope of power and oppression is of great interest to me.

The way in which I work with it, though, is to identify the ways in which I benefit from particular systems and particularly being deliberate about inserting my alternative viewpoint.

For me, that also translates into South Africa talking about Colouredness and its complicity in many ways with White supremacy. But then at the same time, also bringing to light the nuances and the varied manifestations of what Colouredness is and what it can do, and that it's not only that. People have very complex identities in life, and they are entitled to that. But it's easier to focus on those things than it is to focus on the things that make you seem like the bad guy. So that, in terms of race, generally, that has been a focus of mine.

Do you think South Africa is having the conversation enough about Coloured people because very often, we talk strictly about Black and White people?

South Africa is so tricky because of how we sort of lock people into positions. There's this conversation about Coloured people being Black or not wanting to identify themselves as Black. And those are very real things, but I think people are having those conversations. What the content of those conversations is, you don't know whether it helps or harms.

"I hope that we would be doing more of is having conversations that trouble the limits of Blackness."

If we have this contestation of whether Coloured people are Black or not, then we should be having a bigger conversation around what sets the parameters for that. It's hard, we come to the conclusion that some people are and some people aren't. Has it got to do with a lived experience? Has it got to do with the consequences to identifying as such? Has it got to do with the inequality within the identification, and how all of us are not equally victimized by the system?

What do you think the role of social media has been for social activism?

I think traditionally activists have been those brave souls in society that dare to stand up and say something. They do that, however, fully aware of the dangers and the consequences of doing that. So hence, it wouldn't be something that's attractive to everybody, even if they feel they have something to say. And I feel like social media has bridged a gap, in a sense, whereby people can espouse activism in safer spaces. And when I talk about safer spaces, I mean physically safe.

Activists live in fear of danger for their lives. These things happen. Governments target activists. Civilians target activists. And everybody doesn't have that goal, to say, "I don't care. Whatever comes, I'll take it." So I think it has opened, has broadened the scope of activism and has allowed people to participate in different ways from different corners of society. And in some ways, maybe enhanced the survival of not only activists but activism.

What do you think some of the limitations are as it pertains to advocacy or activism on social media?

I do think because of the format of social media, a lot of miscommunication is enabled. Social media is also wrapped up in a much larger demographic space whereby things like "social activist Twitter" and "celebrity Twitter" coexist in the same space, and unfortunately, the conventions around how to engage those very different things, bleed into each other.

So the energy of being an antagonistic fan bleeds into that of being an activist, or how one relates to activists on social media so it gets messy. Communication and modes of communication are a limitation.

The other limitation, is how social media is legitimized or delegitimized by the establishment. We have our government structures on social media, and they use those very same platforms. However, when it matters, those voices don't seem to be important. There's also a very manipulative use of these platforms. In other ways it's also a space controlled by structures beyond our understanding.

How do you navigate a space where everybody has a platform and feels that they have a right to say whatever they want to say?

I think in my journey, I have come to a place where I am able to discern. I can tell the difference between somebody who is maybe just a bit mean but might have something to say, somebody who just doesn't agree with me, and then somebody who has a particular kind of anti-progress agenda. And so based on how I receive that, I make a decision.

The flat-out anti-progress stuff I don't engage, because that is not so much about engagement as it is wanting a response from me and also exposing me to their scorn. Because that's what it's about. It's about pulling me into a ring where I can then be eviscerated. And generally, the kinds of responses are a can't-win situation.

Courtesy of Jamil Khan.

Do you find that disheartening at times?

I used to when I still believed that those were just mean people until I got to the point where I realized that this is about more than that and it doesn't actually matter what I say. Because my ideology is positioned in a particular way, some people have decided that I need to be taken down because it's a direct threat to what they're trying to advocate.

"There are reasons why the humanity of people or the affirmation of the humanity of people who have historically been dispossessed of it, are more urgent than those who have always had it."

Other people I engage sometimes. I get to further explain something that I've said and the person then goes, "Okay cool, I see that. I get you." Other times, somebody doesn't agree with me and we get to a point where we end by saying, "I mean, that's how you see it. I don't believe in that but fine." Other times, people are not there with an agenda. They're just generally grumpy and mean. They just don't like the fact that it's me saying this. They don't like the fact that there are people who like what I say. It's just like high school meanness.

What meaningful engagements do you feel you've had on social media that have been true teaching moments for someone who was ignorant about something?

There's a lot, you know and I generally can't bring up one particular moment. What I do get often is people saying that these are things they've thought about but they didn't know how to say. So I often hear people say that I'm able to use language in a way that makes things so clear. I think we underestimate just how deeply people are thinking about complex issues and whether or not they have the language to enunciate it is a different story. I don't think we must ever underestimate just how deeply people are thinking about not only their own lives and the way in which they are implicated in systems that affect their lives, but also those around them. I think we tend to discredit and discount people's voices based on their command of language, which is a very unfair thing to do.

How would you, in an ideal world, want to see people engaging on social media in the spirit of advocacy?

You spoke earlier about an echo chamber. And I feel like often that term's been weaponized to legitimize the debate of bigotry and to invite in bigoted views. I'm sorry, but I would gladly live in an echo chamber if what I heard was only the affirmation of humanity particularly the people who have been dispossessed of it.

I would imagine that in social justice conversations, that we are not debating things for the sake of debating them and instituting balance and fairness for the sake of a standard that was never made applicable to us anyway. I want to see us invest our time strictly in conversations around justice that center and affirm humanity. And also to interrogate what that means as well.

So for me, an ideal social media setting would be one in which we center the human and really ask ourselves serious questions around how we engage.

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