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“Think of Activism Like a Potluck Dinner”

And more advice from activist, author, and historian Blair Imani.

By Charlotte Cowles

Activist and author Blair Imani spent her adulthood talking about taboo topics—specifically, the stigma she faces as a bisexual, Muslim woman of color. She has tackled these subjects on MSNBC and Fox News, presented at colleges and universities, and given speeches for TEDx and GLAAD. More recently, she focused her energy on writing historical accounts of marginalized people. She published her first book, Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History, in 2018; her next one, Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and The Black American Dream, will be available January 14th. Here, she talks about transitioning to Islam, maintaining her mental health, and how to get into activism when you’re starting from scratch.

I was eight when I realized I was queer. At the time, I didn’t know the language for that, or even understand the nuance of it, so I figured I must be a lesbian. When I was 15, I sat my mom down in the living room and was like, “Mommy, I’m a lesbian.” From what I’d seen on TV, I thought it was supposed to be a very dramatic announcement. But she just took it in stride and was like, “Hmm, I think you’re bisexual.” And I was like, “Way to ruin my moment, mom. But hold on, what’s this bisexuality you speak of?” She showed me GLAAD’s website, which taught me about famous bisexuals throughout history, and I was like, “Oh. I relate to this. Cool.”

My bisexuality was a non-issue in our household, and I know that’s a rare experience. I grew up in L.A., and my parents are both very progressive. My brother is also gay, and when we were teenagers, my mom took us to our family medical practitioner so that we could get inclusive sex ed. My parents didn’t know how to teach us certain things about safe sex, so they made sure that there was a professional who did. At the time, I was cringing, but today, I am so grateful, because it made me a healthier, happier, clearer young person.

Coming out to my mom was one thing. Deciding to convert to Islam was different, and my mom wasn’t quite so accepting at first. I also had a very fast transformation, over a period of about six months, after I graduated from college. I moved to the opposite coast, started a new job, and started wearing hijab and dressing very modestly. For me, it felt like a very authentic expression of myself. But my mom was like, “What’s wrong? Is this a cult? Who is my daughter? Where has she gone? Is she okay?” I now understand that she was concerned because it was a big life change, and she wasn’t part of it. But at the time, there was a lot of conflict.

I converted to Islam after I became frustrated with many aspects of Christianity and was looking for new ways to get to God. It began during college when I was organizing to spread awareness of police violence. I went to Louisiana State University, and I worked with a group of students to organize vigils for people who were killed by police. Tragically, during that time, there were three Muslim civilians killed by police in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We held a vigil for them, and after that, Islamic centers in Baton Rouge became incredibly supportive of our organizing efforts. They gave us a space to hold meetings, so I started regularly going to the mosque. And while I was there, I saw the sense of community that I’d been missing from church. It also seemed much more racially diverse. There were people from Malaysia, from China, from East Africa and West Africa, and from all over the United States going to the mosque. It was really beautiful to me, and I wanted to be a part of it.

After college, my plan was to go straight to law school. I thought that if I was a lawyer, then I could be a more effective advocate. But then, after just seven weeks of law school, it just didn’t feel right. At that time, I went to see Angela Davis, a huge hero of mine, when she was speaking in D.C. I literally crawled on my hands and knees to the front of the crowd so I could ask her a question. And I raised my hand and said, “Angela Davis, I used to think that I had to go to law school to make change, but now I’m thinking about dropping out. Is it still possible to be an effective advocate?” And she said, “Honey, if you don’t feel like it’s right for you, get out while you can. You don’t need the system to make change.” And I was like, “Great. Angela Davis told me I can drop out of law school! I don’t need the system to make change.” So I left law school and went to work for a lobbying firm in D.C.

When I was first learning to dress professionally, I went on Pinterest and scrolled through images of professional women. Those images, especially back in 2015, tended to be white women with straight hair. So I tried my best to look like that, even though it wasn’t authentic to me. At my first lobbying job, I didn’t feel safe wearing a hijab because I had been harassed while wearing it before. I also didn’t know how it would be perceived at the company. Then one day, my boss, who was a really great guy, gave me a pep talk about being honest about who I was. He was making sure I felt comfortable as the only woman, the only black person, and the only Muslim in various meetings. And his saying that gave me the strength to wear a hijab the next day to work. When I got to the office, he just said, “Oh, I like your scarf.” It wasn’t a big deal, and I didn’t burst into flames. And after that, I felt so much more comfortable. 

Now, when I’m planning my outfits, I like to do a color scheme with my hijab. If I have a pop of red in my dress or in my suit, then I’ll wear a red hijab. I think it ties the outfit together really nicely. It’s just like when you see somebody who’s wearing a mint green top and then they have mint green shoelaces—it’s like, “Ooh, they care about themselves.” I also sometimes match my lip color to my hijab, which requires mixing a couple of lipsticks together to get the perfect shade. I think makeup is a great element of self-expression, regardless of whether you’re going into an office every day or you’re just putting on a red lip before you walk out the door. It looks like you took an extra effort, and that makes an impression.

As part of a marginalized group, I’ve found we’re expected to do a lot of extracurricular education just to survive in the workplace. For example, if you’re a pregnant woman, you still have to do your quarterly report, but everybody keeps asking you about your pregnancy, so you have to take care of that first before you can get your work done. But the tough thing is that your performance is being measured by whether or not you get your quarterly report done on time, not whether or not you’ve educated your colleagues about your pregnancy. I didn’t realize the toll that can take until I went to work at Planned Parenthood. A big part of my job there was training volunteers on how to talk about abortion in a way that isn’t stigmatizing. In doing those trainings, I would often talk about being a Muslim and the stigma I experienced around that. It was such a revelation that instead of leaving those personal experiences at home, I could draw on them to connect with people. I could also tell people, as a covering and practicing Muslim, that abortion isn’t as taboo as some might think it is in the Muslim community. Being open about my own frame of reference as a starting point has really strengthened my ability to communicate with people.

A few years ago, I started doing news appearances to talk about stigmatized subject matter. And that led to me going on Tucker Carlson’s show and saying on-air that I was queer. I had not come out publicly to everyone in my life at that point, and it was not something I planned on doing at that moment. I wasn’t just taking a calculated risk, because I was correcting him when he mistakenly said that I couldn’t speak on behalf of the black community or the LGBTQ community. And I responded, on live TV, “Actually, I am black, and I am queer.” People think that I’m really brave for saying that, but a lot of it was just naivete. I felt adequately prepared to speak on his show, but I was not anticipating the legions of trolls and amount of harassment I would get after that. People sent me pictures of me on my commute and said threatening things. Ultimately, it was detrimental to my mental health. I’ve healed from that since, but it was hard. The silver lining was that it meant that people who were homophobic basically disappeared from my life—they just self-selected out. It was a very efficient way to come out, for sure, despite all the bullshit that went with it.

I began working full-time as a historian around the beginning of this year, when activism started taking its toll on me. I also realized that I could be an activist in ways that were different from taking arrests and going to prison and organizing. That work is still very important. But instead of focusing on that right now, I’m equipping people with historical knowledge so that we can better understand how we ended up here. My last book covers the period from the end of slavery to the creation of hip-hop. It talks about many of the historical events that have fallen through the cracks, like housing discrimination and police violence and movement work. Unfortunately, I’ll be in this business for a long time, because there are so many untold stories.

These days, I usually alternate very intense work weeks with chill workweeks. Last week was super intense; I was in Washington, D.C. and then in Boston, doing back-to-back speaking engagements and having meetings and connecting with people. I was also researching for my next book, so while I was in D.C., I fit in a visit to the archives at the National Museum of African-American History. I try to maximize my time when I travel and strategize for longer-term projects. On my more chill weeks, I just do boring stuff like administrative work and invoicing.

If you want to pursue activism, your first order of business is to pick a lane. If you have spent your whole career doing marketing for corporate entities, don’t drop everything and become a grassroots activist. Yes, there are some scenarios where that might work out. But it’s more effective to look at your skill set and where you’ve created a sphere of influence around you and focus on how you can bend that arc towards justice. Maybe look at how you can use that marketing experience to get those corporations to do more social justice work. 

Think of activism like a potluck dinner. If you have no dairy in your house, don’t volunteer to bring mac and cheese. Don’t try to bring something to the table that you don’t already have. Also, be humble. If there’s somebody at the potluck who’s been making mac and cheese for the past 10 years, don’t step up and try to take their spot. Listen to people who are already doing the work, and then figure out ways to support them. For me, the worst thing is when people are like, “Wow! The police are really corrupt! Let’s do something about it!” And they’re completely ignorant to the fact that Black Lives Matter has been out here doing this important work for years.

Once you figure out your sphere of influence and how to be humble, the most important thing is to pace yourself. There’s a sense of urgency, but you also have to think about how you can be useful in the long term. If you buy a plane ticket and spend a few nights in a hotel to go to a protest, consider whether that money would be better spent donated to the folks already on the ground. 

Also, know your strengths and be strategic. For example, a friend of mine is extremely focused on data analytics and how it can be used to end police violence. That’s crucial work. But I suck at data analytics, so what can I do instead? I can raise awareness. I can activate people online and in person. I can talk about the history of police violence and how it isn’t a new phenomenon, and how coalition building needs to happen. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. Figuring out your strengths will save you a lot of time and also make you more effective. It took me a while to learn that, and I’m still in the process. Plus, my strengths are always evolving.

Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and the Black American Dream,” is available January 14. 

Want to nominate a Woman of the Week? Email us at womanoftheweek@mmlafleur.com.

Photos by Heather Moore.

Charlotte Cowles

Written By

Charlotte Cowles

Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club.

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