What Jameela Jamil Can Teach Us About Being an Activist

In this interview on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah talks with Jameela Jamil, actress on The Good Place, about her social activism. One thing that really stuck with me about the interview was Jameela’s ability to take criticism when it came to having discussions around injustice. When people have told her she didn’t include a certain marginalized group in her activism or corrected her on things she has said as an activist, she accepts it and then strives to do better. Trevor asks her if it gets tiring to have this happen, and Jameela says that no, it’s not tiring because activism is about progress, not being perfect. And I think it’s important to remind ourselves of this when we do activism. I’m an activist, too, but not a perfect activist. I have said some pretty ignorant things in the past about race, class and gender, and many times when people would call me out on it, I would shut myself away and feel guilty about it. One time I said something racist, and I had made this racist joke in the past, and my friend corrected me on it later in life, and then I made the joke a second time even though they told me it was wrong. Finally they unpacked for me why my joke was racist, and afterwards I took it personally and dwelled on it, like “Wow, I am so racist, so ignorant, no one is going to talk to me now.” But after a while, I had to realize that what’s in the past is in the past, and the only solution was to watch what I say next time and educate myself better. I appreciate the classes I took on philosophy and Africana Studies so I could educate myself and also learn from other people’s perspectives. Even though at the time I didn’t like being corrected or called out for saying something incorrect, looking back, I appreciate the opportunities I had to have these discussions.

And it reminded me of a conversation I was having with a white acquaintance of mine, and she was recounting all of these stories about anti-black racism, and we were in the lunch line and she recounted this awful experience her black friend had to go through. She recounted the story word for word, even verbalizing the slur that the guy called her friend. Of course, I got rather tense when she said the slur (the n-word) because it has such a loaded history and even when people aren’t directly calling you that and are just quoting something someone said, it still freaks me out a little when I hear that word, which is why I don’t say it. But then the friend went on about how she feels so bad, so guilty, so terrible for being white, and sucking in my cheeks and trying to remain calm, I asked her, “How will you constructively process this white guilt you feel?” And from there, our conversation got better and I guess I lifted the burden off her shoulders. Now, of course, this friend would continue to ask me to educate her on my experiences with encountering racism, and I could have told her to talk about something else (like, “Let’s lift this white guilt burden off your shoulders and talk about, let’s say, the new show on HBO that’s coming out). But her white guilt taught me that as an ally, even from a marginalized group myself, I need to own my class privilege. What am I going to do when I talk to my friends from low-income backgrounds, just ruminate about how guilty I feel for being middle class? How is that even productive? Whenever I said something classist, I felt guilty at first and would often not talk to my friends for fear I would say something ignorant again, but as time went on, I realized that I’m not perfect and no one else is either. Like Jameela said, you need to own your mistake and move on. Cancelling someone doesn’t give people the chance to have dialogue. Then again, if someone repeatedly does stuff that is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, or transphobic (I’m leaving out a lot of other -ics and -ists, so please forgive me) you have to wonder if their apologies are actually genuine or they are just not wanting to have an honest conversation about their ignorance.

This is one of the few times I have heard someone talk about how no one is perfect in activism and we are all improving. Cancel culture is very real, but after I watched the interview I reflected on how it has affected opportunities to have dialogue with one another. I have learned to be more careful about what I say, but also to not take comments personally if I say the wrong thing or mess up. I am still working on how I react when I mess up in these social activism conversations, but I’m glad I am working on it because it’s part of the process and instead of feeling guilty about what I said, I should appreciate the opportunity I have to learn from the other person, to do better. I should also appreciate opportunities I have to speak up when someone says something offensive because many people of color in history have had to fight hard so people like me could have the platforms for speaking out against injustice.

Anyway, I recommend you watch this interview.

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