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.

Movie Review: Booksmart

If you have not seen Booksmart yet, I recommend it. It is an incredibly fun and brilliant movie, and two of the ladies behind it are Olivia Wilde (the director) and Sarah Haskins. I haven’t seen Olivia Wilde’s other films, but I was just happy that she was directing this movie, and I know Sarah Haskins because she did these really funny parodies of products directed at women called Target Women, in which she gives fun and informative commentaries about things like yogurt commercials marketed towards middle aged women and the portrayal of women in movies with Disney princesses. I hadn’t seen any new videos from Sarah in a long time since I watched Target Women ages ago, but I was so glad to see her in action with this movie!

So basically, Booksmart is about these two high schools seniors named Molly and Amy. Both of them are friends and are really smart, and they are about to graduate with the rest of their class (Molly is valedictorian). However, Molly’s world comes crashing down when, contrary to what Maya Rudolph’s motivational voice tells her at the beginning about how she is better than everyone at school because she studied instead of partied like them, even the students who spent their school year studying are, like her, going to top universities. She and Amy realize that unless they spend the night before graduation living a little, they won’t get to end their senior year with a bang. So they go to the party of Nick, who is Molly’s crush. At first Amy doesn’t want to go because she thinks it is pointless, but Molly tells her not just that they need to end their senior year with a bang (especially since Amy is leaving for Africa that summer) but also because Amy’s crush, Ryan, is going to be there, and it would be Amy’s only chance to sleep with a girl before she leaves for Africa. So they go to the party and it turns out to be a night they will never forget (pardon the cliche).

Although I couldn’t 100 percent relate to Amy and Molly, since I didn’t drink in high school or have any relationships, I felt for them so much when it came to their social consciousness and their nerdiness (and their love of the library). Like Amy and Molly, I was a feminist and studied a lot, but Molly also worried about her class rank and where other people were going to college. I didn’t even bother getting in line with all the other students during that lunch period to check my class rank, and when a fellow student came up to me and asked what my class rank was, all I told him was “I don’t know” because I didn’t care enough to check it. Even in my high school orchestra class, where most of the kids were gunning for the top 10 percent of their class, my teacher gave a 10 minute speech on why looking at your class rank was pointless. His idea, which I completely agreed with and still agree with, is that no one cares about your class rank when you leave school (of course, this might depend on which people you happen to be around, because there are grown adults who care about class rank and GPA. And of course, if you go to grad school, you definitely need your GPA from undergrad. But again, depends on what the situation is) and, moreover, your class rank says nothing about who you are as a person. And frankly, he’s right. Not once in college did anyone ask me about my class rank. No one at work has asked me about my class rank. Not my friends. Not my family. Most, if not all, people couldn’t give a rat’s butt what your class rank is.

To add to his point, I was more interested in learning for the sake of learning, not so I could beat everyone else in my school year. Which is why after all these standardized exams I got burned out and tired. There’s this film called Race to Nowhere, and I saw it during my last year of high school because I was fed up with everyone’s focus on class rank and GPA and standardized exams. It is a documentary about how messed up the U.S. education system was (and still kind of is, as is evident by this video) and at the beginning of the film a song by The Weepies called “Nobody Knows Me At All” plays as we see kids going to their classes and the visible stress they feel about their work and extracurricular activities. The students interviewed say that they have to cram in all this information before they take their exams but after it’s done they can’t remember any of it. This is because the teachers, having to follow a set curriculum and deadlines, don’t have time to teach their students more than just what’s in the textbook. In my environmental science class, I was so frustrated because I wanted to delve more into the ethics part of environmental science, ask the hard questions that one couldn’t find by just looking at the text book. Working on a project about invasive species brought me peace as I listened to Seal’s “Dreaming in Metaphors”. But of course, the teacher, being already stressed enough as it was, told me each time, “It’s in your textbook.” “It’s in your textbook.” “It’s in your textbook.” I almost gave up on asking so many questions because I didn’t want to bother the teacher, but I couldn’t, because I have loved environmental activism since middle school, so it made no sense for me to back down just because it seemed as if the other students didn’t care about the material.

Although I definitely see the point of a movie like Booksmart, because the film’s message was that while it’s important to take your work seriously, it’s important to not take yourself too seriously. In other words, it’s ok to let loose a little, although in my opinion, everyone has their own definition of letting loose. And the film isn’t the stereotypical high school party movie because the film gives the studious characters more dimension and personality. Molly and Amy aren’t side characters who go to the party and get laid; they are the central protagonists of the film who prove that they can have some fun even though they study a lot. I remember carrying the same study habits I had in high school to college (aka study hard and don’t party. The only party I went to was my senior year prom, but there wasn’t any alcohol there and I went with a few friends who were also studious like me to college) and I got burned out. So burned out that one of the seniors had to remind me at least a million times (more like the entire school year, to be more accurate) to make time for myself to have fun. After her senior banquet (which I didn’t go to because, well, #studies) she dropped a gift by my door (they called them “wills” since it was their last year of college). It was a planner/calendar for me to balance my commitments and schedule some time for self-care, because, in her words, “it’s not just about the classes”. That whole year I poo-poohed her advice, and this carried on into senior year (although I did go to a few parties that year). It wasn’t until after college that I learned to take care of myself, and my definition of self care has evolved to include doing my laundry, taking a shower, eating right, and blogging about movies like Booksmart without caring about my bad grammar skills or trying to sound like Roger Ebert or Peter Travers (when I clearly do not have the years of experience they had).

Other awesome things about this film? The frequent references to influential women figures. At the beginning of the film, we see, as Molly meditates to the motivational voice of Maya Rudolph, posters with slogans such as “We Should All Be Feminists” (I’m sure it’s a reference to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s book), photos of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama, and a pro-choice poster with the words, “My Body, My Choice”. Molly and Amy use a code word before they go to the party because Amy is thinking of backing out of the party, and Molly just says, “Malala” to remind her that they are friends and stick together at all times (they are referring to Malala Yousafzai, a young woman in Pakistan who is an activist for women’s education). Like Molly and Amy, I was a hard core feminist and I told people in school I was going to a women’s college because I was a feminist (there were of course other reasons for going to the school but that’s for another time). However, I lacked the knowledge that Molly and Amy did about feminism, because the feminists I idolized happened to be white women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, as Adam Grant explains in great detail in his book Originals, didn’t care about all women, and by that I mean black women. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had the opportunity to expand my knowledge of women’s rights and the history of the feminist movement to include women of color. Amy and Molly were advocating for Malala before I even heard about this young woman getting shot in 2012 (I was in college by then). They had more posters about feminism and reproductive rights than I ever did (in high school, me, a single poster? Nope.)

The movie also sends a positive message about how it’s okay to be yourself. Even though Jared, one of Molly’s classmates, seems to have slept with his supposed girlfriend, Gigi, and even though he rolls up in a fancy car and, on the night of Nick’s party, has a yacht where there are giftbags with his name on it and fancy hors d’ouevres (sad truth: no one attends his party other than Gigi, Molly and Amy). However, he later tells Molly, when they’re at Nick’s party together, that he is a nerd like her and contrary to popular belief, hasn’t slept with Gigi or anyone. He also tells her that he likes airplanes and theatre and wants to do that after college. Earlier in the film, there is a group of popular kids who talk poorly about Molly while she is in the bathroom stall, and Molly tells them that she worked harder than them and is going to go to a good college because she worked hard. But each of them tells her that they are going to pursue higher education like her, and one of them says that he’s going to work at Google over the summer. The film showed me that while hard work is fine, it’s also okay to spend time with people and not just bury your face in your textbooks (although I am incredibly appreciative of my K-12 education and college education and that I had time in college to study and learn about philosophy and social activism). There are also two students who are passionate about theater, but the film, unlike a lot of films, doesn’t portray them as the outcasts. They are embraced, too, in the film, and really everyone in this high school (the movie takes place in Los Angeles and was filmed in Los Angeles) is a nerd in some way.

The film reminded me of the film Dope. Although of course, there were differences in the storylines (Dope was about three nerdy black and Latino students who sell cocaine on the black market after someone they meet at a party puts it in one of the kids’ backpacks. Booksmart is about two young white women who spend their last night before graduation partying instead of hitting the books so they can make a good impression on their peers), the films have one main similarity, and that is that both of them transcend the traditional white male nerd archetype. Historically in Hollywood, nerds were often straight, cis-gendered white men who were standoffish and incredibly misogynistic. It’s why The Big Bang Theory rubbed me the wrong way during the first few episodes (no shade, but I couldn’t finish it). All except one of the main characters was a straight white man, and the one person of color in their friend group didn’t speak much during these few episodes I watched. I don’t know, maybe I am completely wrong and that I should have finished the show. But after reading and watching so many films and TV shows with LGBTQ+, POC and female protagonists who tell their own stories without following society’s standards on what viewpoint they should have, I didn’t want to watch The Big Bang Theory anymore.

Other characters make the story unique: the principal, Jordan Brown, played by SNL’s Jason Sudeikis (I just found out that he’s the film director’s spouse), turns out to be a Lyft driver because he has to supplement his income (the movie makes this a brief but brilliant commentary about teachers’ salaries in U.S. schools) and is writing a novel about a pregnant female detective whose fetus kicks every time she finds a clue (I have no idea why these writers are so creative. In no movie have I heard a school principal writing a novel with such a random storyline). The teacher Miss Fine (played by Jessica James), an African-American woman who doesn’t play a major role in the film but relates to Amy and Molly very well because she used to study a lot in school and not party and she tried to make it up by being wild in her 20s (she mentions she is not allowed in Jamba Juice anymore because of her behavior). The tall girl in Amy’s class who makes snarky comments and hangs out in the bathroom alone and smokes during Nick’s party (she plays a key role later in the film). And Mike O’Brien, also from Saturday Night Live, who plays a pizza delivery driver. Overall, the film was amazing, and absolutely hilarious! The first time I saw Beanie Feldstein was in her film with Saiorse Ronan, Lady Bird, another, albeit more serious, coming-of-age story. The two actors play friends, but Lady Bird’s story is at the center, while her friend Julie is there to provide support for Lady Bird. The main characters of Lady Bird are Lady Bird and her mother (played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf). In Booksmart, however, the friendship between Molly and Amy is at the core of the film. Julie is a good polite student like Molly, but any other development of her character stops there. In Booksmart, Molly curses, talks about masturbation, and drinks Heineken (the only out-there thing Julie does is eat the communion wafers and chat with Lady Bird after school. The nun calls them out on it soon after).

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind watching Booksmart again. And like I said, if you haven’t seen it, it is a great film. It got more than 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and I believe it deserved that rating. I felt like I wanted these characters in the film to be real. I wanted Amy and Molly to be my friends so we could talk about feminism together. I also felt for Amy because she is a lesbian, and as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I felt for her. Also, Amy isn’t an outcast because she is gay; there are a lot of films that make the characters outcasts because they are gay. But Amy is an outcast because she studies a lot and doesn’t engage in the silly games her classmates do. This is the thing that makes her stand out, not her sexual orientation. The film embraces Amy’s sexual orientation and that’s what keeps Amy and Molly’s friendship so tight.

Anyway, I have to go to sleep, but watch this movie when you have time. I wish I had seen it in theaters when it came out, but I’m glad I got to watch it period. Also, like the soundtrack for the film Dope, the soundtrack for this movie has me grooving, especially at Lizzo’s “Boys” and Leikeli47’s “Money”.

Booksmart. 2019. Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking – all involving teens.

Kinshasa Symphony: “O Fortuna”

Yesterday and today I did some research on orchestras in parts of the world outside of Europe and the Americas. I thought after the concert, Why am I not paying attention more to orchestras in Africa? After all, a lot of Western composers derived their melodies from Africa’s musical traditions, so it would seem fair to say that if we want to change the way people see classical music, we can’t just focus on Europe and the United States. So I looked up the history of classical music in countries such as Ghana, Uganda, and South Africa, and I learned that classical music in Africa is more prevalent than people would normally think. If you watch some of these orchestras, they’ve got so many members, and they also have music schools such as the Kampala Music School to promote early classical education. Of course, even though the tradition of classical music in Africa has roots in European colonialism, musicians in African countries have used music as a means of addressing social issues and getting through their daily lives. I wanted to know more because I haven’t read much about classical musicians going to Africa to perform. I first became interested when I found violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s coloring book of Black classical composers yesterday before the orchestra concert. I wanted to do more research and so this question popped in my mind: if we are trying to do outreach programs for Black and Latino students in the U.S., how have musicians in the rest of the African diaspora fared?

This isn’t the only clip I watched, but it gives a glimpse of the potential research I hope to continue as time goes on.