by Asam Ahmad
I have been thinking a lot about social visibility lately.
A couple months ago, I lost my electricity. Though there are many reasons why that ended up happening, I was, basically, too poor to pay my bill. I posted a status about not having electricity in the middle of a cold Toronto winter, and, within an hour, several people messaged me to ask how much my bill was so they could help pay it off. Others, whom I didn’t even know very well, invited me over until my lights came back on, and a few folk offered to help me fundraise. People left an abundance of comments on that status. This was all incredibly new to me, and I was stunned and overwhelmed with the outpour of support and genuine care for my well-being.
While I cant even begin to articulate how much I cherish these lovely, amazing people’s presence in my life, I also can’t help but think about the fact that I never had access to this kind of community in previous years. I came out when I was 16 and was forced to move out pretty soon afterwards. The majority of my twenties consisted mainly of making sense of a life without my bio-fam. Though I had aspirations for myself and wanted to do a bunch of amazing things, I was unable to do anything except continuously, incessantly find and create strategies for my survival.
Almost two years ago, I co-founded the It Gets Fatter Project: a body-positivity project for fat people of color. Through working on this project and being able to publish some of my writing, I have made connections all across North America and have found so much community in Toronto. Even though I am still ridiculously poor, I don’t have the same kind of heightened anxiety around being poor and socially isolated that I did a few years ago. This is mainly because I know so many people actually see me now where, before, they did not or could not see me.
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So often, those of us who have social visibility—especially in QTPOC and queer communities and spaces—cannot see how much it impacts our lives, how much it makes our lives safer, how much we take for granted the effects and benefits of being socially visible in the ways that we choose to be. We forget, far too easily, how much easier it is to move through the world when we have social visibility than when we didn’t. We even forget simple things, like how much safer it is to post a vulnerable status when we know that our vulnerability will be seen and most likely validated by countless likes and comments from our friends (and even from strangers who don’t really know us).
This is why the experiences like the one I articulated above make me feel genuinely grateful, but also give me an incredible amount of pause. How do we learn to see people around us when they are not producing things—art, community, writing, etc. –that makes us want to see them? How can we see “untapped,” hidden, or invisible brilliance around us? And why does social visibility only become possible when we are producing things? Why is it so hard for us to see the magic and beauty of those around us who are not producing things, who choose not to produce things, who may never produce consumable things for us?
I think these are really hard questions that we all need to seriously ask ourselves. There are no easy answers for them, as, in some cases, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to reach out to people who are not only incredibly marginalized by power structures but also rendered invisible by their lack of social visibility. But the more I think about having social visibility, the more I realize that so often folks who are not producing things aren’t actually invisible—we just choose, or are conditioned, to not see them. It’s not as if I didn’t exist, or even that people didn’t know of my existence, prior to the It Gets Fatter Project; most people were simply not interested in knowing who I was before I started creating community spaces and producing tangible work that challenged the status quo.
I am not saying that those who have social visibility are not worthy of our support. I don’t ever want to feel like I am alone in my poverty again, and I’m sure no one wants to actually feel completely unnoticed. Without repeating capitalism’s logic of scarcity, I think it is important to consider how social visibility can be hierarchal and come at the cost of making others invisible—not necessarily by the actions or the space taken up by folks with visibility, but because we are trained to not recognize or prioritize people who are not producing things. We so easily replicate capitalist and colonialist logics of what it means to be a “good”community member when we forget that we are all intrinsically valuable in our existence and that our value shouldn’t depend on assimilating to any one else’s standards of productivity or extroversion. We forget that simply tokenizing the one trans woman of color or disabled queer who is asked to speak on every other panel does not actually mean we are supporting and uplifting all marginalized people of those identities.
Caring about and supporting the most marginalized amongst us is a lot harder to do than simply checking off a list of all the oppressed identities with whom we need to be friends. Genuinely creating community is so much harder than that, which is why so many of us often feel that community doesn’t really exist. For a long portion of my life, I felt incredibly cynical when someone even brought up that word. In order to even begin making this word a reality for folks who often feel they have no community whatsoever, we need to learn to acknowledge and hold space for those around us who are, perhaps still, or always will be, finding ways to survive. This means engaging with—or trying to engage with—those we have been conditioned to ignore. This means recognizing the value of friendships with folks who aren’t activist “celebrities”and who aren’t creating the things we think we need to consume in order to be more progressive and radical and politically aware than everyone else around us. It means always paying attention to who isn’t in the room—to who should be in the room but isn’t—and providing space to welcome them in if they want to be there. It means thinking about anti-oppression as more than just a tokenizing checklist of identities that need to be represented in every event we organize.
Unless we find ways to acknowledge and care for those around us for whom community isn’t just a need but a very basic and necessary means of survival, we will always be failing some while celebrating others.
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