Artist and activist Syrus Marcus Ware talks about black, transgender and disabled identity, and gives his best advice for effective activism.
Identity is the beginning of all of my work
It’s how I understand my position in the world, and how I can be involved in social change. It shapes my work as an artist and an activist.
My identities as a black person, a trans person and a disabled person are all intimately connected, and the impact they have on my life is probably inseparable. In my experience, each of those identities informs another.
If I talk about my experience of being black, I have to talk about my experience of being disabled, because it informs my experience of blackness. If I talk about being transgender, I have to talk about my experience of blackness.
Sometimes my disability becomes invisible when people can only see race
Sometimes it becomes very visible because of people’s perceptions of black people.
For example, when I was studying to do my master’s degree in disability studies, there were texts that began with phrases like ‘we as disabled people must achieve the civil rights and liberties that black people have achieved’.
Phrases like that assume that being disabled is separate from being black; that you can't be both disabled and black. Phrases like that also assume that black people have gained full civil liberties, when in reality there is a long way to go.
Black children are often labelled with disabilities
This can happen whether or not they actually have disabilities, because of the perception of what it is to be black in this land today.
LGBT children encounter a similar challenge. When I was a child, and was first acquainted with the psychiatric system, I had a doctor who was homophobic. He would often question why I wasn’t more distressed about being gay. I loved being gay as a child and as an adult, and his perception was that if that wasn’t causing me distress, it should be.
I love being a part of Black Lives Matter Toronto
We formed in 2015, originally as a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in the United States. Then, we turned our attention to injustices in Canada. We campaigned after the death of Andrew Loku, a black man who was shot by the police in Toronto.
When we formed Black Lives Matter Toronto, we didn’t know each other. We came together because we knew that there was a problem, and wanted to work on it together. We’ve developed deep friendships. That’s one of the things that can happen when you work with people on something that you care about.
A lot of our activism is art-based
When we protested at Toronto Pride this year, we had costumes and coloured smoke bombs. We had about 30 minutes to capture the attention of an audience of two million people, so we used performance to do that.
Sometimes you know that you’ve done a good job when you get mixed responses
After our protest at Pride, we received support from queer and trans people, and we also received hate mail from white supremacists. We wanted people to talk about race, identity and queerness in the same conversation, and we achieved that, both with people who supported us and people who did not.
We were asking for several things – for Pride to be more accessible for disabled people, an increase in funding for black queer youth programmes, and for uniformed police to not be a part of the parade.
It was important to us that we celebrate our pride in a safe environment. For a lot of black people, trans people, queer people, sex workers – the police are not a welcoming force. The practice in Toronto of carding (the Community Contacts policy), for example, gives police the right to stop and document people who are not committing a crime.
The first challenge of effective activism is to figure out what you can change
What is the work that needs to be done? What are the issues in your community, and are there other people who are also interested in changing things?
Your community can be the place where you live, it can be based on your identity, or it can be a virtual group of people who care about the same things.
As an activist, I’ve been organising for 25 years
I’ve found that the most effective actions are the ones where you think about how you’re going to connect with other people. You need a plan to achieve that personal connection, because that is what makes people want to get involved.
Get involved in things where you can be all of you
If you’re a person with a complex identity, refuse the world’s tendency to split you up. It will be a lot less painful.
Find joy inside and outside of your activism
Activism can be hard work, but it can also be life-bringing work. But have a balance with the rest of your life, so that your activism isn’t the only thing that brings you joy.
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Syrus will participate in the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival. Join the Unlimited Symposium live stream on 5 September 2018.
Read the Unlimited 2018 series.