Ayishat Akanbi – Cultural commentator, stylist and artist

Ayishat Akanbi is a cultural commentator, stylist and artist. Through her work and large online following she confronts complex issues around living in today's society. She uses her platforms to comment and call out injustice and inequality in intelligent, personal and moving ways.

Ayishat Akanbi. © Vicky Grout

What would you say is your main message?

Freedom, equality, critical thinking and acceptance.

You use your online platforms to raise awareness on a number of important issues such as racial and gender equality. Do you feel the Internet is a good platform for driving change or does it detract, as some people argue, from real action and policy change?

The Internet is crucial in raising awareness. Many who would have been otherwise uninterested in politics and social issues, unintentionally learn about the world around them. Through tweets, memes, videos, vines and Facebook posts, the language barrier between politics and young people has been broken.

You talk a lot about miseducation. Where do you think we need to start when it comes to re-educating ourselves around matters of race?

We need to have extremely honest and uncomfortable conversations with ourselves about the silent prejudices we hold. We need to observe the small yet mighty assumptions we make about one another. Did you expect a particular accent when you spoke to your Indian Uber driver? Do you find yourself covertly impressed by a black boy with an elaborate vocabulary? Have you ever felt compelled to tell your ethnic friends that they aren't like the others?

As well intended as the phrase, we're all one race is, saying it in response to racism undermines the experience of those who are not all treated as one race politically. We cannot afford to hide behind ideals. Defensiveness is a lazy response when it comes to addressing racism. It arises from the earnest desire to uphold the 'good person' self image. To be even thought of as a racist in a post-politically correct society bears a similar weight to being thought of as a terrorist. It’s key to understand that media, law, the re-telling of (his)tory, popular culture, Hollywood films, the construction of international borders, our families, and the resulting ignorance play a major role in fostering prejudice in all of us.

We have to learn to listen to people’s experiences, rather than telling them about your own in defence. It does not matter if your parents didn't bring you up to be racist, many others have, and many pick it up as a symptom of an unbalanced society. So notice your urge to jump in and share an example of how your fair upbringing was. Learn to question the singular narrative you have about a race of people. Ask yourself where those ideas were planted. It is better to be informed than opinionated, but it is much better to be well researched from a variety of resources instead of informed by mainstream media. I think we must start from the belief that everyone harbours racism within them and working it off is an entire practice of unlearning and challenging your own norms. It is only when we understand that we have all been gravely miseducated by a failing system that we will talk about racism comfortably and honestly.

What do you think about the rise in global protests around racial issues?

It has been a long time coming, there is only so long you can keep something in a pressure cooker before it explodes. The Internet has only brought to light what was being kept in the dark. The rise signals that people are shocked, traumatised, frustrated, confused, angry and heartbroken. Different branches of the same root issue affect black and brown people globally.

Are you inspired by radical people from the past?

I like the writings of Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolfe. I find them to be radical in their own rights. I'm fascinated by the writings of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Camus. I'm inspired by philosophy for it's radical thinking nature.

Do you have any tools of change?

Literature, books, research, documentaries, meditation, writing, nature, listening, asking questions, talking to people outside of my culturally relevant bubble, art, film, watching stand-up comedy, poetry, music, the Internet, solitude. These are my lifelines.

Ayishat Akanbi. © Vicky Grout

Do you think more people in positions of influence should voice political and socially-minded opinions?

Voicing opinions is not always helpful, whether in positions of influence or not. Many people in positions of influence have opinions we may describe as socially non-progressive. It's good to have opinions but it's better to voice them publicly when you have experienced, researched or studied an issue. Without a solid grounding of knowledge in place, people of influence can often expect negative backlashes, and sometimes the collapsing of careers. If we all voiced our true opinions many of us would be job-less too.

I don't believe people in positions of influence should be pressured to speak on issues without being genuinely passionate, and having a thorough understanding. However, there are a number of silent ways to be more socially and politically-minded; it's all about what you choose to represent, what you choose to define as beautiful, what messages you communicate to the world visually and through your art. If you can’t be the change you wish to see then at least let your art be.

You’ve said in the past, “I'm not an activist, I comment on culture and sometimes those comments leave the house and some of these comments turn into ideas". What ideas would you like to see come to fruition?

More freedom of thought. An increase in black-owned businesses. Freedom of expression. The freedom to not conform to gender norms. To redefine books and learning as popular culture. More writers amongst my community. The unlearning of dangerous notions of our history – I think that one goes for all of us.

Ayishat Akanbi. © Vicky Grout

You challenge people and you’re not afraid to make people feel uncomfortable with your honesty about a lot of social and political issues to get to a more open place. Is this not a form of activism?

Unfortunately 'activism' is a loaded term now, often misunderstood and has taken new negative connotations. I'm not sure if I challenge other people, it feels like I challenge myself. I share those challenges with other people on the Internet and in spaces where I publicly speak. I still believe I'm just struggling to be as honest as I can be. Perhaps honesty is activism by your definition. When I'm honest with myself, I'm sort of just guided to do what I believe I need to do.

How would you like to see things progressing in the future in terms of racial equality?

I'd like to live to see a system that is not committed to the oppression of black and brown people – this is an issue of western intervention, colonialism, greed and denial.

I'd love to see my community with a new surge of pride in their African identities from what has been traditionally and mentally forced out of us.

More importantly I'd like us to all understand that we have been duped into believing that skin tone is something to fear and subsequently judge each other on. When we find those that love war we must teach them how to love. This life could be so simple.

Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.

Martin Luther King

Find out more about Ayishat Akanbi
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