August 12, 2020

Katrice Dustin + Chyn Ilora

in conversation about BLM

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson – say their names. This spring we have witnessed the momentum of a movement. More people than ever have been listening. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets all over the world, joining the fight against racism and injustice. We fight against the brutality of the police, we fight against oppression, we fight against the structures upheld by the privileged to maintain the status quo – we fight for change.

But, “What happens when the topic of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not trending anymore?” Chyn Ilora asks Katrice Dustin. In a dialogue over email, the two women share their thoughts, experiences, and reflect on the recent events connected to Black Lives Matter. Chyn Ilora is an Art Historian and model from Stockholm. Her recent work includes contributing to the catalogue of the exhibition BLACK VOICES/BLACK MICROCOSM up at CFHILL in Stockholm earlier this year. Katrice Dustin is a writer based in Berlin from Canada. Her work has been featured in magazines such as I-D, King Kong and The Travel Almanac. 

It’s just five months since the murder of Breonna Taylor. Her name is no longer “trending” on social media but there is still no justice. However, to the question of what we do when the Black Lives Matter is not trending anymore Katrice answers: “I don’t think our interest in our civil rights and fighting white supremacy can ever fade out.”

Chyn

I’ve seen how the Black Lives Matter Movement has taken form here in Stockholm, Sweden, and I must say it’s been powerful to watch. Several thousand people showed up for the demonstration on the 3rd of June in central Stockholm and the follow up on social media has been overwhelming. But of course, like many others, I wonder what will happen when the topic of ‘Black Lives Matter’ isn’t trending any longer. How do we take it from there? How long should we conspicuously address the issues and how do we integrate the movement’s goals in our everyday practices? How does one change something that’s so deeply interwoven with the western society?

Kat

The global reaction has been super inspiring. It’s something I never thought I would see in my lifetime — this full recognition of the racism Black people face. I just thought it was something I would always have to live with, and see our brothers and sisters live with. Of course, the algorithm cycles will shift, and public interest will fade out. That I believe. But I also believe in the power of the Black voice—the collective consciousness. The contracts of silence have been torn apart. Personally I feel very empowered, I no longer hesitate to tell people if they are being racist, to stand up for myself against microaggressions, to let people know if their “allyship” isn’t productive. I think Black people are at the forefront of keeping this going, and while it’s not our responsibility, it’s just the reality. I don’t think our interest in our civil rights and fighting white supremacy can ever fade out. Our fight will be responsible for the domino effect this will have for the liberation of all POC… now that’s a beautiful thing (Andre 3000 voice).

Chyn

A topic that’s close to my heart is the exotification of mixed-raced and Black women and men. I feel that is a dangerous form of racism because it too often falls under the radar. It’s like a blind spot. So many people can’t comprehend that it is in fact racist to claim love for a specific race. What’s your experience of exotification? And how do you deal with it?

Kat

Girl… The exoticization and fetishization is real. I mean, there’s the hair thing all Black people growing up in majority non-Black societies go through. The touching is relentless of course, but I remember when I was little even those questions of “Why does your hair dry so fast?” or “I bet you look amazing with straight hair!” Especially as Black women, people constantly criticizing/obsessing over your hair with the image of the blond, straight-haired white girl as the ideal beauty goal… It fucks with us.  I think I speak for a lot of Black women when I relay these anecdotes. I ended up with so much internalized racism and had to do so much unlearning to understand my beauty and power. Now I feel fly as hell.

I definitely don’t think I deal with the fetishization stuff very well… I remember I walked out on a Tinder date once because he said his preference in women was Black. I mean, bro. It’s easier just to bounce and laugh with my Black friends about that kind of stuff later than it is to sit and explain to a random person why their behavior is damaging. 

On that same topic, I remember there was a point in my early 20’s where I was like, Do I give off some super hyper-sexual vibe? I always found myself with sexual partners who expected me to be some kind of freak-a-leek. I think because Black women, men too, are so over-sexualized in the media, people think that’s how it is. They don’t see the person, just an image they are projecting onto the person. It’s like, sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to fulfill all your problematic “Black girl fantasies.”

Chyn

Speaking on “race”, I’ve seen you use the terms “Black people”, “white people” quite frequently and it’s refreshing. In Sweden, it’s almost forbidden to talk about a person’s “race”, even though it’s not like we lack racist structures here. How would you address people who say; “there’s only one race and it’s the human race”?

Kat

I swear this whole “I don’t see color” thing, and saying “we are all one race” is a way for people to deny the existence of racism. The amount of melanin in our skin adapted to fit our respective climates, it was a part of our evolution. So yeah, we are “one human race” according to that doctrine, but we’ve been divided into sub-races by our respective skin color and features and that’s what we refer to when we speak of racism. This is the reality. And we should be as real with that reality as it is with us. When we deny someone’s race, we deny their experience, we deny their identity. Black people know we are Black people, and that is a large part of the basis of how we navigate the world— it represents both our community and our struggle. Some white people get really offended when they are called white people, and I just have to laugh. I will never cease to be amazed watching some white folks create problems out of nothing. I’ve witnessed some get truly pressed when called Karen, for example. And it’s like—so? You don’t have to stay a Karen. If only the worst thing a Black person was called was a random person’s name or a “Black person.” I think these folks need to get over it and stop creating imaginary issues and arguing over semantics and start helping to fix the problem. 

Kat

Where we grow up shapes our individual identity and relation to our ancestry. In Canada, for example, although it’s seen as such a multicultural country, I think I’ve felt much more racism there than I do living in Germany. What was the Black experience like for you growing up in Sweden? And how has that changed?

Chyn

I faced a lot of racism growing up in Sweden because society back then was permeated with ignorance. Of course, conscious racial hate manifested in acts of violence were obviously racist, while other forms of racism were invisible because “it was just the way things were”. For example, I was scouted as a model at fourteen the first time, and all though a lot of clients were interested, they would hesitate in booking me, motivating it by saying things like: “it’s a shame she’s mixed-race, it’s going to be difficult” or, “we already have a mixed-race model”, meaning that quota was already filled. They would speak via my agent who would inform me that in the end, it all came down to my race, it didn’t really matter if I was in great shape or filled any other credentials, I had the wrong racial inherency. I’ve had agents suggesting I should have a nose job to look more Caucasian and when booked for jobs with other (white) models, I would almost always have to wait until last to have my hair done, because the hairstylists back then didn’t have the skills to do my type of hair and they were reluctant in giving it a try. I was treated like a second-class citizen. At the time, I didn’t really question it because I didn’t know of any alternative ways. It’s only now, later on, that I realize how deep it hurt me, how devastating it was having to deal with the complex system that racism is, being treated as “the other” and really without anyone questioning it out loud. It wasn’t considered racism, just a natural hierarchical order in which you, as non-white, were expected to arrange yourself at the bottom. In the last few years that’s changed tremendously though. And all for the better. Social media has played a major role in that change, because it allows you to present yourself to the world on your own terms, creating a broader spectrum of beauty ideals. It’s also a platform on where unjust treatments can be outed and that transparency ultimately leads to information being spread and people finding new knowledge. You won’t get away with the same racist behavior nowadays. And importantly, people are finally learning what racism is and in how many ways it can manifest. 

Kat

I want to touch on colorism in the media. I think that with mixed race folks—black/white for example—the proximity to whiteness creates this thing of being safe-Black for people—”Black-lite.” Brands think that only casting someone who looks like Zoe Kravitz—who is obviously amazing—is championing diversity. What are some of your experiences with this?

Chyn

I don’t have any experience with colorism benefitting me. On the contrary, being mixed-race, for me personally, has been an obstacle like no other. Our Sudanese and Somali sisters have been featured on the runways more than us, we were considered too exotic. I can only speak on how it’s been here in Europe, maybe the situation in the US has been a lot different. In my personal life though, I’ve more than once come across people who wanted to befriend me (or more) because they were fascinated with “the other” but scared of Black people and they found me as mixed-race, a safer option. I didn’t confront it in the past because the moment you do, it makes the situation uncomfortable. But with time I’ve learnt that it’s better to speak upfront and let people know when they’re out of line and deal with whatever repercussions right away. If not, it may come back to haunt you later. 

Kat

Oppression manifests itself differently for mixed-race people, and I although I didn’t always have this view, with time I’ve begun to understand that when mixed-race people complain about the intersection between races and “not being Black enough”, it diminishes the acknowledgement of our light-skinned privilege. I personally believe that our privilege means it’s that much more important to speak on Black issues, as the proximity to whiteness sometimes means white people listen more closely. Do you agree or disagree? And what are some of your thoughts on this? 

Chyn

I agree that it’s important to speak on Black issues, for me as for anyone, but I don’t view anyone favoring me because of my lighter skin tone real privilege. Because the moment someone treats me in a certain way based on the color of my skin, it’s an act of racism and even if I could benefit from it, I’m appalled by it because it isn’t genuine. It does happen all the time though. It can be a white person who expresses micro aggressive behavior with phrases like; “we don’t consider you Black”, thinking it’s a compliment, when in fact it’s just another layer of white supremacy. Or Black men who favor me over my dark-skinned Black friends because of the idea that women should be fairer in skin tone than men. Colorism, where whomever simulates whiteness the best wins, is a problem within the Black community, and I can’t explain how much I detest it. My hopes are that these transformative times that have gotten us talking about things that’ve been simmering beneath the surface for so long – will lead to change.