Most everyone can remember where they were when they found out the results from the 2016 Election. I had just woken up in my dorm room to a text from my girlfriend saying, “Call me when you’re awake.” I swiped right on my phone’s home screen to get a quick peek at that Apple News App that I never used and felt my chest cave in on itself as I read the headline of who had just been elected the 45th President of the United States. I didn’t cry or scream. Instead, I just called my girlfriend and we laid in each of our beds silently grieving a future we had hoped would at least be better than this.
Before I could even fathom the gravity of the situation, I first felt afraid to leave my dorm room. I was living on the campus of a private white institution with a 19% diversity rate that included visiting professors with no chance of tenure. Of all the things I didn’t want to deal with on that day, comforting white tears and being judged for not actively demonstrating my grief was one of them. Luckily, the first person I ran into was a fellow queer person of color. We just sighed and exchanged the same sentiment of “fuck this shit.” But the day continued beyond that moment of reprieve and became a blur that I have actively tried to block out.
Before the criticisms of the Women’s March in 2017, I admit that I was swept up in that urgency to get out and protest. I thought the pussy hats were funny and smart, and I admired the work of what I later realized was purely performative activism. But the one thing to come out of the Women’s March that absolutely moved me to finally break down and cry about the situation was seeing a video of Asian American singer/songwriter Connie Lim, better known as MILCK, leading other women in her a cappella anthem “I Can’t Keep Quiet.” This video catapulted her to fame as articles came out discussing how she organized singers across the nation to come together in song and protest, making for that viral, cultural moment in our recent history. She merged activism and art so effortlessly, and to see someone with at least half a face like mine with a soulful voice and a willingness to do the work was awe-inspiring and revolutionary to me.
MILCK has since gone on to produce music that addresses sexism, misogyny, climate change and racism and she is deeply invested in using her platform to advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. But this isn’t anything new for her. In fact, her message has hardly changed. During her eight years of performing as an independent artist before her Women’s March rise to fame, she was already an advocate and self-described “soul-cial change artist.” “I Can’t Keep Quiet” was written in 2015 with Adrianne Gonzalez about coping with sexual assault and abuse as a teenager. She had openly discussed her own struggles with anorexia and anti-Asian prejudice. She didn’t decide to become an activist after the 2016 Election. She already was one.
With the Internet’s clear documentation of performative activism, we’re used to seeing celebrities adopt a socially conscious aesthetic after a global disruption of civil unrest. Just this past June, the Black Lives Matter movement picked up momentum like it never has before, prompting social media users to post black squares, criticize each other for posting black squares, exchange resources instead, organize donations to freedom funds and stream videos whose ad revenue went directly to the BLM organization. Our constant conversation online has spurred the movement to respond quicker to its flaws, assess its faults with honesty and repair what harm it may have caused. But others use the opportunity to engage quickly and without consequence. They leave quietly as if they never attended, only to rise up above the surface when the next wave comes around.
But change is slow. It’s persistent, and requires a great deal of unwavering dedication. MILCK was seemingly unheard of before 2017 but she was still doing the work. Taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to her, she created the #ICantKeepQuiet Global Community which seeks to celebrate and uplift voices who have been silenced by sexual assault and violence, and developed the #ICantKeepQuiet Fund which is supported by donations from the community and portions from her proceeds as an artist. Her most recent Into Gold EP included the song “If I Ruled the World,” which envisions the world we want to create rather than criticizing the things we’d rather not deal with, addressing eating disorders, climate change, universal healthcare, hunger relief and refugee support. Even without massive headlines, her message hasn’t changed.
With the 2020 Election just around the corner, I can feel a slight burning sensation at the back of my neck, worrying that this will be a repeat of last time. I worry that the aesthetic of activism will overshadow the grunt work of authentic change. I wonder why we can’t, as a culture, be more proactive in our efforts, and why reparations seems to take precedence over the prevention of trauma? If we kept quiet the first time around, wouldn’t the next round be a wake-up call to go out kicking and screaming?
Regardless of the political outcome in November, I want to follow in the footsteps of MILCK. She woke me up from my depressive gaze and let me mourn my experience of being asked to do the emotional work my white peers were not accustomed to doing. She let me see that no matter what was happening politically, I could still use my voice to advocate on behalf of what I believed in, educate myself on my own privileges, and use them to affect change for those who are more marginalized than me.
While everyone has their own opinion on voting, this is what my vote means. Speaking up on behalf of those whose struggles I strive to learn from in a continued process of learning the power of my own privileges. I personally can’t not participate in the conversation, even if the system is set up against a queer, non-binary, mixed race Asian American person like me.
I suppose in the end, it’s my choice whether to keep quiet or not and in what areas I choose to participate in. And given the sting from last time, I want to make this next round count for something. I have to at least try.
Written by Misao McGregor
Edited by Susan Kuroda