Tajja Isen Incisively Separates Real Activism from Lip Service in “Some of My Best Friends”
The author of the essay collection on how it’s easier than ever to say something while meaning nothing
“I Took My First Date to the Black Lives Matter Protest”—Refinery 29
“I Spent 35 Years Trying To Convince the World (And Myself) That I’m White”—Huffington Post
“I’m Moving My Family to Canada to Save My Black Son from America”—Cosmopolitan
These are all real essay titles, and they’re also the types of writing it’s easiest for a marginalized writer to pitch, place, and publish. In fact, it sometimes ends up being the only type of writing we’re able to publish. Essays about my race, culture, and chronic illness are accepted as often as my pitches on technology, productivity, and the environment are rejected. It sometimes feels as though there is only one thing I am fit to write about—pain—and as Tajja Isen explains, in the process of writing about pain, “you might find more taken from you than you were willing to give.”
By now, Laura Bennett’s concept of “the first person industrial complex” is well-known and much-discussed, but Isen excavates its nuances much further. She writes of the above essay titles (the title being a decision that typically lies with the editor, not the writer) and their ilk: “There’s an anthropological curiosity in their framing…The only ones who need dispatches about what it’s like to live in a certain body in the age of Black Lives Matter are white people.”
In other words, the reason racialized writers are called upon time and again to write about our “identity” is because the intended audience is always already assumed to be white—an identity so normalized that it’s rarely considered to be one, except in the form of a quick privilege disclaimer; a brief moment of lip service.
In Isen’s debut Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, personal essays are only the tip of the iceberg. Her expansive, deeply-researched text explores everything from the burden of being a “diversity hire” to how legal language propagates the myth of “neutrality” to the pitfalls of “authentic representation.”
Isen writes: “If it’s hard to express something true in language that’s been emptied of value, the flip side is that it’s easier than ever to say something while meaning nothing.” In an era of Instagram black squares, the proliferation of Ukrainian flag emojis in bios, and words like “intersectional” and “decolonization” being co-opted by brands, Some of My Best Friends considers the fault-lines of language, action and power, which are also the fault-lines of our world.
Richa Kaul Padte: In a chapter on the law, you talk about “the violence of neutrality,” which is not dissimilar to an idea I was trained in as a young anti-fascist campaigner: there is no neutrality without complicity. “Neutral” assumes a baseline is possible, a universality that exists before positionality. Elsewhere in the book, you discuss the rise of “relatability”, asking the question: relatable to whom? Do neutrality and relatability thus function in similar ways?
Tajja Issen: I suppose they’re similar in the sense that each performs its own kind of flattening, though I think what each thing aims to flatten is very different. With the way that neutrality operates, as I tried to describe it in the law, the goal is to flatten the realities of circumstance and lived experience to conform to a certain standard. The law, as in the rule of it, is not especially interested in particularity. With relatability, the mechanic feels different to me—only a single subset of voices, stories, and perspectives are allowed admission at all. In the book, I also use the terms in very different contexts—neutrality in the legal field, and relatability in the cultural and literary spheres. With relatability, you can ape the tropes if you want to barter your way in. Neutrality will just shear off whatever it needs to in order to make the thing fit.
RKP: Sakina Jaffrey’s term “patank” refers to the “‘the broad Indian accent’ South Asian actors get asked to do.” It’s also, I realize on reading this, what “a certain kind of listener” actually thinks the Indian accent sounds like. I wonder if this is further complicated, though, by the fact that actors being cast as Indians on-screen are not, in fact, Indian. Dev Patel does not have an Indian accent in Slumdog Millionaire, neither does Simone Ashley in Bridgerton (by comparison, Kunal Nayyar, who grew up in India, is fantastic in The Big Bang Theory).
If the question of authenticity requires, as you point out, a reconfiguration at all levels—producers, directors, writers’ rooms—shouldn’t this include people who actually belong to the geographic locations in question? It seems like this often gets left out of diversity conversations in the West, but is felt deeply by the rest.
TI: Certainly if authenticity is the goal of a project, geographic accuracy feels like a key part of that, and I agree with you that the West tends to flatten that part of the conversation. My goal with that essay on cartoons, though, was really to trouble the idea of authenticity altogether. I think that well-intentioned people who are aware that their project, or workplace, or masthead, or whatever, has an equity problem—and are really keen to solve that equity problem—can get really fixated on the idea of what authentic looks like or sounds like. Because there’s no one answer, right? Authenticity is a worthy goal, but the problems start when it gets treated as a skeleton key to solving every single problem of equity. What I’ve seen and experienced, especially in spaces like the entertainment industry, is that the pursuit of authenticity can end up calcifying into this restrictive standard that winds up doing the exact opposite of what it was meant to do in the first place. The thirst for a certain kind of representation can too easily turn into caricature. We want to do right by marginalized voices can turn into marginalized voices must sound like x or y. The desire to get it right is well-meaning, but like a lot of the other gestures I explore in the book, it can easily slip into a kind of quick fix that’s really not a fix at all.
RKP: You write about the burden of diversity work, of being the only person of a certain marginalization in the room. Being this person often entails “an honest desire to make things better, [only to] be told to rinse scum from dark corners management obviously hadn’t thought to clean in years.” This work is exhausting and individualizes a systemic problem, but there’s also a deeper issue at work here. You write: “To demand better means better is something an institution is capable of, or deserves our help in becoming. But what if the rot goes all the way down?”
Where do we go from here?
TI: Where indeed! I think that, if you’re the only person of a certain background in a majority-white space, it’s so easy to get caught up in the idea that it’s your job to make an institution better. At one time in my life, it was very easy for me to get caught up in that idea, and a lot of free labor was wrung out of me because of it. But I think that believing you’re responsible for bettering a workplace or institution—in addition to being an unfair and untenable project—is simply the wrong goal. To me, that kind of framing feels much more oriented toward optics than action. I think a much worthier project is, as Toni Morrison puts it, getting someone else in the room with you. That’s what I consider my goal, my duty, even, when I enter a professional or creative space. This is, technically, a form of institutional improvement. But that subtle shift in focus, from buffing up corporate shine to actually, materially changing the circumstances of the people who’ve been systemically shut out of it—that’s a world of change, to me, and that’s where I think more efforts need to be concentrated. Stop panicking about how you look and just do the thing—and accept that the thing will take time.
RKP: Something I often think about is how the online sphere has given rise to a sense that saying something political is in and of itself an action towards addressing injustice. I’m not advocating for silence, of course, but I’m no longer sure that endless words are contributing to change (a troubling idea as a writer, I suppose). In 1935, Walter Benjamin wrote: “Fascism sees its salvation in giving…masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” How does this relate to Sara Ahmed’s concept of the “nonperformative speech act,” which you explore so wonderfully in one of my favorite sections of the book?
TI: I’m totally with you, and that’s a point that I keep coming back to in the book—the easy, harmful conflation of speech with action. It’s become easier than ever to say something while meaning, or intending to do, nothing. That makes separating out something like the nonperformative speech act incredibly important, and that’s very much a part of the work that I hope the book does: articulating a pattern that readers have likely noticed in their own lives and worlds and giving them a framework for it. We’ve become so good at spotting these instances of infelicitous speech. When they happen, there’s a distinct sense of wrongness, of what the fuck. Corporations shouldn’t be able to speak, to address us in this way. But the language of social justice circulates so freely that it’s effectively become anyone’s game. This is also why we’ve seen institutions that ostensibly have nothing to do with social justice—like banks or the CIA—spouting the language of inclusion like it’s going out of style. That split between speech and action, which both the Ahmed term and the Benjamin quotes express so deftly, is a murky space in which all sorts of dodgy things can happen. That’s the space I wanted to delve into and muck around in with this book.
RKP: There’s a “line white women walk between privilege and disadvantage,” and you give examples ranging from Lena Dunham’s Girls to pretty much all of Lana Del Ray’s music. You write: “[T]hese creators, having flushed the less convenient forms of marginality from their presence, then exaggerate their own weakness as evidence of their work’s political gravity.” Without having to account for the systemic violence of racism, transphobia or ableism, such works stake a claim to gendered marginalization, while ignoring oppressions that render other women’s pain less prettily packageable. Could you talk a bit about this, including how the supposedly political position of “radical softness” comes into play?
TI: That argument, from the book’s title essay, is very much in conversation with recent critiques of white femininity by authors like Rafia Zakaria, Koa Beck, and Ruby Hamad. For my part, I wanted to look at how that move—of having access to the structural power of whiteness but being marginalized by virtue of their gender—can lead to certain patterns in art and culture. As I discuss in the book, that tension has come to drive, if not define, so many of the big cultural movements of the last few decades, in genres that span from the ’90s rom-com to the early personal essay. But in trying to account for that tension, something weird tends to happen. In texts like Girls and Del Rey and the films of Nancy Meyers, to take just a few examples, you can see a pattern where white women are often claiming not just their vulnerability, but the fact that they are more vulnerable than anyone else, or whomever is in their immediate vicinity (which is usually just more white women, otherwise that claim falls apart pretty quickly). It can become a weird kind of self-pleasuring hyperbole. Girls has a scene in which two white women are shouting across an apartment about which one of them is truly a “big, ugly wound,” and there’s an obvious kind of glee in it. Something’s Gotta Give has two rich white women talking about how single older women are, “as a demographic, as fucked a group as can ever exist.” As can ever exist? Really? You couldn’t just settle for “fucked,” like the rest of us?
RKP: You write: “Privilege disclaimers are like magic tricks. They can turn complex, awkward material realities—generational wealth, whiteness, the ability to pass within a certain social category—into words, dispensed with as easily as breath.” This is something I think about a lot as an upper caste woman living in India: is the declaration of my caste location a way to demonstrate that I did not get to where I am via India’s favorite falsehood (meritocracy), or is it lip service that allows me to carry on as I was before, i.e. perpetuating caste oppression while reaping the social cache of self-awareness? I, of course, want it to be read as the former, but are privilege disclaimers so inherently messed up that they always lead to a variation of the latter?
TI: I think that, as with anything, especially a statement of your principles, it depends on how you use it. If someone’s trying to use a privilege disclaimer to totally excuse themselves of all wrongdoing or responsibility, like it’s some kind of opt-out clause or waiver, then yeah, that’s always going to be a kind of lip service. But of course it’s useful to be aware of, and depending on the situation even explicit about, the way our subject position influences our access to power and the way power acts upon us. It’s an important part of coalition-building, of listening, of real change.