A photograph of Saffiyah Khan staring – or rather smiling – down an English Defence League protester in Birmingham city centre went viral this week. This seemingly small moment has been hailed as an important symbol of defiance in a world which feels increasingly fuelled by hate.
Many have praised Khan’s decorum, admiring how she managed to remain composed in the face of xenophobia. Her condescending smile is in stark contrast to the face of the EDL protester she’s facing, whose features appear contorted into a grimace of rage, his eyes narrowed. The world seemed to marvel that Khan might be the calmer of the two, when it was she who should have felt the most threatened.
What Khan showed us in her stance was that for her, existence was a protest. In simply standing and smiling she was undermining the authority of those who wished her to cower, to recede, and to leave her city and home.
This is particularly significant just a few days after the release of the now infamous protest-oriented Pepsi ad, which was pulled after being accused of undermining and trivialising the act of protest. In it, Kendall Jenner – a rich white celebrity – handed a policeman a can of Pepsi as a peace offering, while an assortment of young people held generic “Peace” and “Join The Conversation” signs in the background. You couldn’t have presented a more sanitised idea of protest if you tried.
By comparison, the picture of Khan – a depiction of authentic insubordination, genuine motivation, and bravery in the face of a very real threat – seemed to get to the heart of the issue.
It was an important reminder that while people can and should fight for causes that are not their own, their protest ends when they put down the sign and stop shouting the motto.
But, for people who are the subject of prejudice, their protest continues. For some people, simply walking down the street is a challenging act. Khan’s expression told the story of a woman who was used to her very presence being provocative.
I saw this photo for the first time last night, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. On my way home that evening, I had been aggressively shouted at by a stranger: “Do you have a passport?”
Just to clarify: I wasn’t about to board a flight; I was at a tube station. This was not a genuine enquiry, but rather the product of someone’s anger at my being in London, in England, on what they saw as their turf.
I was surprised, not only because this had never happened to me before, but also because I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t vocally challenging the status quo, or marching against white supremacy; I was just standing and waiting. I have encountered racial abuse online before, mainly for writing things people didn’t like, but this was a first for me. It was a reminder that my race wasn’t something I could take off, like a political T-shirt.
When I got home from this unsettling encounter, more shaken than I wanted to admit to myself, I saw the picture of Saffiyah Khan. It reminded me of the reality of the perpetual protest.
People must, of course, rally for the left, and vocally counter the far right. We should all shout and storm in much-needed forms of organised protest. Not all insurgence should be done with a smile.
But for the people who are the targets of prejudice there is a vital, and non-optional, passive counterpart to active rebellion. For these people, the unavoidable acts of simply carrying on and being themselves are a form of protest in societies that find their presence challenging.Reuse content