by Tyler Karanja
I recently visited my brother in Nairobi, Kenya because he had just moved into a new apartment and landed a contract with the United Nations. After negotiating a price with the cab driver, I was greeted by him in front of his upper-class central apartment complex, and welcomed into his marble-floored, two-bathroom, window-filled home. Oh, and I was introduced to his three pot-smoking, music-loving, young professional roommates.
One was an up and coming Black Kenyan visual artist – we’ll call her KenyanArtist. Her white French boyfriend worked for the United Nations as a consultant – we’ll call him Thor (the resemblance is uncanny). And another was KenyanArtist’s cousin, who was a self-described “hustler” in Lagos – we’ll call him LagosHustler. There was just one inherently dangerous characteristic shared by this post-colonial, interracial, pot-loving Kenyan household – they claimed to live lives on the left of the political spectrum.
Those on the ambiguous political left often do a much better job at preventing progressive change than the fascists on the right have the capacity to do. This is because they easily delude those listening to their self-congratulatory rants into thinking that they are open-minded – and, dangerously, they delude themselves into the same fallacy. Thor is the embodiment of this pathology.
After having been in my brother’s apartment for only 20 minutes, I found myself alone, sitting around the shisha with his roommates (my brother had stepped out for a meeting), being asked if, similar to my brother, I “also choose to sleep with men”. My answer was a resonating, “it’s not a subjective choice, but yes, I sleep with men”. LagosHustler was shocked. So he asked if he could be frank with me about a burning question he had always had – “do gay people have one-night stands?”. I didn’t know how to answer so I chose a defense mechanism that allowed me to be equally frank, yet non-confrontational – “I don’t think sexual orientation really has anything to do with a person’s choice to have a one-night stand or not.” We all chuckled, plastering yet another level of awkwardness on an increasingly awkward situation.
High on shisha and inspired by the invasive questions of LagosHustler, Thor decided to join in. As all good white liberals do, he began with his version of “I’m not a racist but…” – “I grew up in Paris so I’ve been around lots of gay people”; followed by stating to the room how cool it is that me and my brother are “BB’s”. BB was his abbreviation for “batiman brothers”. Batiman is an incredibly derogatory word, used mostly in Jamaica, for homosexual. I remember how my bullies used to call me that in high school, and now I was in Kenya experiencing being called a name I hadn’t been called in years.
I had long since stopped smoking shisha, so I sipped my tea and prepared to further descend into the moral abyss of an oppressive space. The hetero-sexual, cis-gendered liberal room chuckled at the use of the two-letter abbreviation that, for them, not only encompassed by identity, but did so with a lightly-seasoned, easy to swallow cleverness.
The next day, I was making breakfast. As I added berries to my fruit salad, I jokingly exclaimed – “the darker the berry, the sweeter the taste”. Thor, who was also in the kitchen with me and KenyanArtist, felt the need to tell me how one time a guy used that phrase as a racialized catcall to KenyanArtist and he almost punched the guy in the face. However, earlier that morning, after seeing my brother dance out of his bedroom fueled by the sensual rhythms of Rihanna’s new song “Work”, he stated that he thought my brother was a girl and chuckled at his own misguided ignorance with a pleasant self-satisfaction, willingly oblivious to his own oppressive mindset.
Let it be known that being associated with the feminine is not the issue here, as taking offense to that would only be indicative of my own socially imposed and personally internalized sexism. But rather, the issue is Thor’s self-designated entitlement to relegate someone to the female side of the gender binary simply because they don’t match his own personal finite definition of masculinity.
I was baffled. The same guy who could be pissed to the extent of near-physical violence about a racial issue could simultaneously and simultaneous expel seemingly constant oppressive bigotry about queer identities.
And then I had a moment and it all made sense. I’ve coined it the “Left-Wing Diplomatic Mission”. Liberals build a mirage of progressiveness and, just like Israel, they dedicate a significant amount of their resources to convincing the rest of the world to perceive them in a way that they want to be perceived – despite the fact that the image is out of line with who and what they really stand for.
It is the Left-Wing Diplomatic Mission that is responsible for many Americans truly believing that America is “colourblind” while black lives fill the prison system and police shoot black children dead, leaving them to rot in the streets. It is this congregated effort that catalyzes and perpetuates the fictitious notion that there are no more problems to solve. Unlike the fascists, who are unapologetic in their xenophobia, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and the like – the liberals convince us that they are not part of the problem, and it is in this way that they prevent progressive change. Whether intentional or purposeful, sub-conscious or conscious – the Left-Wing Diplomatic Mission is thriving and we are all suffering because of it.
If you only stand against systems that oppress you or those personally connected to you, do you truly deserve the moral congratulations of someone operating within a left of centre political apparatus? Rather than “liberal”, wouldn’t a more accurate term be selfish or self-congratulatory? But if self-interested is the new Progressive Left then we need to have a serious conversation about the merits of what it means to be left, centre, or right on the political spectrum. And after that, we need to have an even more serious conversation about whose feelings the previous conversation was being overly sensitive too.
To those of you reading this and thinking “but we’ve come such a long way! There is no slavery in America and Kenya is no longer colonized”—to those thinking that we must not invalidate progress albeit its unsubstantial size or magnitude, listen to me now. I will not and we should not give credit where credit is not due. If we delude ourselves into thinking that the revolution is over while the majority of us are still shackled by oppression – we only move backwards. And that is how progress is truly invalidated.
Tyler Karanja is a proud first-generation Canadian and storyteller with roots in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. He graduated from the Conflict Studies and Human Rights program at the University of Ottawa where he specialized in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and mobility politics. You can usually find him wrapped in a kikoy, sipping chai, and writing in his journal.