Historian, activist, and public speaker Blair Imani is fast approaching an audience of 300,000 Instagram followers whom she educates on topics that centre women and girls, Black communities and LGBTQ+ folks through her regular bite-sized Learn O’Clock and Smarter in Seconds Reels features, while offering more in-depth lessons on Patreon. In 2017, Blair came out as a queer Muslim woman on the unlikely platform of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight. Since then as an LGBTQ+ rights advocate she’s worked with organisations like the Tegan & Sara Foundation, GLAAD, It Gets Better, the Trevor Project, and LOVELOUD. Last year she delivered a TEDxBoulder talk entitled Queer & Muslim: Nothing to Reconcile which has had over 100,000 views on YouTube, and helped spark conversations about the intersection of those identities. 2019 also saw her featured in New York City Pride’s campaign honouring the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Her first book, Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History, was published in 2018, followed by this year’s Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and The Black American Dream (2020).
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Blair Imani about what lessons we can take from history to understand and address urgent matters today, how the activist in her first emerged, what advice she has for anyone wanting to find their online voice and grow their social media platform, and why she loves Sir Elton John.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: As a historian, why do you feel it’s important to look back if we want to address some of the urgent issues that face us today?
Blair Imani: “When it comes to that question I’m deeply biased as a historian. When people specialise in a field they tend to think that field is the solution to the world’s issues, so I’m upfront about that bias! But I also do have a lot of merit as it relates to that because you know so many things around humanity have stayed consistent over time. Our surroundings, our diet, our access to medicine and science has changed, but fundamentally our motivations are the same. We want to feel good, we want to speak, we want to be comfortable, and we want to be safe, and that has meant so many different things to us across time, but it has also meant that part of humanity is this desire to push other people down while lifting oneself up. So when we understand that it becomes a lot less mysterious why you see things like colonialism and imperialism, and how that translates today with people stealing culture in order to adapt themselves instead of actually stealing land. So history can be the guiding light, it’s not that nothing new can ever happen under the sun, but just that there’s a framework. For instance, the Spanish Flu is a great example for what we’re going through right now with the pandemic. But history is notoriously difficult to get into, it’s written in a very verbose manner and it can be unattainable and it can make you feel very alienated, so what I try to do is to make it just as attractive and interesting as a makeup tutorial.”
Given that history is subjective to some degree, how apparent was it as you were studying that so many history books have been written by white men?
“Oh, absolutely. Everything has been cut with that person’s own biography, and I really encourage my students to lean into that, to ask where their educator is coming from, what position they’re coming from, what background they’re coming from. Not to scrutinise everyone, but to really understand that it is coloured by that so we have to look at it holistically. It’s not so much that it’s written by white men, but white straight cisgender men. That means when somebody talks about the voting rights changes in the 70s here in the United States, they’re likely to say things like, ‘If you were 18 you could get married, you could fight the war…’, but that’s erasing the fact that actually you could not get married and you could not fight in the military if you were out or perceived to be gay. Hiding these things is a function of a society that is so privileged and exclusionary in who is allowed to be considered human. I take history and infuse it with colour and spice to really bring it to life so it doesn’t feel like it happened in black and white. Rather than presenting it as if its objective I instead say, ‘This is my story, this is my motivation for telling it, and this how it effects me,’ because that’s essentially what all storytelling is. I mean even in science where we have the scientific method and everything, there’s still bias that shows up and we can see that through medical racism. But if we ignore it, and we say, ‘Oh, no it’s just as effective as it can be,’ then we run the risk of harming other people, or at the very least hiding ourselves from a more clear, and full understanding. I always want people to have the richest, fullest understanding of my lessons and also be able to see themselves in my lessons, even if they’re completely different from who I am.”
How did the activist in you first manifest and how has your activism evolved over the years?
“I think my first proper activist action was around human trafficking. We were in a busy area of my hometown, Pasadena, encouraging folks to sign a petition in favour of legislation to make more rigorous checks for human trafficking survivors at airports. I was around 16 at that time and it was a really powerful experience because first of all I was learning the skill of approaching folks who otherwise might not want anything to do with me, and I think that’s a good skill to have, and I’d say something like, ‘I’m 16, did you know that I’m the target age for somebody who is a human trafficking survivor? So if you want to help people who are my age right here in the States please sign this.’ And people were so much more compelled to sign because of that immediate human connection. We got the signatures that we needed in one night and it was so awesome because my parents let me stay out late to be part of that advocacy group and to hold up signs and banners. That showed me early on that it isn’t as hard as society wants us to believe it is. There were also inklings of it throughout my life. My younger sister is autistic and advocacy sometimes meant me speaking up for her when she couldn’t, because she couldn’t articulate her words in a way that others could easily understand. But then it also meant her standing up for me sometimes in more of a physical manner when people were bullying me. Advocacy isn’t one way. You can help people and then also be open to the fact that maybe you can learn from them too, maybe they help you as well. If you go into something thinking that you’re going to be the saviour and that you have nothing to learn then you’re not going to have that experience.”
For anyone who is awake and just living in the world at the moment it can feel kind of overwhelming in that there are many urgent matters demanding our attention. Social justice, climate change, and the government attacks on LGBTQ rights, and leaders stoking fear and hatred. I just wanted to how you work through all of that to decide what to focus your attention on?
“The first thing to understand is that it’s intentional. The news cycle, the powers that be, the authority figures in society are in such a state of disarray that leaves us scrambling. It creates that fear of ‘what do I do first?’ Then you often feel a sense of being frozen because if you can’t do it all, or if you can’t do it perfectly, then you should do nothing. So the first thing to understand is that it’s not a manufacturing of our own minds, it’s something that is real and concrete and intentional to keep us frozen in a state of inaction. Once you know that, then you can be a lot more strategic. What I advise people to do is to find the common thread throughout. So if I’m talking about climate justice, let me find a way to discuss it that connects it to my work which is around anti-racism. The fact that people who get the freshest, cleanest air are often the people who have the most privilege and their privilege dictates which lands they get, which loans they can afford, which houses they have the credit score to attain versus more marginalised people who have literally been displaced to create space for land developments, and who also are more likely to live near factories and industrial centres that pollute the air and give them, in the worst cases, things like lung cancer and emphysema. So it’s about connecting these things. I advise the young people who I work with not to focus on how much there is wrong, but rather on how much opportunity there is to make it better, because there has never been a moment in history where everything was perfect. And, yeah, that sucks and that’s difficult, but also how exciting that we get to make that world together. So I think once you shift from that very freezing fear to just exuberance and excitement about the future it becomes a lot easier to then go, ‘Well, I’m very interested in this, so I’m going to focus on that,’ or ‘I have zero specialty in that, so maybe I should amplify folks who are already doing that work.’ The urgency and the sense of now is very important, but you also have to think about how to connect to other bigger systems. For example, there has to be the fight to get rid of cash bail, but that also means that if there’s a protest and protesters are incarcerated there needs to be bail funds available to bail them out. So there has to be people raising funds to get them out today in order to make tomorrow better. There also have to be people like Mariame Kaba who are working towards the abolition of a system that basically holds people in prison if they can’t afford a certain amount of money. There need to be multi-pronged, multi-disciplinary attacks on a system that attacks us. I was arrested in 2016 at the Alton Sterling protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but I’m now in a place where it’s not the best thing for my mental health to be at protests, it’s not the best thing for my physical health either with the pandemic. So as much as I want to show up in that way that I idealise, I can’t. So what I instead do is give speeches and write essays and write books to help people get acquainted with the work so they can plug themselves in. And I’m reaching so many people via social media but that doesn’t mean that the version of me in another universe who’s doing work on the ground is any less valid or important. It’s all about viewing ourselves as an interconnected web, showing that if we all push towards justice together we’ll get there a lot sooner versus all trying to cram through the same narrow hallway and not being able to get anywhere because we’re all trying the same approach.”
For anyone that doesn’t yet follow you on Instagram how would you describe what you do with your platform on there?
“On Instagram I don’t take myself too seriously and I try to come at education from a very humble standpoint, where none of us knows everything there is to know. So I don’t pretend that as an educator I’m done learning, but instead I learn with you and I make it easy to understand topics. Recently I did a post about the sex binary, and how there are not just two sexes, XX and XY, but there are actually six very common forms of sex karyotype pairings and I explain what that means. I also throw in a little bit of aesthetics, a little bit of fashion, and I do some nail designs on there as well. You’re basically getting a window into who I am, and the things that I care about in a way that maybe makes you want to care about them as well.”
One of your posts during Pride was about key terms for talking about the LGBTQ+ community. For those of us who identify as LGBTQ+ we’re likely to already familiar be with these terms, but there are many people out there for whom these are just a bunch of letters, so I really liked what you did with that, which I know was partly taken from your book Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History. But at the same time you are also making posts like that inviting to people who are part of the LGBTQ+ who might learn something from it too.
“The thing is, just because we come out doesn’t mean that we suddenly have a PhD in gender studies or sexuality studies, so I think that there has to be room within the community to say, ‘Hey, maybe you’re an out lesbian and you don’t know everything there is to know about my sexuality or gender identity.’ Well, I’m here to educate you as well. And so I try to get rid of the assumption that we should know better and just provide the resources so that we can.”
In terms LGBTQ+ definitions, when did you first start to realise that you were bisexual and did encountering the word itself help you to make sense of what you’d been feeling?
“For the longest time I didn’t love the word bisexual, because it’s not punchy like gay, or queer, trans! I feel like those are single syllable exclamatory declarations in themselves. Whereas bisexual kind of sounds like a condition. So it took me a while to really come to terms with that identity, but I knew that I wasn’t straight way early on and I think the first time I heard the term bisexuality was when it was being used in a pejorative manner against a Hollywood celebrity who wasn’t explicitly straight or queer, or maybe wasn’t out. It was alluded to in this kind of conspiratorial way as if it was something to be embarrassed about and connected to the myth that is completely untrue around bisexuals and our ability to form long term romantic attractions to people in a monogamous manner. Growing up I didn’t have all the definitions of gender and sexuality at my disposal, but I was like, ‘Okay, so I’m not like the Disney princesses, because I would like to be with Jasmine from Aladin, and not with Aladin.’ So that kind of formed into me not knowing that bisexuality was an option and internalising my biphobia, and deciding that if I wasn’t straight then I must be a lesbian and I came out to my mom. My mom really helped me to synthesise her understanding of me, which was that I had crushes on people regardless of gender growing up and then she helped me understand the definition of bisexuality by taking me to the GLAAD website and it really felt like it fit, but of course I was totally not content with the terminology because I think it could be punchier!”
Bi is a bit punchier I guess?!
“Yes, and those are my initials too so you have that!”
Yeah, exactly! I am drawn more and more towards identifying as queer myself rather than gay, and it’s interesting what we can gain from these definitions at times, while they can also feel like they’re boxing us in.
“The human experience is to just be and what we’re invited to do in this day and age is to define ourselves, and oftentimes when we define ourselves we are forced to define ourselves at odds with another system. So it’s not just that we are queer, but that we are queer instead of straight, because of heteronormativity. So I think that it’s good and healthy to be able to identify yourself and lay claim to a community and to name who you are, but it’s also important to acknowledge the fact that there’s a big stress in having to constantly feel like you are in opposition to something else. That’s why I encourage people to name their racial group, instead of saying non-white, because you don’t want to send to censor the other name. But it’s a lifelong journey and I think that just like with your name, although you might like it you might also want to go by a nickname sometimes, or maybe you want to go by just your last name or your middle name, or to change your name altogether like I’ve done, and that’s fine.”
Talking about identity, you describe yourself as living at the intersection of being a Black, queer and Muslim, and I imagine that that often means you have to almost feel like you’re defending how those identities can coexist, which led to your great TED Talk Queer & Muslim: Nothing to Reconcile. How would you sum the reality of what it means to you being each of those things as a woman living in America today?
“I’m actually not asked that question often and I think that people kind of assume that it’s terrible, horrible and awful, but it’s not, it’s beautiful. I get to see myself in all of my intricacies every single day and share that with hundreds of thousands of people online and also within my community. The vibrancy of being able to be yourself without apology is something I wish everyone could experience. The difficulty comes in with the racism and the Islamophobia and xenophobia and homophobia and the sexism and the biphobia; those are the hard things. It’s just a reminder to people that it’s not hard to be who we are, the difficulty comes when we are forced to question ourselves, when we’re forced to battle with internalised elements. But on a day-to-day basis I wake up excited about being able to contribute to the world. The difficulty only comes when I’m reminded that there are things I can’t do, like I can’t go for a jog whenever I’d like because I’m a woman, or I’m going to be viewed sideways because I’m wearing a Hijab and people aren’t used to seeing that. It has less to do with me and more to do with other people. So that’s how I retain my my resilience through it all, by remembering that it’s not me that’s the issue, but the biases that are the issue. The fact that people judge us before they know us is something that will take a long time to go away, but it’s also something that I’m used to and I’m familiar with. So being a Black queer Muslim woman, being Blair Imani, in America today means being strategic about how I show up and when I show up, and also remembering that I’m in it for the long game, for a marathon, not a sprint.”
I love what you’re doing with the platform of Instagram and it’s great to see something that’s so positive and educational in such a succinct, impactful and attractive way and it feels empowering and, as you mentioned, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of ‘I know everything and I’m telling you’, but instead it invites people in.
“Well, if there’s one thing we learned in elementary school it’s that nobody likes a know-it-all! And no know-it-all knows everything! That’s the most annoying, pedantic thing and I’m so tired of that and I tend to think that if I’m sick of something then maybe some other people are too. The other thing is that when I make it clear to people that I’m learning right alongside them then they’re more likely to reach out with suggestions, and they’re more likely to understand that I’m still growing too, I’m not perfect, and it gives me a lot more grace because I’m not playing a character I’m just being me.”
Do you have a strategy or any guiding principles when it comes to reacting to or responding to people who are being inflammatory and leaving negative comments?
“Absolutely. Instagram has immense tools when it comes to user safely in a way that many of the other platforms are just now catching up to. Say you’re in class with somebody or you work with somebody and they always have inappropriate comments to make, you can restrict them, so you’re not blocking and creating that social disruption, but you can approve whether their comments show up on your feed or not, you can approve whether they enter you DMs, and really protect yourself. You can also flag certain terms, so I have every single slur in the book that you could call someone like me flagged and so I never need to see it. I can also make sure that people who comment on my page follow me, and that they’re actually invested in learning with me, instead of just seeing me on the explore page and deciding to be rude, which has less to do with Instagram and more to do with the fact that we have jerks living in this world with us. So protect yourself. I just love Instagram as a platform because they get the fact that social media isn’t going to solve hate, social media isn’t going to solve bias, but social media can protect people against that hate and against that bias so that they can express themselves. That way I focus on the people who actually want to learn with me and I can focus on the people who have nice things to say, and I can report the people who only have horrible things to say. I’ll hit 300,000 followers fairly soon and that’s the size of a good sized city. So if I think of myself as mayor, then yes, I’m going to have some homeowners associations who don’t like what I do, and I’m going to have some folks who are going to gripe and complain about certain things and it’s definitely important to know when it’s an opportunity to grow, and when it’s just somebody being a jerk. Not every suggestion is coming from a place of good intentions or coming from a place where they want to see you do better, sometimes they want to put me down. When we understand the fact that they’re not always looking at you as a person, but just as a name on screen maybe that’s a good time remind them that you are a person. So sometimes when people send me something rude I’ll use their name in my reply to them and be like, ‘Anna, thank you so much for this concern. What was it that you were you asking?’ And if I give them the opportunity to rephrase what they said if the original thing sounded offensive, then maybe they’ll come to a better understanding, or maybe they are just being a jerk, but at least I can then decide and that’s all we can do.”
What tips do you have for anyone who would like to grow their platform on social media, especially if they want to do something as meaningful as you have?
“Pick your passion. What I have found is that everything that I was made fun of for in school is what I’m really talented at, becuase kids love to point out difference. Like I have these big expressive eyes and I do a lot of hand gestures and I talk very fast and I have a big mouth, well, now all of those things that I felt so alienated by or felt like an outcast because of are what makes me special. So find out what that is for you and then lean into it. Also recognise that everybody has an expertise. Sometimes their expertise is literally just being themselves. I would always advise people to try and work with scholars where necessary. For example, I did a series on mental health and I made sure to connect with a psychologist, so that way it wasn’t just me and my research, but I had an actual mental health professional. Also feel free to put your own spin on things and to do it with a sense of humility. That doesn’t mean that you’re constantly talking down about yourself, but it means that although you’re confident that you’re doing something well you’re also humble enough to know when you have to improve. If you go forward with that mindset, learning in public in a transparent way, you’ll continue to grow and people will want the best for you as well. That’s what I’ve experienced.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, book, play, music, artwork, musical, or person? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years, and why?
“Sir Elton John and his entire discography. People know I love Elton John if they follow me. I have the collection of sunglasses, and I took my ass to his show and I was so glad that I did! What I love about him is that he represents what it means to be an LGBTQ trailblazer and to not shut the door behind him, but to actually raise money for HIV/AIDS, to continue to elevate queer artists like Leo Kalyan for example in the UK. I just cherish the fact that he was able to eventually say who he was on his own terms. So many of our queer icons and elders were either speculated about, but weren’t necessarily able to come out. We’ve seen Elton John’s music come from when he was closeted to where he was able to be out and declare his full self. Then to see him be involved in the telling of his own biopic was…chef’s kiss! And he just has so many great songs. The thing I like to say is that for every homophobe and transphobe there’s an Elton John song to remind you that you’re a badass, and it’s great that he’s also a gay icon as well!”
By James Kleinmann