Activist Janaya Khan urges students to change approach toward racism

Geneseo was privileged to have Janaya Khan, one of the founding members of the Canadian Black Lives Matter movement, speak in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom on Feb 13. 

Khan is a black, queer, gender-nonconforming activist dedicated to social justice and reform. Khan addressed misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as discussing systemic and institutionalized oppression 

Khan explained how their experiences with the education system’s approach to equality and justice was marked by defensiveness and close-mindedness. 

“When you say racism in class and you’re a black woman, everyone falls apart,” Khan said. “And when you say white privilege the room implodes and everyone’s like ‘you don’t know me’ and ‘you don’t know what I’ve been through. I’m like 5 percent Irish and I swear I’m Cherokee too!’” 

Khan discussed how the topic of privilege is often misunderstood and taken as an attack. 

“We’re not in an educational system that’s supporting our sense of responsibility to each other, so when people hear privilege for the first time, they think that you’re attacking the story they tell about themselves,” Khan said. “But the thing about privilege is that it’s not about what you have been through; it’s about what you haven’t had to go through.” 

Khan explained how they had often experienced a defensive culture when discussing issues of privilege and systemic oppression in the education system. Khan encouraged people to approach conversations about racism and social injustice with an open mind and to be curious about each other’s stories and willing to listen and understand, instead of becoming defensive. 

Khan asked that instead of people merely supporting social reform, that they would be willing to have conversations with others about injustice. 

“It’s not just about what you stand for, but who you sit with,” Khan said. 

Khan works for Color of Change, a racial justice organization that works to improve the lives of black people and reform injustice across education systems and criminal justice systems throughout the United States. 

“Black Lives Matter has helped set a blueprint for what organizing looks like in a digital age,” Khan said. “What are we fighting for? What are the things that unite us? What are our non-negotiables?” 

Khan preached open-mindedness and a collective effort to overcome racial and social injustices existing in the world.

“It’s not about Trump and Pence. It is, but it also isn’t: it’s deeper, and it’s about who do we protect,” Khan said. “[In the 2016 election], what we saw was a white man playing into xenophobia, nationalism and people’s deepest fears. This is something that has been done time and time again.”