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Youtube intersections: Deaf Muslim women and black gay men

DeafnotdumbDeaf Muslim women rapping in British Sign Language, and black gay men as objects of their own desire. These are just a couple of the Best of Youtube videos by marginalised performers, selected by Lia Incognita.

15 May 2011

Deaffinity – Deaf Not Dumb (2011, 2.30 min)

Deaf Not Dumb is a rap video in British Sign Language, dealing with issues of communication, isolation and prejudice. Captions in bold coloured text make it accessible for audiences who don't comprehend BSL.

While the message is simple, the idea is beautifully executed. The performers are confident and engaging; the design sharp and vibrant. About 10 seconds in, a sound icon appears, as though the volume is being turned down, and the remainder of the video is silent.

For me, a hearing person who doesn't understand any sign languages, this was a very effective technique. I've seen songs performed in sign language before, but they were translations or covers with the original audio playing simultaneously, so they seemed more like an accompaniment (or even like choreography). To see an original composition in sign, with no sound, was a new experience, and a powerful one.

The creative Deaf youth group behind the video are supported by Deaffinity, a British organisation which aims to “help break barriers and improve the quality of life for the BME [black and minority ethnic] D/deaf community”.

Their YouTube channel includes other videos about the Deaf Not Dumb project as well as other initiatives. Apart from the Deaf Not Dumb video, all the others are in BSL without translation integrated, so you need to turn on Closed Captions if you want a text translation.

This centres a Deaf (British) audience, and again gave me an uncommon experience as a normatively-abled person: the experience of needing assistive technology, of finding my accessibility needs optional and peripheral, of feeling like I might be missing out on something. Of course, the fact that Closed Captions are an option at all makes it more inclusive than so many things that are designed without considering Deaf accessibility at all.

There is nothing on their website which suggests that the group is specifically or intentionally Muslim, but the young women in the video (Samira Mohammed, Maab Adam and Khayrun Nessa) all wear hijab and the comments on the website and YouTube account suggest that the project is at least informally linked in with Muslim communities. The focus is on Deafness, but as Diana at Muslimah Media Watch says,

it is extremely refreshing to see Muslim women, who often construct their individuality at the intersection of multidimensional identities, advocating for themselves in a way that isn’t exclusionary to any particular facet of their identity. That is, it is refreshing to see these women speaking as members of the BME Deaf community about issues that are unrelated to their being Muslim women, without necessarily shrouding that part of their identity.

Yolo Akili – Are We The Kind of Boys We Want? (2011, 7.33 min)

Yolo Akili is a US-based poet, performance artist and anti-sexism activist.

In this video a group of gay black men perform his poem ‘Are We The Kind of Boys We Want?, which asks:

We don't find ourselves worthy as objects of our own lust … Who will have we if we won't have us?

The poem is spliced with interviews where each performer talks about his desire and self-perception, in reference to a culture that idealises masculinity and threatens “no fats or fems”.

Hearing how some of the men would never have considered dating men as feminine as themselves hurts my heart, and made me think of the scene in Kiri Davis' A Girl Like Me (2007, 7.16 min) where 15 of 21 black children choose a white doll over a black doll when asked to pick the nicer or prettier one.

Of course, desiring the other doesn't have to mean rejection of the self, especially with regards to sexual attraction where opposition is often eroticised, even within same-gender sex cultures  – tops and bottoms, butches and femmes, dominant and submissive.

YoloOppositionality doesn't always imply that one side is better than the other, and oppositionality can be charged with a kind of tension which is kin to lust. But equally, oppositionality is inessential to desire. The video finishes with a quote from writer Starhawk: not dependent on gender arises among and between any and all beings who are whole within themselves.

I feel this sentiment goes beyond gender differentiation, and beyond even sexual desire. Akili's poem and video celebrates feminine men, revalidated in their own esteem, and reconsidered in their own desires. But it also reinvents desire, less as a lack that keenly searches for a partner, than a circuit that confirms our wholeness within ourselves.

In Tom Cho's short story ‘The Sound of Music’ (Look Who's Morphing, Giramondo, 2009, p 46), the first person narrator asks, “Can who you like to "do" also be bound up in issues of who you are or want to be?”

An oppositional understanding of sexuality separates who we want from who we want to be, or structures them as polarities. Akili's video suggests otherwise: we can be the kind of boys we want – and we can want the kind of boys we are.

Lia Incognita is a Shanghainese/Melburnian poet and critic who founded and co-organises people of colour performance night POC THE MIC.


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