BY shirin

In conversation with RAFIA

About white privilege, black culture, gender and activism


Tenacious would be the word she would use to describe the zeitgeist of our generation. Rafia Santana is a multimedia artist who will work with whatever she gets her grubby hands on. In this visual essay she talks to us about what she thinks is important: the beliefs behind the art. More specifically: her beliefs.

Does being a young, artistic black woman in 2015 influence your art?

Personally I think it’s really fun. I definitely have a lot to talk about. Although it can also be very frustrating: people are not going to listen to you as easily, I feel very powerful in my tiny body. I have such a big spirit, that comes from the experience of being a black artist.

The Huffington Post mentioned in their article that your work is about focussing on your self-identity as a young black woman dealing with daily reminders of race and gender challenges. Could you give an example of one of these reminders?

When I was in college I started feeling the racism more, especially from the top down. The way professors or people that were not from New York would interact with me, how they would treat me, and think of it as normal. This was the first time I really acknowledged the insidious racism, not the: ‘I don’t want to tell you straight to your face but I hate black people’ kind or racism. The systematic racism. I’d be outspoken about how different it was. To me it just felt bizarre.

In gender these reminders were always a thing. Especially when I started showing myself naked in my photos. Growing up, as a girl, you were never supposed to be too alluring, get anyone on. I wasn’t really ever about being controlled. I doesn’t make sense to be under someone else’s rules like that.

Some argue that our generation approaches gender in a different way: more open minded, less blurred lines. What is your experience?

Through the internet we’re able to communicate with people who have similar values. Which is both wonderful and dangerous. If you have any values at all, you will find people online who will agree with you. People who feel marginalised will find people just like them. Or they realise that they share their experience with someone else. In that respect, our generation is more open minded, because we’re not confined by the people around us. We can learn directly from other peoples experiences online.

What is your idea about gender?

My idea about gender is super fluid. It can change by day. It shouldn’t be two boxes at birth. This traditional way of approaching gender is restrictive. Gender should be as fluid as somebody is as comfortable being. We sort of joke about people being fluid with their gender. People think it’s different, it’s weird and wrong. But we should be laughing at those people who are being restrictive. You’re not open. You’re not seeing the big picture.

This difference between men and women, it’s just the way the system is currently set up. I’m not even sure where it came from. Tradition is based on whoever is in power and who will support that. It depends on who is at the top. In some ways the difference between men and women is getting smaller. Especially with the internet and the way information and ideas travel a lot faster.

Your work is almost like a visual statement. Still some people argue our generation is less politically involved – they are indifferent towards change in a way because our lives are too comfortable. What is your perspective on this matter?

If you have things good, you obviously don’t want to shake the cradle. But as a generation I feel like a lot of people are the opposite of indifferent. They are more knowledgeable because of the internet. A lot of people are becoming more aware at a younger age and want to change things.

How do you believe todays activism is taking place?

A lot of it is happening on the internet. Which is also a sort of disorganized mode of activism. Activism isn’t designated for activist groups anymore. There are much more low level activists that just want to do things right. I’m sure this took place before, but they have much more information at their fingertips. Which makes me mad when people don’t use this information. You can just look it up! Same with link sharing. It’s gotten so easy to share information. You just pull out your phone and read.

What is your perspective on #blacklivesmatter? Do you think it’s a good way of activism?

It’s good because it’s really in your face. What are you going to do? Block the hashtag? I feel like it’s the most connective thing, that I’ve seen in my own lifetime. It’s the sort of activism that we’re all passionate about. I’d like to see more of it. I would say it’s good. It’s definitely not a bad thing. I saw something online that said: we don’t want to become spectators to our own movement. Which is what can happen a lot.

Do you believe in white privilege?

For sure. I specifically remember this one situation in high school. There was this safe space at the school where we often hung out. And there was this white girl. Often poor white people, who are below the poverty line, don’t understand white privilege. This girl didn’t understand because her mom had three jobs. I wonder if she understands now. The system is set up in a way that people will choose her over someone who’s black. That itself is weird, but it’s hard for people to understand when they’re struggling. They don’t understand that their struggling isn’t exactly at the same level. Someone in their position with a different race will not be able to achieve the same level of things that they can. If they went to the same bank and applied for the same loan, the white person would be more likely to get it.

People need to know that black power doesn’t dismantle white power. People need to be more compassionate and more considerate.

What do you think the solution to this problem is?

I never know what this would be, because the entire system is built on this privilege. It would have to be a major change in the way things go. The entire system would have to change. I can’t really process what that change would be. The best we can do is educate. At this point it’s up to white people who have to educate their friends and family. The step by step progress is awareness. People need to know that black power doesn’t dismantle white power. People need to be more compassionate and more considerate.

What do you think is the effect of the internet on our generation?

I actually think about this a lot. I wonder if there will be an age where we shun the internet and public favouring will be against it. The internet has gotten really invasive. We are obsessed with knowing more and more. Other than that the internet is a tool and it depends on the person whose controlling that tool what I can be used for. I think I’m using it for good. Mostly.

Check out Rafia’s work here.