Interview Transcript: Sydette Harry

WHOSE KNOWLEDGE? PODCAST SERIES – EPISODE # 2

“ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT”: SYDETTE HARRY’S

STRATEGIES ON HOW TO DECOLONIZE THE INTERNET

 

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KIRA: So if you’d like to introduce yourself and any organizational affiliation that you have and kind of what brings you here?

SYDETTE: Hello! My name is Sydette Harry. I am currently editor of web properties at Mozilla and editor-at-large of Coral Project. What brings me here is Decolonizing the Internet and Wikimania. The other thing I’d like to say is that I’m all those things, but first and foremost, I am the first generation child of a deported immigrant from Far Rockaway, New York, and I am Guyanese by blood and temperament, and this is really important because we have to talk about the mechanisms that make it necessary for me to be an editor of web properties, to talk about the conditions of the place that I call home and how that is for so many people.

KIRA: So what is the work that you do in the day-to-day, and do you feel that decolonizing is present in that work right now?

SYDETTE: I think that is always present because there is always an active of how do you tell the story of the world as it is and not the story of the world as we are most comfortable with it? So creating archives and trying to collect all of the work our foundation has done, looking for new voices, looking for ways to bring people into conversations, looking for ways to ensure that consent is part of bringing people into conversations, that is a huge part of trying to create an editorial voice and put together work for a place, and a lot of it is quiet. It is talking to people day-to-day, it is playing with archives, and it reflects a lot of the world that we do not value or discuss the work that makes what we see.

KIRA: And so for you, what does the term ‘decolonizing’ mean?

SYDETTE: The only option for our continuing survival. Um, it is – it’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, and I think one of the things we really have to talk about is – it is a fundamental change of relationships that has never happened before. We have never lived in a world that has not been colonized since… the 1400s? And we’re trying to create a vision and create power relationships that have not existed before. So we’re trying to create big dreams, and also being from Guyana, being from the West Indies, I am a product of colonization. I am – that’s what happens. It involves Scot-Irish people, it involves people who were enslaved, it involves indigenous people, it involves peonage workers, and you end up with me. And there has to be a conversation about what that means for being a resident of stolen land, of genocidal people, and being their descendant, but also being the survivor of that, being the survivors that inhabited the space that happened because my predecessors were genocided – means being a displaced person who is descended from people being displaced forcibly. And me, being a descended person of the people who did the displacing and the ripping and all of that and trying to to make a world that is constantly moving toward some kind of equity and justice for that and realizing that that is not a process that is easy or fast or will be finished in my lifetime but must be continually happening.

KIRA: I really liked how you made the point earlier about – we’re trying to imagine something that we haven’t seen before, that hasn’t existed, and that’s an incredibly – it’s a tremendous task. Really insurmountable on a number of levels…

SYDETTE: I think it’s insurmountable if we think of it as a fixed point rather than a process. Like, we’re never going to be done, and that’s, that is, that’s, it’s often hard for us, but it’s also, it’s kind of like loving something, or that… it’s like, when – the fact that we are done does not mean that it is done, and also the point of it is not to come to the finish but to be better at than we were before, to be kinder at it than we were before, and to be – to inhabit it every way. So, one of the hardest things for people is not finding out the negative. We can all figure out what’s wrong with everything. It’s that usually the problem comes when you go: ‘So what do you – what do you imagine? What are the things you would like to ask for?’ Because the problems, especially with marginalized groups and people who have faced heavy oppression as a part of colonization and oppression is teaching people not to ask for things – is teaching people not to demand, teaching people not to create waves because that comes with consequences of violence, of hurt, and of oppression. And then to decolonize is to say: ask for what you want. Ask for all the things you need. Ask for the things that you have been denied. Tell the truth about your story, and that is harder. It is harder to create that space than to know what you’re not supposed to do.

KIRA: So what would you ask for?

SYDETTE: Uhhh. I am not separate from this problem. I am a person, so therefore I have the same issues. I would ask for free travel for folks. I would ask for kindness. I would ask for universal healthcare. I would ask for redistribution of wealth and land. I would ask for open discussions about indigenous rights and the rights of chattel slavery and descendents of people who were chattel enslaved, and how do we have discussions about colonies and how do we have discussions about who owns what? How do we have discussion about what it means to be on-line? What does it mean to be on the internet? How do we have discussions about how to properly represent people who do not necessarily want to be represented? And how do we have mostly a really big focus shift? The thing I would want most to see in my lifetime is if I can’t have everything I want tomorrow is how do we shift the work of decolonization and changing the world from who do we punish to who do we help? Because there’s – time and time again, you come to conferences, you go to places, and it’s constantly ‘well the overlords and the ruling class and the oppressors.’ and they are important, and dealing with that is important, but most importantly for me is ‘so how do we take the people who have been oppressed and give them what they need? How do we take the people who have been hurt and take care of them? How do we take the people who are hurting and take care of them? How do we take the people who have been unlawfully imprisoned and all of that? And how do we create spaces for care and kindness and to give them resources over punishing someone else? One of the things that I love to say sometimes is that if you would like to de-center whiteness, if you would like to de-center oppression, at some point you just have to do it. The questions just have to stop being about those people and have to start being about the other people.

KIRA: Yeah. So you flew here from the U.S., you’re still a little bit jet-lagged…

SYDETTE: I am somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean time-wise!

[laughter]

KIRA: How do you feel about the time you’ve spent here so far?

SYDETTE: I’ve really, really enjoyed it. I think that this has been one of my favorite conferences in so much that it has been a lot about creating work and creating ideas and thinking about things. And as with all work, especially around changing the way things are, there’s not enough time. There’s never enough space, there isn’t going to be enough processing time, so we’re all going to go back to the things we actually do and try to integrate that into our work and try to integrate that into our archives, and we keep hoping but this is one more space and one more moment that we have that we didn’t have last year, that we didn’t have 10 years ago. And that is something.

KIRA: Can you think of maybe one or two things that you are going to try to take from here when you go back?

SYDETTE: One – our last group we were talking about media – is thinking about ways of creating standards in archives and ways to look at media and connect them to each other that are new ‘cause there’s – decolonization cannot only apply to, like, oppressor structures, but also the kind of faux-structures we’ve made for media and archives and what it would be like to write for an archive, to think about an archive and think about ways of creating new forms of media as well as taking from it this continual focus on process and this joy of the quiet people. There is often – one of the things that I’ve talked with a couple of people – it’s that no one believes me but I am actually kind of introverted. And there is often within this kind of work a push for extroversion and we must perform and there is a deep value in the people who are like ‘if you give me post-its and a Kanban board, I will be happy and I can do the thing.’ And how to bring that out more and to do more of that and support more of that. Because I think very powerful things happen with archives and libraries and how so many incidents of mass acts of colonization and acts of harm have been done in the quiet spaces – destruction of Windrush documents, destruction of immigration documents – and how we also have to look at how to bring the work to those quiet places – of being the people who make sure that that doesn’t happen but also being the people to create new things to happen that prevent that but also create new spaces for people to be in.

KIRA: How do we take this into spaces that don’t look a lot like the one we’ve been in the last day and a half?

SYDETTE: We have to go to them, so –

KIRA: We have to be in them…

SYDETTE: You have to go to the library, you have to go to your community newspaper, you have to go to your general store. On of the things that I work – that a lot of our work in America is talking about local journalism, and there are places in Appalachia in West Virginia where they sit in front of the general store and they talk to the people that supposedly nobody wants to talk to. But that has to be as much of the model of this work as moving us from metropole to metropole to metropole. And the flip side of that is that – the work of dismantling things is not often well-paid. And it is not networked well because nobody – because they don’t want you to dismantle stuff

[laughter]

Surprise!

KIRA: Shocker.

SYDETTE: How do we start bringing in little facets and pieces of the work – people who do good journalism, people who do art, and make that easier for us to connect in an age when things like the lack of net neutrality and government surveillance are happening. And for me, a lot of that is working open. Just – I want it in the open. You know what I’m doing. I’m not necessarily – I’m archives, I am instruction, I want people to know how to do what they need to do, that’s it. And allowing people the resources and spaces to do what they need to do rather than prescribe it out or come up with a dogma.