Jasmin Kaur wrote her poem “her voice” in December 2016. At a time predating the official start of the Trump presidency, her words were meant as a guiding principle for Sikh women like her, who struggle against racism and the feeling of invisibility that accompanies it.
So that one day a hundred years from now
Another sister will not have to dry her tears
Wondering where in history she lost her voice
But in an ironic turn, last week Kaur saw her poem go viral in the days following Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court despite sexual assault allegations against him — only now, her words were edited.
“Scream,” as she’d written, was replaced with the word “Vote,” with the editor repurposing a poem about willful, emotional expression into a poem about dutiful, civic expression.
Though Kaur does not know who originally edited the poem, the altered version was shared widely by white feminists. Kaur’s followers alerted her to the alteration, which ignited a debate about how those with privilege adapt the language of resistance to their preferred narrative.
Kaur told HuffPost this week that the very invisibility her poem was intended to combat ended up being reinforced when her work was repurposed and popularized.
“When you write specifically to counter your feelings of invisibility and smallness within a white supremacist society,” she wrote in an email, “it’s disconcerting to see white people change your words to suit their own immediate needs.”
Kaur says wanting to use her poem to rally women voters is understandable, but she argues it is ignorant to do so without acknowledging the barriers to voting that have been instituted to bar communities of color from participating.
“I understand the sentiment of people needing to vote within the current political climate,” she said. “I also recognize all the ways that voting has been (and still is) inaccessible to many communities of colour.”
In its original form, “her voice” was intended as a time capsule. Kaur was setting out to “reflect the voices that are missing from the pages of history.” And in using the word “scream” specifically, she said she “was coming back to the present moment in which I have the opportunity to document my life and thoughts in ways that women of previous generations may not have had access to.”
Kaur is well aware of the burdens that come with being Sikh in a society that so heavily favors Christianity above other religions, particularly Islam and Sikhism.
“When you exist within a Sikh body and have a visible Sikh identity (such as wearing a dastaar - turban), public spaces make you feel both hyper-visible and completely invisible,” she said. “Glares from strangers become the norm. People shouting “terrorist!” at you through their car windows bring you to outrage until you can’t carry the hurt anymore.”
In giving Sikh women permission to scream, Kaur was acknowledging the righteousness of their anger without demanding they find a solution for it. She was affirming their entitlement to anger for their own purpose — intimate, painful, perhaps cathartic anger, rather than anger used solely in service of others.
The appropriation of Kaur’s words, then, invigorated conversation about allyship, political responsibility and who ought to be tasked with reversing America’s racist and sexist history.
Her view of anger doesn’t fit neatly with the widely preferred methods of social activism during the Trump Era, which are often intersectional, typically result-driven and widely carried out by well-intentioned people (many of whom are white) who may be realizing the oppressive forces in America for the first time.
There was a palatable air of hopelessness among the discourse surrounding Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. Those who thought numerous corroborated claims of sexual assault levied against Kavanaugh would stifle his elevation to the court were stunned — albeit probably not shocked — when conservative senators cast the allegations aside and confirmed him anyway.
There was and remains a sense among many that the confirmation of an historically unpopular nominee defied democratic principles. And while there was a chorus of responses opposing his confirmation, the rewriting of Jasmine Kaur’s poem reveals that that chorus is not always harmonious.