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Jasmin Kaur’s poem got an unwelcome internet edit, and her response is something all white feminists need to read.

Punjabi-Sikh poet Jasmin Kaur recently posted a poem on Instagram that many women have found cathartic, especially while accused sexual assault perpetrators continue to be placed in the highest positions in the land.

The poem reads, "scream / 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."

A white feminist crossed out the word "scream" and wrote in the word "vote."

Kaur's original poem was well received by thousands of women. Then, a white woman took the liberty to change the first word from "scream" to "vote." The altered version of the poem (which has now been removed from the originator's page) was shared tens of thousands of times in largely white feminist circles.

[rebelmouse-image 19346205 dam="1" original_size="382x376" caption="Screenshot via Priya Hubbard/Facebook." expand=1]Screenshot via Priya Hubbard/Facebook.

Before we get into the reasons why race matters here, it's worth pointing out that changing the words of anyone's poetry is a no-no. Poets painstakingly choose every word; it's the nature of the art form.

Changing a word fundamentally changes someone's work. Don't do that.

But the issue goes far beyond the purity of poetry.

Kaur explained in an Instagram post why the "edit" was problematic—and the irony in having her words colonized.

On her website, Kaur says that her written work “explores otherness, decolonization and the beauty of resistance” and “acts as a means of healing and reclaiming identity.” So the coopting of her work by a white American is perfectly and sadly ironic.

"As a kaur — a Sikh woman — I write to disrupt my erasure from the world," Kaur wrote. "From media, from feminist discourse, from social justice spaces, from everywhere. This poem, specifically, was inspired by my reflection on the way that kaur voices have been erased from history in many ways and the pain I have felt as a direct result of that."

"I didn't expect women of other communities to engage with this piece the way they did, but it was surprising and cool. I recognize that there is so much overlap in the experiences of marginalized women across the world."

View this post on Instagram

The irony of this shitty poem edit is so blatant that I need to unpack it. Recently, a terribly edited version of one of my poems started making its rounds in white feminist spaces (swipe). The word scream was replaced with vote. I figured that people would clearly be able to see how this isn't cool, but I guess I was wrong. Let's break this down. As a kaur - a Sikh woman - I write to disrupt my erasure from the world. From media, from feminist discourse, from social justice spaces, from everywhere. This poem, specifically, was inspired by my reflection on the way that kaur voices have been erased from history in many ways and the pain I have felt as a direct result of that. I didn't expect women of other communities to engage with this piece the way they did, but it was surprising and cool. I recognize that there is so much overlap in the experiences of marginalized women across the world. The issue is that overlap in experience ≠ the same experience. When the word scream was changed to vote, someone made several shitty assumptions: 1. That my words were directed specifically at their neo-liberal political experiences of Amerikkka 2. That I made a mistake in explaining how to confront injustice and erasure 3. That my voice doesn't actually matter in a poem about my voice. Point 3 is the most important here, I think. The imagery of a Sikh woman's voice being erased from yet another space that she tries to exist within is too much. To edit my ideas without permission for your own interests is peak white entitlement. It says that my voice doesn't matter unless it suits your specific needs. It says that you don't know anything about me + that you don't need to. I write to exist. To be seen. To hold a mirror up to myself + women who look like me. In a world that very selfishly consumes the work of women of colour and marginalized folks. If you share my poetry (or your version of my poetry) without actually understanding who I am and why I am, you're engaging in my work passively. If you, as a white person, feel that I matter so little within the context of what I create that you can remove me from the work all together, you're colonizing my poetry.

A post shared by jasmin kaur (@jusmun) on

"The issue is that overlap in experience ≠ the same experience. When the word scream was changed to vote, someone made several shitty assumptions:

1. That my words were directed specifically at their neo-liberal political experiences of Amerikkka

2. That I made a mistake in explaining how to confront injustice and erasure

3. That my voice doesn't actually matter in a poem about my voice."

As a white woman in the U.S., that first point struck a chord. I am witness to, if not a part of, these white feminist circles Kaur speaks of. I saw this edited version of her poem shared in my Facebook feed several times.

The woman who altered the poem probably had good intentions and didn't give a thought to the background of the woman who wrote it. But that's the problem. We assume we have good intentions, but don't think beyond ourselves. We don't take the time to examine whether our actions might be adding to the oppression of a marginalized person or group. We assume everything is ours for the taking, without being consciously aware or acknowledging that that's what we tend to do.

As a result, we constantly make it so that women of color have to expend emotional labor to (hopefully) increase our understanding of our own actions. And too often, when confronted, we deny that we do all of the above.

If you still don't understand why the edit was a problem, Kaur breaks it down further.

Kaur explains how this woman essentially colonized her poetry:

"Point 3 is the most important here, I think. The imagery of a Sikh woman's voice being erased from yet another space that she tries to exist within is too much. To edit my ideas without permission for your own interests is peak white entitlement. It says that my voice doesn't matter unless it suits your specific needs. It says that you don't know anything about me + that you don't need to.

I write to exist. To be seen. To hold a mirror up to myself + women who look like me. In a world that very selfishly consumes the work of women of colour and marginalized folks. If you share my poetry (or your version of my poetry) without actually understanding who I am and why I am, you're engaging in my work passively. If you, as a white person, feel that I matter so little within the context of what I create that you can remove me from the work all together, you're colonizing my poetry."

She's right. Sure, the edited version still credits Kaur as the poem's creator. But to change that creation without permission, to place our own desire for political change over the voices around the world who may be denied that power, to imply that the American privilege of casting a ballot is an inherently superior method of revolution than raising the a female voice—all of that is wrong.

White women must be mindful of how we may be trampling over women of color in the march for gender equality—by erasing their unique experiences, silencing their voices, and coopting their efforts, and denying that we do all of the above. Our impact trumps our intent. Every time.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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