A totally unruffled anti-racism protestor in the UK shows how it’s done (Pepsi, take note)

Face to face.
Face to face.
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A confrontation between the far-right English Defence League and anti-right protestors resulted in viral photo that showed the power of actually standing up to intolerance.

Saffiyah Khan, a young British woman of Pakistani and Bosnian heritage stepped in to aid a woman in a hijab who had been surrounded by a group of EDL members in Birmingham April 8. As she scuffled with an EDL member, an image from the Press Association shows her staring down the demonstrators with an almost bemused smile on her face, hand casually in pocket.

The image went viral, with public figures citing it as an example of how to engage with the forces of racism and xenophobia. Confrontation doesn’t need to be violent, or even antagonistic. Khan wasn’t there to pick a fight but to stand her ground with others in their own city. She appears calmer and more confident than the EDL member, or even the police officer who is trying to mediate.

“Very unintentionally, it became a powerful picture,” she told the BBC.

When asked what the sharing of the image means to her, she noted that “it instills a hope about communities and the power of people who oppose the EDL, because often we see antifa and black bloc [far left and anarchist protesters], they’re not people we can relate to. They look aggressive, they look like thugs.”

She added: “When you see a girl who’s quite young getting involved with things like this, more people are willing to help and support.”

The timing of the confrontation contributed to its noteworthiness. Just last week, Pepsi released an instantly reviled ad with Kendall Jenner, a spot widely criticized as a tone-deaf attempt to co-opt various protest movements. The spot was pulled within a day, complete with an apology.

This real protest in the UK and the faux demonstration shown in the Pepsi ad obviously exist in difference universes, but the Pepsis of the world can still learn a powerful message from Khan.

A peaceful protest doesn’t mean a weak or appeasing one. The Kendall Jenner ad made the mistake (among several) of implying that protestors must somehow seek compromise and need to find common ground to be effective. Saffiyah Khan shows that it’s more meaningful to stare hate in the face, even with a smile.