The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my own advice. When we are trying to be allies or accomplices in liberation movements that are not about our liberation, there’s gonna be some big bumps in the road. It you’re a man who cares about smashing sexism or a white person who wants to dismantle racism, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms as the great savior. I advise people to be prepared for uncomfortable situations and let folks know that they’re going to be mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Just stay on the path.

Most of my classmates at Emory University went off to Wall Street, or law school, or medical school and are now making six and seven figure incomes and probably vote Republican. I chose a different path. My road has been to dedicate my life to unmasking and upturning forms of oppression in my world. It started the day I turned my back on the Klan town I grew up in and really took off when I began my undercover research in the white supremacist subculture. That path may have earned me a PhD and some media notoriety, but I’ve also got over 30 years of committed racists threatening to kill me and attacking me in ways that have severely impacted my family.

A white activist friend recently said we do this anti-racism work because we have to and she was exactly right. This work is woven into my being now, but I still have a lot to learn. For my senior high school ring I chose Mother of Pearl for the stone as a subtle nod to the “white power” vibes in my school. That was 1981. By 1984, I was working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I just needed that first sociology class to help me understand how I had become an agent of others’ oppression. I cast off that yoke but all these years later, there is still more to learn and it gets hard at times. I can’t count the number of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, agist, classist (and whatever the body-shaming “ist” is) things I’ve done or said over the years.

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To do this work is to deal with emotional fatigue because you never “win.” There’s always another battle and you wonder (especially with a president who today is speaking at a conference of an actual hate group) if any progress has been made. I was at the Portland Max train station last a May after the brutal attack by an alt-right racist that left two men dead and a third clinging to life. I was taking in the candles, flowers, and messages in what had become a makeshift memorial to these three Portland heroes. I suddenly was overwhelmed with desperation. What was the point of my decades of work on this issue if people are still being murdered by Nazis? Had I wasted all this effort? I was going to be a dentist. It was 2017 and the hate mongers were stronger than ever with an ally in the White House. I walked towards some shadows so I could bawl my eyes out.

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I do regular educational tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. We put a bunch of people on big Blue Star bus and drag them on a tragical history tour of Portland. Here’s where the black community was redlined, then displaced by “urban renewal” and gentrification. Here’s where Japanese-American men, women, children, and babies were imprisoned as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor. Here’s where a community of working class people were wiped out by a catastrophic flood. We visit the spot where Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by racist skinheads in 1988, and around the corner is the Hollywood Max station, site of the 2017 version of the same damn thing. We finish at Clyde’s Prime Rib, the great jazz bar and restaurant that in the 1940s was the Coon Chicken Inn. After the four hour tour, half of the bus riders look like they want to slit their wrists. It’s draining and deflating.

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In this work, I’m used to being attacked by people on the right. It comes with the territory. White supremacists have labeled be a “race traitor” and were doxxing me long before that was even a word. Conservatives call me a “libtard,” and a communist and are convinced that white privilege is a hoax and that discussions of implicit bias is a liberal tool to generate a false white guilt.

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It’s the attacks from the left that are more debilitating. It’s very in vogue for self-proclaimed radicals to bash “white liberals” these days, and much of it (as a self-proclaimed radical) I must say is deserved. As James Baldwin once said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” But my work is about bringing people into liberation movements, so I worry attacking the people who are trying to be part of the solution will have an opposite effect. The (young) left can be very dogmatic and humorless, not allowing people to find the most effective path for themselves on this collective path. “Oh, you made an inappropriate comment? You’re out and I’m going to get my righteous posse to kick your ass out the door. Whose streets? Not yours.”

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I was on a panel this week for an amazing program called Race Talks; monthly community conversations about issues related to race and racism. This month’s talk was about how to be a white ally. The organizer called me and asked me to participate and who else should be on the panel. I suggested a young African-American activist who had recently been on my podcast. His position on the issue was provocative but important. My interview with him really helped me grow. So I was excited when we were all up on the stage together in front of a crowd so big they had to create an overflow room. I was prepared to talk about lessons learned about being a white ally and how to take a back seat in others’ liberation movements. I even wrote some notes. I never got to use them.

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Instead of the the woman who organized the panel moderating the discussion (as she had planned), our one black panelist, the young activist, decided he would ask the questions (in what could be framed as an act of male privilege). Questions like how the white people on the panel had burned people of color with their efforts to “help” and what reparations were we paying to make amends for our white privilege. I told you he was provocative. And these were important, valid questions. I’m not sure how it helped the standing-room-only crowd learn to be racial allies (in fact it probably scared a few folks away from the whole idea), but it certainly gave me one of those uncomfortable situations I encourage people to put themselves in.

One of his points is that his time is valuable and he should not be expected to help white people with their racism without compensation. I totally agree. Before the event, I messaged him and said I was looking forward to the panel. I wanted to thank him for taking the time to  be on my podcast. In the South we do that by buying folks beer.

Me: I owe you a beer. Let me buy you one tonight.

Him: I don’t drink. I accept cash though!

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

I thought the cash line was a joke so I made a joke about the salad. Apparently, I offended him. He trotted out this interchange to the packed room (and streaming on line) about “this white man” offering him a salad. I apologized for the offending comment and took it as a cue that I should probably think about my use of humor, something that has gotten me in trouble before. (I tried to acknowledge his point by getting out my wallet that only contained 3 bucks, which I placed on the table in front of him. In retrospect, that was probably seen as being a bit rude.) After the talk, I went to the ATM and got out $20 to give him because I really do think his point about being compensated for his efforts is valid. As the crowd thinned, some of the older African-Americans in the audience asked if I was okay. One said it was unfair that I had been ambushed like that. But I want to grow on these issues, so I’m trying to not go into a defensive mode and take everything as a learning experience.

I was still bruising when I got home and in true Trump fashion turned to Twitter and posted something that I would have not posted if I’d gone straight to bed.

“Tonight I learned my white guilt cost $20.”

He screen-shotted it and posted on his Facebook page and it became open season on me from his fan base. But I engaged in the conversation that lasted into the following morning. I learned a lot, including about the meaningful discussion of reparations. The income gap between whites and blacks due to generations of oppression is real and continues to widen. I believe that any reparations should come from the government (the collective “us”). It’s unfair to expect some poor white person to shoulder the responsibility. But there are lots of ways white people can participate that are meaningful.

Reparations site asks people to ‘offset your privilege’ with acts of kindness

I mentioned that I would address this issue in my blog and included a link to a recent blogpost on white privilege. I desperately wanted these fellow ant-racist activists to see I was not the enemy, just in a parallel lane on this journey. I got accused of invading a “black space” to promote my blog. It seemed anything I did or said, I was already convicted of being the bad guy. I was trying to understand their landscape, but I was somehow now the enemy. I offered to link my interview with this young activist to his PayPal account in hopes that people that listened would consider supporting his work through contributions. He said no. “I have been severely traumatized by your self-promotion over the last few days,” he wrote.

Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win. It sucks not being perfect in the eyes of others who apparently are perfect. Sometimes you are tempted to give up and let others do the work. When I was in grad school, I almost did my masters thesis on Appalachian quilt makers instead of Nazi skinheads. Think how different my life would be. Think of all the quilts I would have! But this is my life’s work, so I soldier on, learning from my mistakes.

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In the last few years I’ve learned the concept of “self care” and that it’s okay to be mindful of how hard this work can be and sometimes it’s okay to take a day off the fight and gorge on ice cream. One of the other panelists from that night, No Hate Zone founder Sam Sachs, called me to make sure I was alright after the panel/Twitter/Facebook public thrashing I got from my friends on the left. He told me my work is vitally important and has changed lives. It was just what I needed to hear.

To all those engaged in the struggle for human liberation, it is important that we keep each other’s feet to the fire, so we come from a place of empathy and not ego. It is also important to remember that we are all imperfect in our humanity and in our path to our common goals of equality, so treating each other with kindness and love is key. I am not one to suffers fools gladly, even when that fool is me. We can be hard on ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes and our failures. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we’ll get there. Give us a break.

And since this will likely be picked up by some of those young radicals who will confidently accuse me of being a “self-promoting” asshole, let me just say I love you and will see you a little further down the road.

Super important endnote: No matter how much fatigue a white person feels doing this work, it’s always going to be more fatiguing to be black in America. People of color don’t get to take a “self-care” day off.

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9 thoughts on “The emotional fatigue of liberation work

  1. I had a trans student that I worked with years ago, and as I’ve kept up with him on social media, I came to realize that there was not much I could say to him online today that would not be misconstrued. He’s since come around a bit to show a little grace to allies who have good intentions but may not always say things right. I think it’s a maturing process.

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  2. You know how I am feeling about all of this. I would like to say I am surprised by their reaction, but I am not. Glad Sam checked in to make sure you are ok. Would have done so sooner had I known what happened.

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  3. In a society that we live in today, someone is always going to get offended over something. Unfortunately, you just can’t please everyone. It wasn’t that long ago, I was in downtown Portland. I saw a gentlemen who was a person of color and I very kindly looked at him and said “good morning to you sir.” Sir, is a title of respect you towards a man. Not only did he find the word sir offensive, but the fact that I even said good morning to him. Something as simple as that can offend someone. No need beating yourself up because someone is offended by you. All you can do is shake it off and move on. Beating yourself up is 1) bringing you down, and 2) giving the person who brought you down the power over you. Yes, I take in what people say, but I don’t let it bring me down because I know who I am.

    As far as reparations, I’m personally against it. When you give people money free money, there’s a good chance they are going to use it for things that they shouldn’t use it for rather than using it for what they should for (food, housing, transportation, etc.). I know it’s silly, but there was a movie (Barber Shop 2) that actually talked about reparations (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RczW1gIRBjY).

    Here’s something else for you to think about. People call Trump a racist, a Nazi, and against immigration. Well, if my memory serves me correctly, Nazis persecuted the Jews. If Trump were indeed a Nazi, then he would have denounced his very own daughter who converted to Judaism so she can marry her now Jewish husband. If Trump were against immigration, they why is it his 1st ex-wife and current wife both from foreign countries? I use these because these are issues that are constantly being said by Democrats.

    Sure, both sides have it wrong. As a matter of fact, both sides have it completely wrong. If they knew what was best for the country, they would stop arguing, criticizing, belittling, and constantly name calling. Growing up, I was always told this old proverb: “don’t expect to get anything accomplished if the other party wants to argue with you.” If you think about it, that is very true. Antifa and white supremacist do keep pouring gas on an open flame, media/celebrities keeps adding the wood to the fire, and then you have the people who want to see a change but nothing is done because there’s a wild fire that is so out of control, nobody knows how to control/stop it.

    We live with a generation of people who get so offended over the stupidest stuff and threaten to sue you. To be honest, we literally went from being a generation of grown up people who used to be self-dependent to a generation that is completely entitled and expects everything to be given/handed to them. We live in a generation where things are purposely being taken out of our history books. Do you think today’s generation knows that Asian, Hispanics, and Whites were bought/sold and treated as slaves in early American history? Of course not. Do you think that they’ll ever know the true cause of the civil war other than slavery? This country is coming close to being ran be millennials who were given every little thing. How does that make you sleep at night? LOL

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  4. I was there that evening and really struggled with that part of the conversation. Ultimately, I feel the points made on all sides came from true, personal, and painful places. And personal truths and pain can be real while also being in conflict.

    The panelist asking questions has been asked for free work repeatedly throughout his career. He regularly bares his pain and vulnerability as a black man in a very public sense. I can’t imagine the pain and trauma and disrespect that must come along with that vulnerability. I admire him for his willingness to engage in this work, despite those impossibly high costs. His pain exists, despite any white person’s efforts to alleviate it. I think it’s important for white people understand that and wrestle with it. His pain is true, and when you consider his pain is what black people all over our country feel, it’s overwhelming. White people will never fully understand that pain.

    The panelists answering questions have devoted their careers to the work of dismantling white supremacy, a messy work that is imperfect and imprecise and laden with land mines. They’ve made career choices that mean they earn less than many of their white counterparts, though they still likely have much greater financial net worth than POC in America, simply on behalf of their whiteness. Some spoke of family or friends who have pushed back on their work—giving the impression that their pursuit of racial equality, though imperfect, has come at a personal cost, perhaps losing relationships along the way. That cost, though high, is not near the cost of simply existing as a black person in America, like you said.

    As a white person trying to find my place in all this (failing more than succeeding), conversations like these are important for me to see. They shock me into the reality of the situation and force me to consider my opinion on reparations, both governmental and in personal interactions. They remind me of the high costs black people pay every day simply to function in America, contrasted with the far-less-high costs I’m faced with of walking away from family or friends in order to do my part in all of this.

    Ultimately, my fear is that the white first-timers or new-engagers in the audience who saw the intentions of three white activists (imperfect, yes, but active) be questioned by a black activist was, at best, confusing, and at worst, divisive. I heard a white woman beside me mutter “sounds like Trump” when one white panelists was responding. I spoke with another senior white man who attended for the first time and literally had no regular exposure to POC, but knew he needed to do something, to take a first step. Seeing people’s morals and intentions, imperfect as they may be, being mocked onstage might have done more harm than good in modeling to white people on how to truly serve the causes of equity and justice with your life.

    I worry that the discussion divided potential partners more than bring us all along together. We are all imperfect. But don’t we all have to start? Isn’t an imperfect start better than no start at all?

    As a white woman writing all of this, I realize my thoughts are full of holes and faults—I own that. I’m still on my journey. I have had to apologize to multiple POC along the way for my blind spots and the wounds I’ve inflicted, particularly since the election and my deeper dive into race relations. I fail often. My failures hurt others and open wounds. But the grace offered by people on the same journey is what helps me keep going, and my hope is that I’ll be able to bring others I know along with me.

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