For almost as long as I have been involved in social justice discourse, I have spent a lot of mental energy repressing critiques out of shame and fear of ostracization.
I used to convince myself this fear of ostracization was part of my privileged fragility.
It was fear of criticism, really. Privilege. Next.
I coded the critiques as, essentially, “impure” thoughts that I needed to disconnect from. Privilege. Next.
Now, I’m not so sure that fear can be explained by privilege alone. Now, after many a hushed conversation with dear friends and strangers, I realize I can’t keep ignoring this feeling that something is deeply amiss in our communities and our discourse.
Social justice discourse and feminist culture are currently dominated by ableist and abusive community policing tactics.
Usually these masquerade as community accountability meant to create a safe space.
These tactics often look like:
- Unchecked expressions of outrage that devolve into personal attack
- Purity politics and perfectionism
- Public punishment via call outs, humiliation, dogpiling, and ostracization as a first line of defense
- Coerced calls for “self-crit”
- Waging threats of punishment in spaces created for education or discourse in order to silence dissenting perspectives
There are more examples, probably, but these are the main ones that come to mind.
I want to be very clear before I dive in–some of these tactics actually do work in the right context. Especially call outs. Look at what’s happening in the wake of #MeToo, in the wake of people naming and shaming their sexual abusers. Abusers are finally being held accountable. That’s thanks in large part to the decades-long push from feminists shifting the discourse around believing victims and engaging in public call outs as a way to hold rapists accountable.
Call outs as a last line of defense when the call in didn’t work, or when the system failed to respond? Go on.
Call outs from an individual or group against an institution as a first line of defense? Awesome.
Fostering a community environment where call outs as a first line defense are an ever-looming threat, where marginalized people live in fear of losing access to community resources–no thanks.
It feels like we’ve taken aggressive social change strategies that have previously been used (often successfully) between someone(s) with less power against an institution or someone(s) with materially evident more power, and begun applying them to our person-to-person interactions within the social justice community.
This manifests, often, as power under abuse.
I know the intention in doing this is to resist, revolutionize, and dismantle.
But how do we reconcile our intent with our impact?
A few months ago, I outlined an extensive plan to create a free self-guided course on anti-oppression and spirituality for white spiritual practitioners.
I was feeling like–fuck, why are no white people stepping up to do this? As I learned a bit later, there are. Check out Abigail Rose Clarke’s course The Skeleton Key: Dismantle or the work of Jardana Peacock. I feel I should also mention Tada Hozumi’s Authentic Allyship Coaching Group (Tada is a person of color, but he works with white allies in this capacity).
I titled the course I was working on DOING BETTER – Unspelling White Supremacy*.
As I crafted it, I was working from these questions:
How the fuck do we as white people undo this programming?
I mean this seriously: How do we psychologically process the mindfuck that follows stepping out of a collective delusion? How do we do that without taking up energy, resources, and time from people of color who are suffering from the violence we inflict(ed) on them while we were pretending racism is over so it is Impossible for us to be Racist?
How do we who are sensitive heal from the reckoning that we have hurt others, so we can show up to the work of anti-racism fully present and committed?
I’ve continued to think about these a lot. And the more I mull them over, the more disconnected I feel from social justice discourse.
The longer I’ve spent away from this project, the more I’m questioning my orientation to it. It was a program built on offering answers and solutions. It was a program that, frankly, started to feel less like education and more like indoctrination. And that’s when I realized I needed to step back and meditate on this.
It made me feel really, really uncomfortable.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on why that is.
I started to ask myself: Why did I frame this as doing better? Partly out of a response to calls from POC spiritual practitioners for white people to do better.
But coming from me, a white person, why was I using it? Why did it feel so catchy?
What emotional strings did my marketing brain know it was tugging on?
It’s a phrase I’m really, intimately familiar with. It’s a call I hear all the time repeated in social justice.
I started to think of some other phrases I hear repeated a lot in social justice.
“Get over it.”
“Your feelings don’t matter.”
“Stop playing the victim.”
These four key phrases, these are ones I heard a lot as a child. They’re statements that I consequently internalized, convincing myself that, well, yeah. I’m pretty much shit. My emotions make no sense. I’m overdramatic. I take up too much space.
This was the abusive language that was normalized for me growing up.
So social justice discourse, with all of its proclamations of outrage and aggressive moral righteousness, its relational dysregulation–it was an easy entry point.
It felt like home.
“Do better”? Sounds good.
“Get over it?” Yeah that makes sense, I’m always too emotional.
It’s easy to repeat those same phrases and bark them at others who refused to fall in line.
It’s easy, especially, to say them to other white people who failed to live up to my levels of “”””Woke”””””, who were not as PURE as I was striving to be.
I just played this game last month in the whole “Too Cis Lady” Debacle. And frankly, it felt gross. I met moral aggression with moral aggression let the power that comes with that level of righteous indignation direct my response. If anything I did in that interaction was abusive, it was meeting abuse with abuse.
Going that black/white in my engagement always leaves me feeling like I’ve stepped out of my integrity. And I’ve spent a great deal of the last 2-3 years trying to understand (remember) why that is. I think I’m finally understanding it.
And of course, people should be able to call for improvement. People should be able to name when others are being harmful. People need to name the ways social privilege manifests in individual interactions and ways of moving through the world.
We need to be able to do this.
But what happens when our calls for accountability look more like manipulation than justice?
On the other side of the coin–what happens when our fragility is rooted deeper in our mental illness than our privilege? How can we know that? How do we navigate that?
Here’s the thing about those of us who live through developmental trauma and have yet to heal it:
We seek out and reproduce the traumatizing conditions–often switching between the roles of victim, perpetrator, and savior–in order to re-enact that abuse. Because it’s what we’ve learned, it’s what we’re familiar with. Because when we try to re-enact it–we are hoping to finally process it.
And when it comes to those of us involved in social justice discourse?
We are all traumatized. If not by our families or partners, then by society.
We are all deeply, personally aware of what it means to be victimized and abused.
And as a collective, we have not yet processed it.
We have not had room to process it.
We have not had the resources to process it.
And so here we are. Re-enacting our trauma on each other. And we’re letting it slide (or not seeing it) because our society isn’t trauma-informed. Including our political discourse. Even in social justice.
For some us, the trauma we experience turns into mental illness. Or it’s caused by our biology, or something else.
For many of us with developmental trauma disorders, anxiety, depression, personality disorders–social justice discourse is inaccessible. It is beyond triggering. It is re-traumatizing.
I can’t tell you the amount of times I have spiraled into suicidal depression because of merely witnessing social justice discourse, let alone actively participating in it. And every time I have, I convinced myself I am at fault. I’m being too weak, too self-centered, too fragile. And if that’s the case–what use am I to the work? If I can’t engage in the work, what’s the point of being alive?
I can’t tell you how many other people I know who have experienced this same thing (in varying degrees of severity).
And I can’t tell you how many people I’ve caused to spiral because of my own abusive behavior under the banner of justice.
Every single person I’ve spoken with, they all feel 1) guilty, and 2) afraid of sharing these experiences for fear of public call out and community ostracization. Because we with mental illness know all too well that when we talk about our mental illness, we run the risk of getting told we’re doing it for attention, we’re too weak, and we’re playing the victim.
Just like mainstream society, we are convinced by ourselves and our community members that we are at fault for failing to adjust properly.
We convince ourselves it’s not an issue with the culture; it’s an issue with us.
Maybe there is something bigger than ourselves that needs to be changed.
If our social justice is inaccessible to people with mental illness, how do we move forward?
How can we make space for our outrage, our incredulity, and our anger (a sacred force of self-love indeed) while also recognizing the impact that these have on others?
How can we move forward with compassion, knowing much of these inter-community abusive behaviors are coming from a place of trauma too? What does that mean about the way we conceive of abuser and victim? How do we reconcile that we have been both abuser and victim in our relations? Does having this insight require us to rethink what justice looks like?
Where do we draw the line between accommodation to those with mental illness or neurodivergence, and coddling those with social locations that oppress us?
If your take is that this sounds like something we with mental illness need to work on so we can show up for the work, how are you working to ensure that we can access the resources we need to heal? What happens when those resources don’t work, and we continue to be triggered or re-traumatized? How would you respond to someone saying “I need to unplug from the news / this conversation / etc. for a while to take care of my mental health”?
These are questions I am working through. I encourage you to ask your own questions of this issue, or offer your own answers if you’ve got ’em.
*At this time, my work on Unspelling White Supremacy is stalled, but I do plan to publish the reading list I compiled. I have more questions than answers when it comes to social justice right now. And I’m certainly not a certified social justice educator, nor do I want to advertise myself as one or try to occupy that role. Once I realized there are folks who are engaging in this work, I felt less of a push to get this off the ground ASAP. I hope the work of those I mentioned above can be of service.
On another more personal level, I had hoped to structure the course primarily for cis white women and include an interactive group component–but I am realizing that as a newly out nonbinary person, holding space for cis women to unlearn oppression (which would inevitably require gender discussion) is not something I am equipped for right now.
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