CN:White person exploring racist thoughts and feelings, mentions and brief descriptions of torture; war; depression; nightmares; self-hatred; therapy; anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-trans violence
As many of us consider how to sustain our passion and action under the Trump administration, I am considering the role of my own racism and internalized ableism in sustainability.
After 9/11/01, another Iraq War was threatened and Special Registration unfolded. Many other things were also happening, but those were two that I was aware of at the time and felt deeply invested in stopping.
Before the Iraq War began, I attended four anti-war protests. I called the president, my Senators, and my representative. I signed petitions. I attended a meeting or two of people planning anti-war actions. I did some direct action on my campus against military recruitment. For me, this was an unprecedented degree of political activism. Bush started the war anyway. And part of me thought–but I did all the right things! All the things that people asked me to do–turn up for protests, make calls, sign petitions, come to meetings–I did them. And a lot of other people did them too. And it didn’t matter. We lost. I was genuinely surprised and discouraged.
Then I stopped being so active on Iraq War issues, and frankly, I mostly stopped thinking about it. I remember clearly, though, that one night I had a vivid nightmare. I saw burned, flayed, cut bodies of Iraqi people laying on sand. They were alive, at that point, and moving weakly. They were being tortured by my own own government, in my name. I couldn’t not witness their pain. I couldn’t stop it. It was a terrible nightmare. And when I woke up, I realized that it was true, except that awake I could choose not to witness.
For Special Registration, I went to an event put on by an immigration law organization and another put on by DRUM (the South Asian Organizing Center, then known as Desis Rising Up and Moving). I had a small house party to raise money for DRUM. I showed up to several protests. The protests were small–tiny, actually. They were generally led by white lawyers, which might have had something to do with the size. I wrote a paper about Special Registration for class. I probably circulated info about Special Registration to an email list or two. But Special Registration went on and on and on, and I ended up mostly feeling a sort of horror and impotent rage. I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t talking about it. I couldn’t understand why there weren’t huge marches against it. I couldn’t understand how the government could have done it in the first place, or how our laws had gotten as wrong as they were. I resented almost everyone I met for not doing something about it, and myself for not doing something more effective about it or for maintaining action against it for longer.
That year or so period was also a difficult time for me personally. I was dealing with divorce–the end of a relationship with my first love–and I was also dealing with a lot of anti-trans discrimination. Many days, I spent long hours just staring at a wall, contemplating what was wrong with my life. I did not recognize depression as a part of my experience at that point.
I made plans about what I would do last weekend. I would work hard on Thursday, close my Chase bank account, and then help with set up and tear down at a bystander intervention training that night. The next day (inauguration itself) I would pack the court for Ramarley Graham, do some writing, give to reproductive justice organizations, set up regular donations for the rest of the year, make a sign for the women’s march, participate in the general strike by not working, and have a low-key dinner with friends. Saturday, I would attend the women’s march for 2 hours or so, and do some catch-up work. Sunday, I would connect with my friends in a little support group for action we have, and do more work. During the week, I would focus on work, with a few small online actions.
Things didn’t go exactly as I planned.
On Thursday, I was anxious and distracted, so I was not productive with work. I did close my Chase bank account, and I did do set up and tear down for the bystander intervention training. I enjoyed my volunteer role at the training and learned a little. But I also left with sore knees–we practiced physical techniques like heel stomps, and while I knew it was a risk to my body, I chose to participate in that exercise rather forcefully.
On Friday, I woke up more tired than when I went to sleep. I had a splitting headache. I lay in bed for an hour doing nothing at all. With what felt like Herculean effort, I managed to move to the couch. Because when depression flares up IBS sometimes does too, I spent my day physically moving between the couch and the toilet and emotionally moving between self-castigation and self-pity. It occurred to me that I had fucked up my meds. I did not pack the court. I did not write. I did not work. I did not set up donations. I did manage to make a sign, give to reproductive justice orgs, and eat dinner, although I was not exactly the life of the party. I watched Star Trek. I took my damn meds.
Saturday, I felt a little more functional. I still had a headache, but I felt less immobilized and more desperately sad. I met with a lovely group of people, most of whom I didn’t know, to go to the march. I said that I would probably duck out after two hours because my joints probably couldn’t handle more. I marched.
My back, knees, hip, and feet hurt after around 45 minutes. I stuck it out for another 45 minutes. Then I excused myself and limped to the train. The train was crowded. For a moment it looked like I would have a seat, but I gave it up to a young kid. I kept getting off and on the train in the hopes that I would find a seat on the next one. I didn’t. When I got off the train at my stop, I considered calling a car to get the rest of the way home, but it seemed too selfish and indulgent. On such a day, I should not be calling a car using some service I’m not sure treats workers well. On such a day, I should not be wasting money I could be giving away. So I limped home, collapsed into bed, and didn’t move for a long time. Later, I took a hot bath to ease some of the pain. The pain has slowly faded since then, so that I am almost back to normal today.
This week, as I have heard the news of horrifying executive action after horrifying executive action, I have felt myself getting lost in anxiety. I feel guilty. I feel panicky. I start hyperventilating. I can’t focus, can’t calm down enough to do anything that requires more concentration than a facebook post. I keep feeling like–I need to stop this! I need to do something! This can’t happen! What is happening to people already? What will happen to them next? How can this be happening again/more/still? How can I help? I went to a #NoDAPL rally last night for 45 minutes–I left as my back started to ache. I took some online and other fairly quick and low-key actions. I was pretty productive with work Monday and Tuesday, but yesterday and today I have not managed to do much. The metaphor that comes to mind is that I am spinning out. It is a familiar sensation.
I’ve been thinking about how connected white supremacy, internalized ableism, depression, and secondary trauma are in my own thoughts and feelings. It is often difficult for me to separate them out.
When part of me was shocked that Bush hadn’t just called off the Iraq war after I gave him a phone call and showed up for some marches, that was an internalized sense of white supremacy. I have been taught and at some level believe that all people ought to and will listen to me, that I am entitled to control public policy, that there is no problem so big that I can’t solve it, and that there is no group of people so fucked over that I can’t rescue them.
This is a harmful, racist mindset. It leads me and other white people to diminish the agency, power, and humanity of people of color, funnel money to causes that do more harm than good, smugly get sex workers arrested “for their own good,” and otherwise make things worse. It also absolves us of any responsibility for doing long-term, collaborative work that centers the leadership of directly-affected people and offers the possibility of more meaningful change: work that requires not just presence but persistence, not just money but humility, not just convention but imagination, not just monologue but conversation, and not rescue but relationships.
When I stayed at the march even after my pain got pretty bad and then didn’t even consider the possibility of asking someone for a seat on the train, that was internalized ableism. I felt ashamed of my pain and weakness. I didn’t want to reveal it. I didn’t think I would be good enough as an activist if I didn’t stay at the march for at least an hour, but preferably two. I didn’t think I was worthy of troubling someone else to stand on the train, even if that person was not having any pain at the moment. And I wonder if even that is totally separate from an internalized sense of white supremacy, given that so much of white supremacy is tied up in fucked-up, fake-science, racializing claims about physical, mental, and moral “fitness.”
The harms of white saviorism and white supremacy fall overwhelmingly on people of color. It’s not so great for white people either. If you think you can solve any problem, it’s all on you when you haven’t and you can’t. While burning out and dropping out of social justice work is better than some other forms that white (supremacist) saviorism can take, it’s not great.
I’ve seen some people recommending focusing on a single issue in their activism to avoid burning out under Trump. Some people I love and respect have found that approach helpful, but it feels impossible and undesirable to me. I need to find and remember other paths to sustainability. My therapists have encouraged me to try reframing negative self-talk and saying positive affirmations when I get into self-hatred spirals. Self-hatred and arrogance seem like two sides of the same coin for me, all mixed up with white saviorism, internalized ableism, secondary trauma, and a few other ingredients.
So, I don’t know what my plans are. I don’t know what anyone should believe. I certainly don’t know what any of us should do. But for my own personal stability, I’m interested in trying a slightly different set of affirmations than what my therapists have recommended, to try to intervene a bit with this toxic internal brew:
- I am a human being who makes mistakes and who is worthy of love and compassion.
- My pain does not make me any more or less worthy.
- My bodymind has limitations and vulnerabilities.
- My bodymind has value.
- I am an ordinary person.
- I am not a superhero. I cannot save anyone, and I should not try.
- Change is inevitable. Change for the better is possible.
- It’s not all about me.
- I can contribute to collective action.
- I do not have more because I am better, smarter, kinder, or harder working. I have more because I have more.
- I have more because of a history and present of exploitation and injustice.
- I can share what I have.
- I cannot solve any of the world’s major problems.
- I cannot even solve most minor problems of people I know personally.
- I can act as a resource, collaborator, and friend.
- I cannot avoid all mistakes.
- I can try to make amends for mistakes I have made.
- Every bodymind has limitations and vulnerabilities, although not all the same ones.
- Every bodymind has value.
- Every human being makes mistakes and deserves love and compassion.