This is a multi-part series exploring power and agency in times of overwhelm and movement.
“I have to do everything by myself, perfectly, right now.”
When we believe that this is how we must operate in this world, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. It’s easy to feel powerless. It’s easy to give up and not try at all.
If we take a step back, we can start to see that every single clause in that sentence is a trap and characteristic of white supremacy culture, as articulated by Tema Okun et al at dismantlingracism.org. There is both a written PDF version and a zine version created by Laura Donovan. I encourage you to dig into the full PDFs. (Since I was introduced to these concepts during a training facilitated by Richael Faithful and Rebecca Mintz in summer 2019 — the seeing, naming, and antidoting of these characteristics has been an ever-present meditation and slowly unfolding praxis in my life.)
HOW we participate is just as important — or maybe even more important than what we do. The purpose of naming these characteristics is to see the water we’re swimming in, to see racism and antiracism as systemic and not just about individual ‘bad actors’.
Dismantling white supremacy is serious work, yes, but does it also have to be this drudgerous chore that we are now yoked to doing for the next umpteen years of our lives? Does the thought of reading 101 books and having hard conversations with your family and atoning for centuries of ancestral fuckery drain the very energy out of your weary soul? Me! too! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Actually, it can’t be that way if we are to sustain our energy and our love to work toward longterm, systemic change.
We have to make the revolution irresistible (Toni Cade Bambara). We have to follow life and what is lifegiving. We have to transform the how’s of how we do this work, and we do that by (re)imagining into and practicing ways of being that aren’t defined by the deadening characteristics of white supremacy culture. In gratitude and healing and honoring of our ancestral resilience, the fullness and the complexity of the gifts and the lessons and the inheritance they have bestowed us…we have to change how we conceive of our work together.
An earlier draft of this piece tried to respond directly to each ‘trap’ with an ‘antidote’, but this kind of either/or thinking is yet another trap — putting us in a stance of resisting something in a binary way that reinforces the validity of the very aspects we try and oppose. In rewriting, I chose to start by naming some of the harmful beliefs that limit the ways we feel like we can show up in movement. My hope is that naming these characteristics is freeing instead of overwhelming — if we can understand how our systems and culture have made it harder for us to access our own power, then maybe we can give ourselves some grace and compassion for the overwhelm and paralysis we can sometimes spiral into.
Then, I take a pause and a breath so as to invite us into some alternatives, some rooted antidotes, some visions for how we could and can show up in our world and communities.
Traps that limit how we show up to movement:
“I have to do everything…”
“Only one right way” is a characteristic of white supremacy culture.
It’s a trap of monoculture thinking that so many of us have to decondition ourselves from the story that activism = protest. The story goes: if you aren’t drawn to frontlines protesting, then you can’t call yourself an activist, so you’re not a part of movement, so you aren’t actively participating in politics.
It’s a trap of monoculture thinking that we don’t have the imagination or ability to see all the beautiful and myriad ways folks show up in the work of movement, in all the ways we can exercise our personal agency and collective power, in all the ways we need to work with each other and each person’s unique gifts to bringing about change.
Believing “I’m the only one” is another limiting characteristic. It’s convenient to the current system if we keep painting a single-note story of activism because then we don’t see the multiple paths of power we could take to change things. If we feel like what we have the capacity to do (e.g. voting once every 4 years, social media activism, donating) are not and never enough, we can fall into neutrality and silence instead — which are just as complicit and participatory to upholding status quo conditions.
“It is a practice in ego, not community, to assume I am the only resource.”@MsPackyetti
How might you tap into the tapestry that others have been weaving past-present-and-future and humbly offer your service and your gifts?
You are not alone. You don’t have to figure it all out alone. You don’t have to do this alone. This is especially hard during a pandemic when we have been asked to shelter in place and stay distant from one another.
Individualism and isolation are all symptoms of white supremacy culture. Our culture of capitalism benefits from folks feeling competitive, unworthy, overwhelmed, and overburdened — because then companies can sell you their fixes to individuals’ problems instead of communities turning to each other in collective mutual aid.
Collective power is the only thing that has ever changed anything. Guess who’s afraid of collective power?
What are all the ways that our current system gear us towards lives of loneliness and isolation? Where are your sites of connection and relationship most resilient?
It’s gonna be messy, and messy is okay.
Perfectionism is a characteristic of white supremacy culture. Perfectionism is only heightened and worsened by the call-out cultures of some social justice spaces — judgement incubated within the petri dishes of social media designed to reward anger and pile-on, crushing out possibilities for compassion and nuance.
This leads to a fear of trying, a hesitation to enter authentically into spaces, a stuckness around not knowing the ‘right’ way to be or do things, a timidity around asking honest questions…when it is our very vulnerability, unknowing, and grappling that leads to true transformation, true change.
How might we foster and co-create trusted spaces where folks can bring their full selves, including the gifts of their vulnerabilities without being shamed, where questions are welcomed, where there is accompaniment for the grappling of complexities?
Yes, it’s necessary to respond to these moments in a timely manner, to not sweep things under the rug or to turn a blind eye and wait for a more ‘convenient’ time to show up to the work. But can we also respond thoughtfully in a way that doesn’t fall into the traps of sensationalism and frenzy that 24-hour news cycles promote? Can we respond in ways that don’t kick our nervous systems into never-ending fight-flight-or-freeze emergency mode?
“A sense of urgency” is a characteristic of white supremacy culture.
Let’s be real: there is no simple quick fix for the systemic oppression and the historic trauma that is racism in America.
It will take as much time, thoughtfulness, and energy to dismantle and restore an ecosystem’s balance as it took to built this system of injustice and inequality. (Jenny Odell)
Are you ready to be in this work for the long haul? Can you find fuel and freedom in making a lifelong commitment to the work of liberation and antiracism?
Here, we take a breath.
Here, we take a leap.
Here, we take a breath.
Here, we take a leap.
Here, we transform “I have to do everything by myself, perfectly, right now.”
“We can do a lot, together.”
“We can create transformation that open up new possibilities.”
“We as a constellation of people have a lot of power to do what needs doing in conversation with other constellations of people who are doing what needs doing.”
“I have gifts to offer to my people and to my communities and to my home. I have needs that they can fulfill. We experience plenitude in our generosity.”
“We will keep trying, and we will make mistakes, and we will keep going. Because we know that we will help each other learn and that we will hold each other accountable. Because we also know how to experience joy together as well.”
“We will journey together, toward a future of our own making, in conversation with generations before us, and in dance with those who come after us.”
“There is personal and collective healing that we can only experience through mutual transformation in relationship and in community.”
How we show up is just as important — maybe even more important — than what we do. When we work in different ways, when we relate to one another from different values, when we show up in our full personal agency and in our shared collective power — our work can become sites of transformation.
In the “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” PDFs, they name antidotes to all of the above. Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown is another text that reorients us toward: making more possibilities, interdependence and decentralization, non-linear and iterative, resilience, adaptability, fractals, transformative justice.
The ‘what’ of what we do will naturally flow from the energy flowing between us as we dance a new-old ‘how’.
How we might show up, for movement, for each other, for the world:
Do for love, with love.
Do for beloved community, in relationship.
Do for joy, with pleasure and play.
Do with your whole body, and in mother tongue.
Do for collective dreaming, in rhythm.
Do for lifetimes, with radical imagination.
In these ways, visions of:
reading lists full of poetry, oral histories, conversation and dialogue, first-person accounts and historical summoning, speculative fiction, visionary fiction, recordings of music and dances to teach you how to remember.
candlelit dinners with your podmates where in-between sharing food and laughter you also share the tendernesses of how race has entered your life, has laced it with fear or fueled it with joy or blinded your senses or given you back your body.
dance parties with babies and showing up to rallies with little ones and mutual teaching of how to be revolutionary across generations. (ma’ia williams)
porchsits with swings, guitar music, the chirping of cicadas, and the slow unwinding that can only happen through meandering conversations traveling alongside sunset and moonrise.
painting a mural, redrawing city lines, planting garden parties, crossing the mental geography of our neighborhoods, shaking hands with neighbors you before forgot to get to know.
every step of the way, being brave enough to let go let go let go of what doesn’t serve you, of what is becoming clear. every step of the way, knowing there is someone — multiple someones — at your side, asking similar questions, ready to jump leap hold catch fall sideways with you on the journey and the path.
falling in love over campfires, falling in love across circles, showing love through small gestures, showing love by reaching out and coming back again and again.
Can you, can we, say yes to that life?
(i was hoping to write out sections for each of the ‘how do’s’ before publishing this, but i am tired and i am going to choose imperfection and incompleteness because i would rather hit send now and be in conversation with the flow of folks trying to discern how to show up in this moment. more expansion & more words to come about each ‘how we can do’ as I/we figure it out together.)
(tip o the hat to andrew simonet and the artistsu workbook “Making Your Life as an Artist” for pointing out how dumb “I have to do everything myself perfectly right now” is as a “quiet mantra that drives artists into constant low-level panic.” I took it and went deeper with it.)