Sitting With Discomfort: How To Be An Activist
Before I say anything else at all: SILENCE IS VIOLENCE. White allies, we must support the Black Community. Here is a petition to include Black British history in the school curriculum. There is, in fact, an existing social enterprise that aims to do just that – support The Black Curriculum here. There will be more resources at the end.
Now, about me… My name is Rita. I am white and Polish. I come from a country that is racist, sexist, homo- bi- and transphobic and ableist and I, despite efforts, am all of these things, too. I have now lived in London for eight years – eight years of looking at a society very different to the one I grew up in with an outsider’s eye, reading, learning, processing. I will never be done learning – but I am ready to speak and add my voice to support.
Caveat: speaking out is a double-edged sword. We want Black voices to lead the charge, but also we need to take the labour off Black people. There is no one correct way of speaking out or being an activist; that said, I am open to criticism and will hear it. Writing this piece does not mean that I am blameless: the mistakes I am warning you against are mistakes I have made. And when I say you, I am primarily aiming this piece at readers who are white and have not been involved in activism before. I am writing it for you, but also for me: to assemble the things I have learnt and remind myself of them when I falter.
Learn about why. So you understand, so you can challenge yourself and others, so you can argue, so you can convince, so you remember where your activism comes from, why you’re doing it. Not only read – CONSUME MEDIA. Watch, listen, read, write, TAKE IN. Right now, read things that are by Black people. Broadly, read things from people who are not white men: by virtue of canons, habit, privilege, friends in the media industry/what have you, white men will still claim the vast majority of your library, Netflix and podcast queue. You don’t have to try to take in information by white men, it will happen regardless. Be mindful and offer your attention to others.
2. Be wary.
Remember not to trust everything you read and see. Keep in mind that perspectives differ, seek to diversify them, do your research. Take nothing as gospel. If your preferred form of taking things in is books, learn about how language is manipulated; the same for video, the same for sound, the same for any medium. Don’t disregard lived experience yet be cautious with anecdata. Walk the line, step on the tightrope, and when you fall, climb up again.
3. Speak up.
Having done your research, you get to speak up. This seems very obvious: with social media we are all publishers of a kind. But more importantly, this means that you have to challenge racism. Challenge it in your family and friends. Confront it in your place of employment. Hold institutions accountable. Does your favourite theatre showcase diverse work? Does your place of work have clear rules of advancement and structures of management that don’t favour people who look like the people in charge? Are there clear and observable divisions between high and low-paid employees? Have you thought about it? It’s important to speak up in social and formal situations, not just on Facebook. Now that you’ve learnt how things are, the next question is: who has the power to change it? Can I influence them to do it? That’s writing to your MP, challenging people in power, holding them accountable.
4. Be wrong.
Be prepared to be wrong and criticised. If that happens, re-evaluate. Remember why you do this work. Remember that impact > intention. Nobody will care if you mean well. However, as things get nuanced, you may get praised and criticised for the very same action. That is fine. Black people are not a monolith and neither is anyone else; fulfilling one person’s need may not be enough for another. Keep checking what you’re doing. Leave your ego out of this. Prepare for discomfort, it will be constant. That is the work.
I want to also specifically mention: if you are accused of doing something to look good, don’t stop (unless it is also insensitive or centres whiteness). It’s human to want to look good, but if it’s your only reason to be an activist, you’re in the wrong game. If it’s not, don’t be discouraged by the distrust. Black people are constantly traumatised and disappointed by people who promise and don’t deliver, who love their music and art but won’t support their survival. They have very good reasons to believe that you’re using their movement for self-promotion and branding. The only way to dispel that impression is to keep showing up for the work and keep leaving your ego at the door. Show them that you choose their friendship over the benefits that white supremacy affords you. If you are not trusted, remember how minor it is compared to being killed by the police. Take a breath; remember your privilege. Keep going.
5. Take consistent action.
Right now, it’s time to be all in, because we are in the middle of a crisis. Only you know what “all in” looks like for your life. If you’re tired, think of those who cannot opt out, whose neighbourhoods are burning, whose loved ones are dying. Lean on your community if you can and keep going. However, long-term, we need you for the marathon as much as for the sprint. What can you do CONSISTENTLY? Are you running a book club? Can you read a book weekly and share it with others? Are you writing to your representatives? How frequently? Have they responded? Are you holding them to account? Are you blogging? Are you showing up bodily and protesting? Are you modeling self-education on social media? What does your activism look like? What are you good at? Know yourself. Remember, you are a single person, not a village — choose the best, most useful action and then take it.
You are not a village, so build one. Take your activism out for a walk and hang with other people. Make connections. Host brunches. Join marches, help organise others. In fact, treat it like WORK. How much time are you able to devote? What kind of labour can you offer? What can you make for others, with others? Lone-wolf heroes only look good in Hollywood movies, and mostly not even then. When challenging state-approved oppression, you need a community, because you need all the help you can get.
7. Don’t burn out.
To quote a Tweet by Vicki Barkley: “You will never feel it’s enough because there will always be more work to do. You will take a vacation while a grave injustice happens. Your vacation is necessary because you are necessary. It’s a way of life. Welcome.”
If you want to help, you also need to practice good boundaries. Burning out helps no one – you can’t do everything, all the time. So, proportionally to the hard and emotional labour you choose to do, you also need to commit to self-care. I don’t necessarily mean bubble baths and candles, unless that’s your thing: I mean that your food needs to be nourishing, your laundry done and you need to protect your brain from total media overwhelm. As per Brianna Wiest, self-care “(…) is making a choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from”. That means rest breaks. That means creating habits and practices that make you stronger and more capable. It can be exercise; it can be therapy; it can be setting boundaries on social media, meditation or a communication course. Overall, build routines that facilitate strength of mind and body, giving you endorphins and energy enough to do the work. Practice determination and allow yourself rest, so that you can keep going.
8. Process with white friends.
I cannot stress this enough. Your mileage may vary, depending on the kinds of friendships you have, but unless told otherwise, follow the principles of Ring Theory: Comfort In, Dump Out. Your book club doesn’t want to read Maya Angelou because her books are “too grim”? Your auntie is very uncomfortable with your new-found activist persona and sends you Facebook messages? Yes, all those “uncomfortable” people are racist. No, it’s generally not helpful to talk about it to your Black friends, because THIS IS NOT NEWS TO THEM. Rant to your white friends instead: you can compare notes and support each other in being anti-racist. But unless they volunteer, don’t ask your Black friends to do that work for you. Particularly, if you’re only now discovering how deep the racist rabbit hole goes, please don’t ask Black people to absorb your horror – to minimise their own discomfort and soothe your feelings. Don’t post your shock on Facebook; it’s not a hot take. If you’re horrified, it means you weren’t paying attention.
9. Hold space for Black friends.
What do you do for Black friends? You offer nice things that are specific. Don’t say “anything I can do, just call” — don’t put the onus of contact on people already suffering. You offer nice food, favourite music, maybe you send a card — whatever you know will bring a smile to their face. You also listen to them if they want to vent, without volunteering your own stories or becoming defensive. If you don’t know what the nice thing is for that particular person, there is a chance that you don’t have close Black friends and are trying to “do something nice” to make yourself feel better. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Don’t. Take a good hard look at your community and ask yourself why it is completely white. Examine this, so it can change.
10. Reflect on whiteness.
Systems of oppression are only able to function, because they are invisible. They masquerade as normality, run-of-the-mill, “there is no alternative”; they are as transparent as the very air we breathe. In a system like this non-white folx are the designated Other. So once you realise that people outside of your privilege group have different experiences and you take them in, the next step is to look at your own experiences and spot where those differences lie. Then report on whiteness from the inside – use your privilege to talk loudly about the discrepancies. This applies broadly – whether the system is heteropatriarchy or white supremacy and systematic racism. Challenge your notion of “normal”. In some way, you were told that you are a default human – whether default means “white”, “straight” or “able-bodied”. That’s something to change within yourself as we go about changing the world.
Importantly, when I say “systems of oppression”, it is possible that you are privileged in some ways and oppressed in others. That’s what intersectionality means. As Audre Lorde said in Learning from the 60s address, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives”.
11. Donate and pay.
Vote with your wallet. Right now there are many, many, many round-ups on various media; plenty of worthy causes to give money. But beyond one-off donations, think about changing your long-term habits. Divert funds from big companies known for abysmal treatment of employees (*cough, Amazon, cough*). Make a commitment to supporting Black-owned businesses. #BlackPoundDay is coming up on the 27th of June; follow the hashtag on Instagram to re-funnel your spending. Consider supporting Black charities or educational projects; there are plenty to choose from!
12. Stick around.
It bears repeating: this work will not have finished in one burst. Be here when the dust settles; when the hashtags stop trending. Do the thankless, quiet, necessary. Notice people and institutions paying lip service to this moment: Met Police posted a Black Lives Matter message despite their own history with Black people dying in police custody; so did L’Oréal, who famously dropped Munroe Bergdorf, because of her BLM Facebook post. In the UK, theatre schools and theatres are being publicly called-out for PR messages that directly contradict Black people’s experiences with those institutions. There are politicians, influencers and companies trying to ride the wave of this movement. It is our job to hold them accountable and press them into doing this work when it’s no longer fashionable – and to do the same for ourselves.
If you’re intimidated by the amount of work to do, remember that your Black family, friends and colleagues have been shouldering it all alone. Start small, learn as you go, stay humble. Get in there. Lighten the load.
White Allyship 101: Resources to Get to Work by Dismantle Collective: https://www.dismantlecollective.org/resources/
What Can I Do In The UK: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cq6zYlu-yFtcqu_J7pG4RpenlN-yPRINLShnnLyPfRQ/edit?usp=sharing
Writing to your MP – contact details: https://www.theyworkforyou.com
Writing to your MP – script suggestions: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sNqsHPvhuYMglJfmvVZLBKh4DZo4VK2Pg0trhOr_rGU/edit?usp=sharing