You will be tired. You may very well already be tired, and if you’re not, I promise you it’s coming. You need to understand what this tiredness is made of and you need to understand what it will take to ensure that it doesn’t wither away your new-found (or rediscovered) appetite for seeing the world as it really is and playing an active role in changing it for the better.
So as someone who has countless times been tired and has run away from the fight, only to get pulled back in because frankly, I don’t really have a choice, here’s an explainer on the why and whence of the tiredness, as well as what you can do about it.
You will be tired because observed pain is painful
It hardly needs saying that lived experience is different from observed experience, but that relative difference of degree doesn’t change the fact that both experiences exist and both carry their emotional repercussions. As human beings when we focus on someone’s pain and let ourselves empathise with it, let ourselves imagine what it would be to experience it first hand, it sucks. It’s only a sliver of the direct experience but it can be enough to take your breath away, to make your heart tighten and your stomach roll and enough to make you feel the riot of fear or anger or despair or helplessness that comes with suffering.
You will be tired because survivor’s guilt and complicitor’s shame is heavy
There’s a horrible discomfort that comes with witnessing undeserved suffering and knowing that you escaping the same fate is also undeserved. It sours the taste of all the relative comforts you have in life to know they are inaccessible to other people through no fault of their own, and this breeds a frustrated guilty feeling. It goes further too because it’s not just that the system you were born into let you off easy while it grinds others down on the basis of characteristics neither of you chose, it’s also that in not doing anything or not doing “enough” to change the system, you’re allowing it to continue, and you are thus complicit. That’s a heavy, discomfiting feeling. The eagle-eyed will spot that this pales in comparison to what the other side of the equation feels like, but that doesn’t make it non-existent.
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You will be tired because understanding the complex and multidimensional system of oppression we’re facing here is… a lot
The world is complicated, and the situation, the system that is behind it all is so layered, so shifting and composed of myriad different elements. Often it’ll feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back in coming to grips with it. To correct the world we must understand the different myths about different types of human identities we have woven into the fabric of society and how they interplay; how the ones about gender, and sexuality overlay with those about race, ethnicity, ability, age and so much else.
You’ll need to be able to understand how this system of prejudice, myth and presumption was built and combines with other factors to manifest in the real world outcomes you see around you. Your learning will always come in messy fragments, tripping you up and knocking you down.
In a single swipe, you might see one tweet telling you how the myths about blackness in America result in the police treating black people with disproportionate brutality; then see another talking about how that same country has an overall perspective on violence and the acceptability of extreme violence as a response to fear which results in brutality across the board irrespective of race; then see a third tweet about how myths of blackness and myths of masculinity combine to result in black trans women dying at that hands of black men amongst others. Not only is it intellectually exhausting, with each additional learning comes more fear, more heartbreak, more despair, guilt and shame about the world we live in.
You will be tired because some people will make you feel like change is impossible
You’ll see people stare down the truth explained so simply a child could understand and still rationalise their way out of accepting it much less doing anything to help. You’ll see people performing the kind of overt conscious intentional hate that reminds you how bad things still are in some respects. You’ll have moments where it feels pointless because no matter what small actions you take, at such great emotional cost, it’s a pebble in the ocean. You’ll see big changes appear to change little in terms of outcomes, and be tempted to wonder whether it’s actually immutable, that no matter what you or anybody else does, this is just how things will always be. Or you’ll hear what’s being asked for and feel for a moment like there’s no way the powers that be would ever grant it.
You will be tired because you will rarely be 100% sure what the right thing to do is, nor get 100% affirmation than the thing you did was correct
No one has the complete manual on how to dismantle the bits of the vast racism superstructure in front of you. The right individual action or choice to make in a specific situation will often be unclear. Then after you’ve made your choice, committed the action, you might very well find little to no affirmation or kudos for it. In fact, you might get criticism, you might get slammed or ‘cancelled’ for real or presumed flaws in what you chose or did.
Whether we like it or not, human beings instinctively look for validation or affirmation as a salve to the anxiety we feel when acting with uncertainty. We seek something to make the angst about what to do and the effort of doing it worthwhile. In this situation, you sometimes/ often/ always, won’t get it. That’s more than ok, because sometimes criticism is warranted and all the time people have other things to do besides spending time and energy validating you; like for instance, persisting despite the daily 1,000 cuts of oppression.
Still — and perhaps you’ve noticed a theme here — the fact that it’s fair enough you’re not going to get the soothing and energising validation you instinctively crave for what you’re doing, doesn’t change the fact that it will tire you.
For the record, this isn’t just true for allies outside the oppressed group, it’s true for everyone. For example in this current moment of focus on anti-black racial injustice, I, a black woman, am feeling my way in the dark and acting in the way I think is right toward dismantling the superstructure of racism. In writing this article, I have no certainty this is the right call, that this is the best use of my time or energy, that this will help move anything in this game of inches we’re playing. I also could very well get criticism for it, because someone thinks the cause would have been better served by me doing this differently or not at all. They might be right too, should I be spending my time “coddling” white people to encourage them to stay in the fight when perhaps common decency should be enough to guarantee it? The point is, all I or any of us in any roles we play as fighters against systemic oppression can do, is what we think will help, and do it as best as we can, and expect no thanks and be willing to learn from criticism. In a word, tiring.
You will be tired because the finding the balance between living your life for yourself and doing the necessary labour of undoing a vast system of injustice will never be easy
You’ll wonder if times spent consuming content to delight you rather than open your eyes further to injustice is ok. You’ll wonder whether it’s selfish that you just want a nice chill evening rather than one spent arguing with someone about their comment showing their prejudice or ignorance. You’ll wonder whether in what you buy or the company you work for, your concessions are capitulations. You’ll resent the time and energy you spend on the labour of progress and then feel bad about resenting it. Et cetera. I have no answers for you here, no easy ones at least. It’s a balance you’ll have to keep negotiating on a daily basis, and, you guessed it; it will be tiring.
Now I could glibly tell you to suck it up because your tired has nothing on that of those under the yoke of oppression. I can’t even blame those who would and do say as much. It’s true after all because for contrast, take all that tired I’ve described above and multiply it by that of being impeded every day at every turn from trying to live and access even the most basic things all humans want, by the very system of oppression we’re talking about.
Still ‘suck it up’ is unhelpful advice, so here are some alternatives.
When you’re running low, don’t stop; pause, refill and come back.
Humans are in some ways very complicated but in other ways terribly simple. You need emotional as well as physical energy to deal with and do hard things. When you run low on both the only thing you can do is step away from the place you’re spending the energy and go to a different environment, do an activity or taking in stimuli that feed you energy. Switch off the news, set aside the eye-opening book or documentary, pause the argument; then rest, recover and get back to it.
Focus on the doing and prioritise impact
There’s no better antidote to helplessness and overwhelm than action and service. Having something to do to expend your energies on, is often that best way to exorcise the stress emotions that would otherwise shut you down. Action also lets you come down from the macro view of how bad it all is or seems and focus on what’s right in front of you and the net positive outcome you may see from your actions. So protest, write letters to your elected representatives in support of some critical policy change, volunteer for or donate to an organisation working directly to help victimised groups, lobby your workplace to institute some tangible change in practice that would result in less injustice. Whatever it is, spend less time marinating in the negative emotional cocktail of how shitty everything is and more time doing something, because apart from it helping matters, it will make you feel much better. Also ideally critically assess what you should do through the lens of impact, some things are a better use of your limited energies than others.
Make it your problem
Human reasons will always be more powerful than abstract ideas. Principles of decency and justice are strong motivators for sure, but nothing beats the selfish desire to make the world a better place for the people you care about. So get to know and love people from different groups and from all walks of life, it will endlessly enrich your life while giving you a real stake in the quality of their lived experience. Moreover, it’s not about just knowing black people or people of colour or queer people, it’s about creating the psychological safety for them to share the blackness, queerness etc with you, including the hardships of it. Normalise talking about identity, about race about privilege about yours and their lived experiences and how they differ.
Acknowledge the inches, celebrate the wins.
This is a game of inches, of painfully slow, non-linear progress. If you’re falling into despair, look for some wins. They are everywhere, outcomes that prove we as a society are undoing and unlearning the habits and norms that combine to press one group down and uplift their opposite. Don’t lie to yourself and don’t lose sight of the fact that there is so much work still to do, but absolutely cherish the wins. They matter, because every bit of progress means a little bit less suffering in the world and that warrants note. At the same time, it’ll feed you the energy you need to continue fighting the good fight.
- This moment of focus on anti-black racial injustice means I’m of course largely thinking of white and non-black allies, but I wrote this for all of us, because there are multiple fights against injustice and we are all outside-group allies somewhere.