What Is To Be Done? vigilant love, overcoming the paralysis of white guilt, and preparing for the long fight

For the past week my social media spaces have been overflowing with disbelief and shock, followed by fear and confusion, and now something like glazed, depressed paralysis, emotional exhaustion, and hopelessness. Friends of color seem to be retreating from social media as the waves of hate crimes spread–reported in personal detail by local observers as well as in news articles from across the country. White liberals are overdosing on tales of hate and bickering among themselves about whether or not wearing safety pins is useful.

Everyone wants to “do” something, but what is to be done? Even in my neck of the woods–a vibrant, diverse community on a blue island in North Carolina where many already lead lives of “doing,” we are struggling.

We must do what we should have been doing all along; what needed doing yesterday and will continue to be needed for the rest of our lives in this deeply imperfect, yet magnificent country:

First, figure out who your base of personal support is and tap into it, immediately. Family, close friends, community of parents, colleagues, faith community, neighbors. If you feel isolated, hook into local or national groups that are lovingly fighting for justice. I know many who are finding solace and support at pantsuit nation or by tapping into local organizations with an online presence that can help sustain them. In my state, Reverend Barber’s NAACP is increasingly where I look for loving, powerful leadership on social justice.

My parents survived a time when they were hunted and persecuted for working for justice, but coming out of the sixties they had severed ties with their families and were adrift in communities of their own making; rich in passion but short on loving acceptance. The sense that the atrocities of the present demanded everything they had to give and more, every day, for as long as it took, eventually wrung them dry. No one can survive a state of permanent crisis and the children of those movements have seen first hand the cost of giving everything. There was not enough left for spouses; not enough left for children; and not enough left to come home to when the individual battles were won or lost.

When fighting for justice in America, the individual battles will mostly be lost, so y’all need to understand that this has always been–and will always be–the long fight. There are times to give everything, and I hope we can tell when that time comes, but in Trump’s America building love and kindness in our proximate communities will nourish our struggle and weaken the sway of hate, at the same time.

Second, get over your guilt. This is mostly a message for my white sisters and brothers out there, but the reality is nearly all of us have internalized this in some way. Getting over guilt is not the same as accepting the status quo of injustice and violent privilege as acceptable, nor is it about tolerating complacency. But guilt is debilitating and utterly useless. There can be no absolution for the guilt of unearned privilege. Since whatever privilege you have was not asked for, no one can cleanse you of it. It is especially important that we not look to friends who do not share that unearned privilege to dull its shine.

Step away from your device and do something that to you feels deeply useful, after careful reflection and consultation with people you trust in your own community. Part of the burden of privilege is fumbling through trying to be an agent for change despite it. You will stumble. You will probably embarrass yourself and discover you are not as aware as you thought you were. You will realize that your mistakes actually hurt someone else–quite possibly someone who had already been hurt a lot. You will feel shame that you are not better. This is where guilt usually kicks in and that’s when action and function stop.

Instead, look at yourself hard. Love your imperfect self enough to recognize that your life is worth occupying with pride, that the movements you care about deserve your imperfect effort, and don’t make the same mistake twice. Apologize when apologies are useful, otherwise dust yourself off and keep working. Women especially have had guilt and the need to be liked drilled into us; it’s a losing battle so let it go.

Now, to work.

Third, listen actively to those with less privilege and those most at risk. Really listen, with as little defensiveness and as much humility and love as possible to the people in your life and in your community. Seek out the places where they are already active and tune in, rather than asking them to do more communicating for your benefit. Chances are if you aren’t hearing anything it’s not that they aren’t speaking.

Fourth, identify the organizations and individuals in your community who are most vulnerable. Make time for them. Find resources for them. Maybe you will take care of your neighbor’s children so they can meet with an immigration lawyer. Maybe you will pick up the Afghan refugee mother walking on the highway with three kids and figure out why she’s there and where she needs to go. Maybe you will see protestors screaming hatred outside a Planned Parenthood while frightened, vulnerable women try to get health care and you will go inside, hug the front desk staff, and write them a check for $100. Maybe you will start challenging racism and sexism at work. Maybe you will sit down with your kids and make cards for the immigrant families in your neighborhood to let them know you are there for them. Maybe you will join the NAACP and start going to Moral Mondays. Maybe you will make sure that you have your kids’ back 110% to stand up to hate at school, which seems to be the frontline of this battle right now. Learn the real history of the place you live, your neighborhood, and the places you travel. Talk about the history of struggle with your kids so they understand how we came to be where we are.

If you are privileged, you can use that privilege to speak to others who will listen to you. It’s not fair, but it’s there. If you are white, if you are cis, if you are straight, if you are male, if you are well off…you look like most of our legislators. You put on a suit and get yourself to the legislature and make some appointments.

My mother tithed 10% of her income for years to social justice organizations. She is my inspiration daily. She shows up in the big ways and the small. She retired early despite taking a major hit in retirement so that she could give time to my babies and to her real work–the support and nourishment of social justice movements around the country.

We live in a community of “doers.” They bring out the best in us in terms of our ongoing commitment to social justice. We already gave money and time, where we felt we could. I’m a non-conflict averse extrovert so having difficult conversations about difficult topics is a contribution I’ve long been able to make as a straight, white ally. But guilt creeps in about my physical presence at places where I want to show solidarity but have felt my children’s needs got in the way. My own childhood experience makes the balance hard. I know what political fear and too much external activism looks likes for children, because that was my life. I don’t want my kids to be afraid the way that I was. I want them to know that I, at least, will be rock solid. But now is when the ante is getting upped.

Here’s my commitment right now: we will renew our membership to the NAACP (why did we let it lapse?) and instead of giving at the holidays we will give every month, and more than before. We will do better kin-keeping with our most vulnerable friends, who we often lose touch with because their daily lives don’t touch ours as often. I will get it together to make sure that every Thursday I have a lunch made so that when we drive by the homeless man who is always on our way to class, we have something to offer besides a smile. We will increase our monthly support for MomsRising.org, which does some of the best work I’ve seen and gets intersectionality. We will continue to support #BlackLivesMatter and will find more public ways of committing ourselves. We will participate in the Monday afternoon community building group our neighbor has started in response to the election outcome, which will focus on concrete service projects and protest our kids can be involved in. I will take my students to the Moral March on Raleigh this February to close out our quarter focused on social movements.

I will support my 6 year old son’s decision to wear a safety pin everyday on his shirt. I didn’t know what it was, read up on it, worried it was not useful or even worse than useless, and then decided that this was a case where I had to pay attention to what was actually happening in front of me. This child came home and said “This pin means that if someone isn’t safe we will bring them home and take care of them.” We sat down and talked about what it meant to wear that–that it was no light commitment. That wearing it meant that if he ever saw someone being bullied or hurt or treated poorly because of something about them like their sex, race, who they loved, or where they were from, what their body looked like, that he was committing to defend them. That he would speak up if it was something someone else said privately to him. That he would ask for help from a grown up if he couldn’t handle it. But that he would not be silent. We’ve talked about a lot of this before, but until he put on his safety pin, we had not talked about it in this way. It was the right time.

I will try my best to confront the Ku Klux Klan peacefully when they march somewhere in my state on December 3rd. I have protested them in person before and it feels especially important for white allies to show up with a strong, peaceful presence and not let them march unanswered. The violence in Annaheim has made me think I will not take chances bringing my children, but if I can find a way to separate myself from those looking for a fight and stand up for love and against white supremacy, I will be there.

I will take a step back from social media and focus on the real people in my real life, lest we go deaf from the hopeless wailing bouncing around this echo chamber.

Finally, commit to hope. When you have children, there really is no other option, anyway. They are here and we will fight for them to have a place to live that is worth having. That fight will be big and small. It will ebb and flow. There are no enemies except fear and what our legacies of hate and injustice have allowed to flourish. All people can change. I’ve seen white supremacist murderers change. I’ve seen a klansmen’s daughter put her life and livelihood on the line for Civil Rights and workers’ rights in the South. I’ve seen the tiny, incremental changes brought by never letting our kids see us let injustice go unchallenged.

I see the ferocious refusal of people of color to die quietly in America and it is a raw hope in the future that demands my participation. This country was built on slavery and the intentional division of indentured white immigrants, enslaved Africans, and Native people. The struggles of the oppressed have brought every good thing we have and that’s a legacy we can be proud of and hopeful about.

This is a time of great darkness, but I remind myself that when I’ve thought the worst of people I have been wrong far more often than when I’ve thought the best of them. Look inward, get your loved ones safe in the shelter of your hopeful light. Then turn outward and do the work, with love and hope.

I’ll see you there.

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