On Emotional Fatigue and Allyship

/ August 5, 2015/ Being an Ally, Gender, Race/ 0 comments

I saw this video today by Akilah Hughes and really enjoyed it. It’s called “Racial Discussion Fatigue Syndrome #RSFS,” and despite demonstrating a little insensitivity to folks living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, it’s a useful video about the cost (for black activists) of continually discussing race.

Watch it here:

Experiencing Fatigue

Emotional fatigue from discussing race and other marginalized identities is real. This happens most often if you’ve been engaging in discussions about a system of oppression that affects you directly. You feel passionate, you’re very informed, and you desperately want to make a difference. Yet taking in toxic messages (let alone attempting to respond to them in productive ways) takes its toll.

To you experiencing emotional fatigue, remember that taking a step back is often the best way to preserve yourself for your contributions to the movements you care about. Try to resist feeling guilty for being angry (even anger can be productive!). Resist feeling weak if these discussions have compromised your mental or spiritual health (being unaffected would be a worse sign). Try to take some steps to limit exposure to messed up rhetoric so that you are able to pick your battles. And most of all, remember you are important. Your health and your wholeness are important. Taking care of yourself is as important as taking care of others (if not more so sometimes).

Audre Lorde’s powerful words are instructive:

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare. Audre Lorde

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare. Audre Lorde


Allying Ourselves

To we who wish to be allied in social movements, our task is to aid in the emotional preservation of those with whom we wish to be allied. That means engaging in discussions about marginalized identities, educating others, and allowing folks with marginalized identities to vent and feel supported without us being preoccupied with proving to them what a great ally we are. Allies are considered allies. They don’t actively lobby for the title.

And engaging in discussion about marginalized identities does not always mean calling people out in a way that alienates them. At times, that might be appropriate, but hard truths are easier to understand when they come from people who act like they actually give a damn about you. Compassion for ignorance is not often practiced, but it can actually be more effective than anything else. And if it’s hard for you to engage kindly with someone displaying some ignorant perspectives, imagine how hard it would be for someone who could feel personally marginalized by such ignorance? Reflect on the times you were gently encouraged to think differently. Be thankful for that gentleness and try to pay it forward when possible.

When You Are Called Out

To you who just are a little ignorant but often don’t realize it (and this is all of us to some degree): if you are called out, please try to be open to learning. It’s uncomfortable and often hurts, but it’s not your fault you were raised in a culture that teaches untruths. Take being called out as an opportunity first to apologize for any hurt you’ve accidentally caused, and second to try to undo the damage done to you by an oppressive culture which tends to value parts of your identity over parts of others’ identities. Continue to work to educate yourself through search engines, social media, books, and friends. And try not to tax the time and emotional energy of the people you’re trying to be an ally to.

When you get called out (and it is just a matter of when), remember you matter! Making a mistake does not make you a bad person. Try not to take so personally the frustrations of marginalized people or activists who just didn’t have the emotional space to say things to you in a kinder way. They also matter, and expending the emotional energy necessary to be kind when you’ve hurt them often takes more than what people have. Respect others’ need to preserve their emotional energy when calling you out. It can be painful for you, but your unknowing actions are also painful for others and must be addressed first.

You taking ownership for your mistakes or for the ways you’ve unknowingly benefited from oppressive systems is the first step to healing your relationship with marginalized communities and individuals. Remember what works for one person may not work for another, and that is okay!

Afterward, do not burden the people who’ve called you out with the task of raising your self esteem. You can do that on your own and with your other friends later. In the moment, simply apologize for hurting them and promise to try to understand how to do better in the future.  If the person is willing to talk, after apologizing, you can ask for feedback on why what you did didn’t work for them and what would have been better. But please respect other’s time and emotional energy. If you see any hesitation, back off and ask a friend later. It’s not marginalized people’s responsibility to educate you. Being mindful of this fact goes a long way in initiating healing as soon as possible.

And again, remember that you matter. One mistake or even a long series of mistakes does not make you a bad person. You are a victim of a messed up world, and experiencing privilege does not make you a villain. That being said, your actions have consequences. So try to stay vigilant moving forward. Being perfect all the time isn’t really possible, but doing your best and staying teachable is. So make that your goal.

No Exemptions

And one final note, being one kind of minority does not exempt you from needing to be an ally for other marginalized communities. Sometimes we even demonstrate investment in oppressive structures when it comes to our own marginalized status or those very similar to ours. Oppressive structures are all around, and to think yourself immune is the ultimate form of arrogance.

Each of us (allies and those experiencing specific forms of marginalization) must make an effort to take care of ourselves and encourage ourselves in the face of oppressive structures that grow all around us. But we each must also examine our perspectives and be open to the possibility we’re also in need of further education or cultural unlearning.Take breaks often, practice self-care always, but don’t neglect this important fact.


Recommended reading:

“Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression” by bell hooks from Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984)

The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Anger” by Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider (1984)

The Madness Vase” (2011) by Andrea Gibson, which includes this quote attributed to Jiddu Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” See also Gibson perform this poem.

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