Doing the Work

For me, social justice work is about love.

Loving humanity and wanting everyone on earth to have access to basic human rights. Loving my community enough to stand up against the oppression that takes place within it. Loving myself enough to trust my instincts and use my voice.

In her transformative book All About Love, bell hooks tells us that love isn’t a noun, but a verb. We can’t just say we love someone, we have to learn how to intentionally practice love. Practicing love means setting boundaries, providing care, being honest, and seeking justice. Without justice, she tells us, there can be no love. Love, in short, takes work, and bell hooks argues that many of us don’t know how to do the work.

I started learning how to practice love through therapy sessions in college. In psychoanalytic therapy, you learn to look into your past and find the roots of your shame and pain. You learn how to read the messages you internalized but didn’t recognize as contributors to negative thought cycles. You learn where you were missing love, and how those situations could’ve been handled differently. I don’t know if I will ever quite be free of depression, but because I did that work, I don’t think I will ever be able to reach the same depths of shame and self-loathing as I once did.

Learning how to practice loving myself gave me an unexpected side effect: in learning about the context of my own life, I also started to look for the context of the lives of the people who hurt me. I could empathize with them, and figure out how to create boundaries to keep myself protected, while also forgiving those people for how they hurt me.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing someone for their actions. It doesn’t mean giving them a free pass for the pain they’ve caused or pretending that I wasn’t hurt by their actions. It doesn’t even mean expecting immediate change, (although wouldn’t it be nice if we could guarantee that we wouldn’t be hurt in the same way again?). For me, forgiveness means accepting that the journey that brought me to where I am is completely different than another person’s journey, and under different circumstances I might have done the same thing.

Often in a community where social justice is valued, I feel this urge towards empathy stir. I think in progressive circles, we are often enraged when we see someone who we consider to be “one of us” make a mistake. It hurts more coming from someone we thought we could trust. Meryl, why did you say we were all from Africa when asked about diversity in a film panel? Beyoncé, why were you in a culturally appropriative Coldplay video? Why can’t you just let me love you uncritically?

Despite the fact that they make great examples, I don’t want to talk about celebrities here. I want to talk about communities that center social justice and how we can better love and do good work for one another.

I think that often when feeling angry and uncomfortable people forget that they too were once learning about social justice. They too made mistakes that we are uncomfortable to think back on. They too are not perfect. To paraphrase a problematic fave, Albus Dumbledore: the world is not divided into social justice advocates and bad people.

The fact of the matter is, love shouldn’t be uncritical. People we love make mistakes, and we forgive them. We make mistakes, and we forgive ourselves. That doesn’t mean we excuse ourselves, or continue being hurtful. To err is human, and to grow is also human.

But, you say to me, I am hurt and angry and exhausted from explaining myself over and over and over again! I don’t have the energy to forgive, because those little offenses add up quickly, and I deserve better!

I understand that, too. As a queer woman, I often get upset with well-intentioned straight folks who ask intrusive questions, and as a femme, I’m hurt when I feel like my queerness is erased, because I like to wear dresses and paint my nails. As a person with depression and anxiety, I am infuriated when I hear “everyone goes through that” and “you need to calm down.” If it happened once in awhile I could deal with it, but as an ever-present hum in the background of my day-to-day, it often feels like too much. Sometimes I have to love myself enough to say “no.”

But luckily, I am not alone. It’s not my responsibility to singularly educate and forgive everyone who has ever said something problematic (i.e. everyone). There are educators doing the hard work of writing and teaching about homophobia and femmephobia and stigma around mental illness. I have straight friends and masculine-of-center friends and neurotypical friends who listen to my frustrations, and use what they hear to inform themselves and their other straight/neurotypical/masculine-of-center friends. These people do some of the tough work of “calling in” the people in their lives who say problematic stuff, and challenging them to be conscious of what other people experience.

And it’s my job to do the same thing. As a white person, I’m not doing anti-racist work if I decide to get mad when a friend or family member says something racist, but don’t try to educate them about why what they’re saying is racist. As a person who has grown up financially secure, I’m not working to eliminate classism if I hear someone say, “they should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” and don’t try to explain why that thinking is wrong. As a cis gender woman, it’s my responsibility to point out jokes that are transphobic and as a queer person, to call out transmisogyny in my community. As an able-bodied person, it’s my responsibility to recognize and address ableism, whether it’s in my workplace or in everyday language. If I don’t have the language or the knowledge to respond, I can find information from someone who does, because the internet is a magical place.

I think that when people stand in solidarity with an identity that isn’t their own, there is a pull to distance ourselves from our identities as an oppressive majority. When someone who shares our identity do or say something oppressive, we’d like to get angry and be hurt and say, “that’s not me!” We’d like to forget that in the past we might’ve done or said the same thing, because we didn’t know better. But we have to be able to say, “That’s not my pain. Someone else is hurting or will be hurt if these actions continue, and if I can make a difference I should.” We have to love each other enough to protect each other from hurt and to call in those who mean well, but still cause harm.

I learned about “calling in” as a practice from Ngọc Loan Trần’s brilliant essay on Black Girl Dangerous. They write: “Mistakes are mistakes; they deepen the wounds we carry. I know that for me when these mistakes are committed by people who I am in community with, it hurts even more. But these are people I care deeply about and want to see on the other side of the hurt, pain, and trauma: I am willing to offer compassion and patience as a way to build the road we are taking but have never seen before.”

They suggest “calling in” as a practice to use with people you are in community with, “of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us.”

I think calling out has become very mainstream in communities that center social justice. Especially online, where we often forget that we are talking to a person and not an algorithm, it’s easy to place blame. In a queer facebook group, I’ve seen fights break out because someone didn’t know the right language to use when querying about creating a safe space, and battles in statuses about sharing a meaningful message from a celebrity who has also recently made a tasteless joke. We live in public, and sometimes we forget that just as often a private word will make more impact than a public chastisement. People respond more to love than to shame.

Now I’ve also seen some great education happen on social media – I don’t want to discount the work done to call out those who are not willing to recognize their actions as oppressive, who continuously spew hate or apathy for people who don’t share their identities. Publicly showing up in solidarity for one another can also have an impact on folks you don’t even realize are reading.

All I ask is that in doing the work, we remember the humanity of one another. We forgive those who are trying to grow and change, and we care for those who experience violence and oppression everyday. We check-in with ourselves and make sure we know when is our time to speak and when is our time to listen. And we continue to do the work for one another, with love.


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