I have done what I like to call casual activism (advocating in my regular life) for body positivity for several years now. Once I matured enough to grasp body positivity as an intersectional concept, things like race, gender, and ability were always a part of that advocacy, though it didn’t ever really mean much. Most of the people I spoke to about body positivity and most of the people I interacted with in my regular life were white and could pass as cishet even if they were not. Body shape and size were always the main focus of body positivity even if the creed included other categories of diversity.
Through one of my hobbies and my desire to continue to be body positive in intersectional ways, I’ve gotten to know more peers and friends that are people of color. These folks are wonderful for lots of reasons that have jack to do with their advocacy, and are also stand-out activists who take the time, courage, and energy to work on educating people. I work hard to follow the advice they send out to the masses – I strive to be an ally that shuts up and listens.
What this means internally is that I struggle a lot with being confronted with my own complicity in oppressive systems, severe self-doubt when interacting with my PoC friends and peers, and guilt that wavers between uselessly crushing and personally inspiring.
I have dealt with anxiety and depression on a regular basis throughout my life, and I’ve been struggling with it again lately. This is likely at least in part to pregnancy hormones having my body all out of whack. I really started to feel this current phase of depression through my reactions to social justice issues and all the fabulous work on education and awareness my new friends and peers do through social media.
I think I am very clearly going through some of those classically-toted stages of grief, specifically with respect to racist oppression and my inherent participation in it as a white person. When I learn about some new awful event, my first feeling is always disbelief. I cannot believe this shit is happening. How can people still think this way? How do people feel justified in verbal, emotional, physical, financial, cultural violence against others? What a privilege, this disbelief! This confusion is just a sign of how removed I am from most oppression, without negating the kinds I do experience personally.
I don’t have a lot of anger. It flares quickly and dies down again like a match, burning quickly down to the meaty finger of bargaining. I think, what can I do to help change this? What power do I have here? This fades nearly just as quickly as I realize my agency is very limited. I can only point to myself and my personal interactions in communities and with those around me in responsibility for oppressive systems. I benefit from them. I enjoy pleasure from some of them, not because of their oppressive nature but simply because they are things anyone would enjoy, given the luxury of not having to experience a particular kind of suffering.
This is where I have sunk into depression and more severe social anxiety than I have felt in many years. I feel the burden of responsibility of things I say in inclusive community groups and to my friends who are PoC, and the self-doubt over whether or not I’ve contributed YET AGAIN to an oppressive system, most often in silent and fearful complicitness. I feel desperately useless in the face of systems of oppression, both of PoC and the financial 99% I’m a part of, as I realize more and more just how heart-achingly towering and universal the system is.
I like to tell friends, “don’t set yourself on fire to take care of others.” I saw it on a social media post one day and it has stuck with me as very apt to describe the kind of emotional burdening we sometimes take on when we are sensitive and care about the world at large deeply, or even if we just have too many activities on our plate at some given time. It is very, very difficult for me to turn this advice inward in regards to racism; I know people in other groups don’t have the luxury of not burning in the flames of what they deal with on a daily basis. It’s difficult to tell myself that I can step away sometimes to restore myself enough to care for myself and my family when I know that everyone else deserves this, too, and so many people do not have the privilege of doing so.
The desperately grateful part of me that has access to mental health care, regular medical care, limited debt, a stable home, a nuclear family, and relatively minor oppressions knows it is natural and reasonable to use these tools I have. But where does that leave me? Still in a place of little to no agency in the face of these big systems of oppression that hurt my friends. Still enjoying things that others deserve to have but have no access to.
Some of this falls under internalized healthism, too. I have always known that I am a fragile flower. I question whether I could have completed college if I had to work full time as well, without the support of well-to-do parents. I question now whether I could work full time and still be a good mother to my children, the one I’ve birthed already and the one I’m still cooking. I don’t know that my mental health capacities would hold out in the face of truly terrible odds that face so many oppressed groups. I have no way of knowing, but it’s difficult not to feel some pretty intense self-loathing for what I think must be incredible fragility.
I am working to be a more hardy flower, but I’m unsure that I can ever be more than a fragile flower at heart. If I carry the metaphor home, it may be that my variety of flower is rather solitary, goes dormant for long seasons, and then flowers again later without the seasonal and communal predictability of your typical annual, perennial, or rhizome. Even with this metaphor, the self-doubt kicks in; am I just setting myself up to be more special, more unique? An excuse for my participation and lack of energy to excuse myself from the oppressive systems I enjoy?
I’ve got no answers right now. I suppose this is simply an emotional venting that will allow me to keep on trying.