The first week in June, 2020, I was a ball of anxiety. George Floyd had been murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, and the country (as well as the world) had erupted in protest. In addition to the swift, mass mobilization on the ground in major cities and smaller towns, there was a flurry of activity on social media, including an urgent call from Black and POC folks for white people to “do something.” White people, in turn, took up that call as well, urging other white people to “do something.” And as such, the social media cyber-verse transformed quickly into a theater for the performance of white folks’ progressive politics. Parades of infographics, links to donate, book recommendations, discussion groups, protests, rallies; a veritable buffet of ways to “do something,” proffered by white people for white people, served with a saccharine glaze of the kind of shaming that tends to provoke actionable results in groups well-conditioned by capitalism.

At this point, I’d been on my own personal antiracism journey for over a year. I’d already read “White Fragility.” I’d seen “If Beale Street Could Talk.’” I was thinking about the racism rampant in white feminist circles. I’d read “The Fire Next Time.” I believed (and still believe) ardently in the necessity and vitality of the movement to dismantle the white supremacist, capitalist state. And so, when 85% of the white people I knew suddenly started screaming about systemic racism into the social media void, seemingly for the first time, I experienced a mix of emotions which organized themselves into a general state of agitated anxiety. I was relieved and inspired to see so many white people finally heeding the call to better understand and take action against the very real expression of white supremacy and systemic racism in the U.S.

At the same time, my fragile ego was raging. “I was already doing this work! I must be recognized for that!” And so, I became one of the white people authoring those aforementioned informative yet shaming Facebook posts. I always addressed white people, always with a tone of moral superiority meant to obligate them into action, like a mother scolding her child. I took the stage with all the others, performing my politics with an attitude of unwavering self-assuredness and courage. Backstage (so to speak), it was a different story. I was terrified of being called out for not doing enough, certain that every time I opened Facebook, I’d be met with a comment exposing me as a virtue-signaling fraud. Rarely was that fear satiated by one-off actions: yet another post, a donation, a digital forum. That first week of June, I went about in a haze, living in a liminal space between action and inaction, performing certainty but in reality not brave enough to take the next meaningful step into this work.

Now, as I reflect on this moment, a couple things come to mind. First, how intensely narcissistic and indulgent it was to center my own white insecurity at a moment which was focused on precisely the opposite: the abdication of power by white people in favor of the empowerment of Black Americans and other people of color, in pursuit of a more just world. But, at the same time, I wonder whether I ever would have taken a next step, had I not waded through that period of anxiety. A heightened emotional state can provide information. In this case, my body and mind were reinforcing what I already knew: I could do more, and therefore I needed to do more.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about bravery and the relativity of safety. I mentioned that in June I didn’t feel “brave enough” to take the next step into action for racial justice. But what does that really mean? I wasn’t at any immediate risk of bodily harm or psychological trauma. I was afraid of being uncomfortable. For my whole life, I’ve been coddled by systems which uphold the architecture of white supremacy, and that conditioning caused my mind to conflate discomfort with danger. It was (and to this day still sometimes is) internalized white supremacy which prevented me from fully integrating racial justice work into my everyday life. It’s not that I wasn’t “brave enough”—bravery implies some kind of valor or virtue in the face of real danger—rather, due to my white supremacist conditioning, I didn’t have the psychological and emotional endurance to sustain discomfort.

It’s also worth unpacking what I refer to when discussing “discomfort.” I think this sensation is multi-fold. At its most essential level, “discomfort” refers to a reticence to engage in racial justice work that’s based in a very racist, deeply entrenched, and historical lack of care for Black people and other POC worldwide. I don’t personally experience this sensation consciously, and the thought of it permeating invisible levels of my consciousness horrifies me. But, in examining the real root of white discomfort in racial justice work, that’s what I discover. Further, white people have been conditioned to consider ourselves a distinct social group—to “believe that we’re white” (to paraphrase Baldwin). We’ve isolated ourselves in our own perceived uniqueness: a fortress fortified by privilege that we mistake for freedom. Our entrenched white supremacy allows us to believe that we can be free while others are not, and therefore the fight for common liberation is one that doesn’t concern us. Again, this is not a belief I consciously hold or espouse, but I recognize it as another subconscious layer in the larger experience of white discomfort. Other layers include fatigue due to an under-developed emotional endurance (as I mentioned above), and the invasion of the fragile ego when engaging with others who are already invested in racial justice and political work. I’ll come back to that one.

Like many people socialized in a capitalist world, I’m a person who craves structure, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from productivity and accomplishment. Seeking that structure as a means to outpace the anxiety to “do something,” I attended a SURJ meeting in June. I was nervous, secretly afraid that I’d encounter a brash, unapologetic austerity in the group’s leadership, and subconsciously feeling like I deserved the same sort of scolding I was doling out on Facebook. To me, the world of structured organizing was a daunting one: a place full of smart, well-read, courageous people who certainly possessed a more comprehensive analysis than I’d ever know, not to mention general ease in any high-stakes protest situation. Here’s that other kind of discomfort I mentioned: the fear some white people have of not being “woke” enough to engage with other activists in political settings. I think this phenomenon is a two-way street: as newcomers, our egos butt in, crying “don’t ask any questions, just smile and nod, you’ll look stupid because after all you don’t know anything!” In the oncoming lane, activists do at times project an ideological opacity, righteously holding their political line. The result is two ships passing (not to mix metaphors), and a missed opportunity for more people to unite in the work.

At that June chapter meeting, facilitators from the leadership put out a call seeking new membership in the leadership circle. Leadership seemed like an even more concrete infrastructure for accountability, and so I thought to myself “I could do that.” It’s now November, and I’ve been a member of the leadership for four months. In that time, I’ve planned and facilitated chapter meetings and action hours, participated in protests, contributed at a common council meeting, learned from more experienced organizers, and engaged in numerous discussions about this movement. And the truth is, in many ways I’m still the anxious person I was in June. I’m not always comfortable, I still sometimes misconstrue discomfort for danger, I’m still sometimes visited by the shameful and urgent voice saying “Do something! You’re not doing enough!” The difference is that SURJ provides a structure. I’m not floating out there alone on social media. Rather, I’m a spoke in a much larger wheel of a people-led movement working to build networks of mutual aid. Being accountable to other chapter members keeps me accountable to myself, and to the movement writ-large. When that voice crops up, there is always something to get involved with, supported by a network of experienced and compassionate colleagues.

In SURJ (and elsewhere) we talk about “calling in.” Calling in acknowledges that “the left has a long history of shaming and blaming people who don’t have the ‘perfect’ words or don’t exactly agree with our analysis” (SURJ National). It also emphasizes a compassionate examination of our own expressions of white supremacy, so that we can learn through shared experience and do better.

The purpose of this essay is not as an exercise in public self-flagellation, but rather to lift the veil on the perceived barriers to entering activist communities by transparently calling myself in. While I’m certainly not a seasoned activist, I’m doing it, I’m doing it visibly, and I haven’t left behind every vestige of white supremacist temerity and fragility that I knew before I got involved. I know that activist circles can intimidate. I know I’ve been guilty of insisting on SURJ’s political line at the expense of another’s engagement. I know, also, that transparency breeds trust, and trust creates the conditions for learning and growth towards progress.

Whatever you’re carrying, there’s space for you in this work. Bring your questions and your anxieties; know that you don’t have to have all the right answers all the time. There’s a free spoke in the wheel: come help us keep it turning. We want to welcome you.

2 thoughts on “Call Me In

  1. Thank you Ellen. I feel the discomfort – every day. The call to “do something” overcomes that insecurity and sense of inadequacy. Standing alone daily invites racist reactions that are evidence of the value of taking a stand, persistently and consistently. So is the far greater support and love that surpasses the “All Lives Matter” responses and far worse words and gestures. It has been a challenge to subdue the temper that takes the hate and ignorance personally but this is but a tiny glimpse of the ugliness experienced by our Black brothers and sisters.
    I hesitate each day to do it again, feeling I must appear as a weird old guy, which I sense with the looks on some faces. Is it becoming redundant doing this over and over again. It isn’t about me.

  2. Ellen,
    Thank you for this! I “stumbled upon” your post as I was checking out the new website. Your honesty, self-critique, and openness are inspiring, especially in a moment where I feel called on to do more, but not exactly sure what that “more” looks like.

    In solidarity and complicity,

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