While at the NEXT Church National Gathering last week, I engaged in a number of conversations about race. Some were about encounters with race and racism. Others were about racial justice. But the one that was most resonant for me was a conversation I had with a few other people of color about representation. In that discussion, and in subsequent conversations I would have with other people of color, we talked about what happens when people of color are “at the table” in conversations and in leadership. An interesting phenomenon occurs: it becomes obvious to us very soon that we are there because it is assumed we are “safe.”
By “safe,” I mean that we are expected to (no pun intended) color the conversation, but not necessarily challenge assumptions. We are there to basically affirm the direction of the mostly-white entity and assure them they are on the right track. They may even value our input or our push-back, but that doesn’t mean it’s well-received when it’s given.
This is the case even in spaces where people have the best intentions. They really do want to hear from you, but that’s the nature of white privilege — it’s not used to being challenged. They may want you there, but they hadn’t entirely counted the cost of your presence. This is why I’m very selective of the “tables” at which I sit, and the teams and boards on which I sit are the ones who “get it”. I am prepared to bring me — all of me — but those with whom I sit must be prepared to receive it all.
So, on that note, I just want to make a general appeal to all my beloved white friends and colleagues: Please don’t expect me to be the “safe” one. I’m not her. I can’t be her.
I will be laudatory when praise is due. I will be supportive, genial, and pastoral, because that’s what I aim to be in my interactions with all. What I won’t do is placate. What I won’t do is soften harsh realities to spare sensibilities. As a pastor, I care deeply about your feelings, but I care nothing about your fragility. Because I care about you, I’m not going to let you do well-intentioned harm (especially if I am the one in harm’s way).
Thankfully, most of the people in my life don’t ask that I bring anything less than myself when in their presence, which is largely why I call them “friends.” There is so much freedom in being able to give audience to a voice that would be otherwise marginalized. I offer that none of us will ever be free as long as we give so much power to our fragility. That fragility is the biggest obstacle to justice, I argue, because people will go to great lengths to protect themselves and their notion of their inherent goodness, remaining unaware of the harm they continue to perpetuate. Know that if you invite me to a conversation, I will bring my own words. I will tell my own truth, not with the intention of attacking or making anyone else feel bad, but because I know my truth is valid. I will be the one who lovingly challenges you to do and be better, so that we can all get free! Trust me, I love you, but if you respect me, you will not expect me to be “safe.”
Today’s read is the second in a series of guest posts from Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Charnessa K. Pleasant. Charnessa is sharing a series on the importance of self-care in the work of activism.
You know, on most days, I really dislike my relationship with social media. I seriously do! I am one of those people that when the alarm goes off at 5:30am, my phone is the first thing that I grab (I’m really working on being consistent on thanking God for seeing another day, I really am, ya’ll). I grab that phone and I check all social media sites to see what I’ve missed. And without fail, it doesn’t take long for me to reach a point in my timeline where I hit the one story that attempts to set the tone for my day. Pick any one: the blockage of federal funding for Flint, Michigan; the refusal to hear Supreme Court nominations during the current administration; MSNBC parting ways with Melissa Harris-Perry”, the shooting of another African-American male in Salt Lake City, Utah. After some time, I begin to see recurring articles, even articles that were published years ago that speaks to events that are happening in today’s climate. I immediately begin to feel overwhelmed and heavy in spirit because it becomes all too much. So, I keep scrolling along to the next postings rarely stopping to give space or voice the feelings that were provoked due to the previous post.
I want to speak a bit on the intersection of witnessing, activism and self-care and why it matters as to how we witness when we talk about self-care. The notion of witnessing is one of personal significant to me. In 2008, I found myself at a crossroads in my personal life. Without belaboring the story, all of my coping mechanisms had shut down, any set of skills I had for managing my life were totally worn out. I was stalled out in life. It wasn’t until after several years in therapy (yes, I am a therapist who has a therapist) that I finally gained a gem of insight as to what was happening to me in 2008: I was moving through life (similar to how we scroll) without fully witnessing. Let me provide some context for what I mean by witnessing. To witness, by definition, is: [noun] an “individual who, being present, personally sees or perceives a thing; a beholder, spectator, or eyewitness”; [verb]: “to bear witness to”.
When I say that I was moving through life without witnessing, it’s not in the way that you may be thinking. I was fully aware of my lived experiences, trauma, pain, etc. I would sit in my therapist’s office for weeks and run my story up and down; what happened, who the players were, the coping skills that I used (which included narratives that I told myself about what was going on). I had witnessed it, for sure…or so I thought. It wasn’t until my therapist introduced one simple concept that changed the way that I interacted with myself from that point forward: the concept of curiosity. She sank my battleship! What I realized today is that up until 2008, parts of my life has been witnessed in the noun form of witnessing; I was a beholder, an eyewitness to things external of me. When my therapist introduced the tool of curiosity, I shifted from being a visual witness to a witness who bore (verb: to carry, hold; to birth). What she was challenging me to do was to set aside the events that I experienced and to bring forth the emotions that it triggered. This.Was.Heavy.Work!
We witness well with our sight while paying little to no attention when we witness by way of our emotions or intuition. We come by this behavior rather innocently as we do not live in a society that supports or cultivates effective and meaningful leadership of self, which requires us to rely a great deal on listening intuitively. There are experiences taking place within us that pierces past our visual sight; a conversation being held about where we are hurt and what we need. As I mentioned in my previous piece, we have a tendency to override this second layer of witnessing and in doing so, it has the potential to start a rapid decline in our mental and emotional wellness. So, why is how we witness important in social justice activism and our self-care?
Let’s go back to the beginning of this piece. I started out talking about my experience while scrolling my social media timeline. On first glance, I am reading story after story on all kinds of topics that are of importance to me: domestic violence, gender and racial inequality; discrimination. As I read, I am witnessing the shit that we do to one another. Immediately, I am hit with anger and frustration so I scroll along while completely ignoring the fact that I am still suspended in anger and frustration. I do nothing with it (that I’m aware of). So I go on about my day, I throw myself in my work; I repost these articles feverishly with the hashtag #staywoke. I engage in heated dialogues; I through my hands up when I see that people “just don’t get it”. I come home exhausted….and I am still unsettled in my spirit.
Ok, hit pause! Had I taken the time to become curious about my anger and frustration, what I would have really gotten to was how helpless I feel when I read about these events. Curiosity would have me sit with the feelings of what it is like to feel helpless, afraid and scared; to not feel protected. Anger is an easy state of being to access and we have endless [most times harmful] coping mechanism to help us ease anger. I am not arguing for or against anger; it most certainly has its place. The fire and passion that accompanies anger serves as a primary catalyst that motivates us towards activism. We may convince ourselves that “the cause” is larger than my feeling. I may even give myself a half hearted pep talk and get back on my grind because at the end of the day, a mother is without her child; a family has been torn apart; someone has been hospitalized, [insert your field of advocacy here]. So we keep going….unsettled and all
However, helplessness and fear requires a different kind of attention from us and these emotions and feelings are oftentimes neglected as we advocate for forward progress. It requires a raw vulnerability with oneself, one’s abilities and one’s limitations. For me, it forces me to acknowledge that progress is slow that the road to change may have a lifespan that is longer than my natural life. This is the narrative of my witness that bears and carries the heaviness. I get why we hate to acknowledge it…I get it. But I also understand that in acknowledging the emotions invoked by my secondary witness, I learn to hear clearer what I need in that moment: a hug, reassurance; someone to hold space as I grieve. It’s from this place that I learn to give myself permission to step back as I see fit because I understand that it is really okay to take care of myself AND come back to advocating when I am recharged and well. This is where meaningful self-care takes place.
Charnessa is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of North Carolina where she currently serves as a therapist in community mental health. Her private practice, The Healing Collaborative, PLLC, focuses on address the needs of women’s emotional health and wellness. She received her B.A. in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and earned Masters in both Women and Gender Studies and Social Work from Eastern Michigan University. She currently resides in North Carolina with her husband where she enjoys discovering micro-breweries, catching up with her DVR and perusing the aisles at her local bookstore. Find her on Periscope at @thehealingcollab, on IG at @thehealingcollaborativepllc or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more about her approach to the world of mental health and wellness.