social justice work is exhausting: ableism, racism, and joy
Hurricane Harvey has wrecked a lot of folks and those who are Black, brown, undocumented, poor, trans, disabled, and/or queer are heavily impacted. As a result, visual artists Shing Yin Khor and Asiey Barbie raised $1,000 and $730, respectively. Khor and Barbie inspired me to see how I could use my skills to raise money for those affected by Hurricane Harvey, so I decided to write and edit in exchange for donations. If you’re interested, let me know by emailing me at anthokneesplease [at] gmail [dot] com. I’ll be doing as much as I can in September.
As of this writing we have raised $1,465 for Houston to recover from Hurricane Harvey by donating directly. Please do not donate to the American Red Cross. Give directly, give locally, and give what you can. Thank you.
This particular piece is sponsored by Vicky H, who donated to the Houston Food Bank. Please consider donating to any of the recipients [below] or take a look at the list Raquel Willis made.
Recipients of the $1,465: individual Black women (#SupportBlackWomenHOU), The Montrose Center, the Houston Food Bank, 3 GoFundMes, The Lilith Fund, Covenant House, the National Black United Fund (Houston Wishlist), Living Hope Wheelchair Association, Houston Humane Society, a Texas NICU group, Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, and the Houston Diaper Bank.
As a note, this piece is written more in the style of a blog post than an essay.
When I was about 12 years old my mother gifted me with a book: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff. Do not ask me if it was an effective book because I do not remember. What I can tell you now, 16 years later, is that my mom recognized something in me that I would not recognize until I was much, much older. Not until I was in my early twenties did I first see a therapist, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I was formally diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety — something I’ve dealt with my whole life. I sweat the small stuff, y’all. I sweat it a lot.
What I have finally come to accept is that I am mentally ill and highly sensitive to people and my surrounding environment. For a long time I did not want to claim mental illness and I saw my empathic abilities as being overly emotional. My internalized ableism told me that being mentally ill meant I was “crazy,” and that if I was “crazy,” then something was wrong with me. This ongoing unlearning process regarding maintaining my mental health and consciousness without just wanting to completely opt out of the world has taken a long time and a lot of internal work. I have also made a lot of mistakes along the way. I hope that tracing my journey and mindset helps others find peace.
My introduction to ableism
Luckily, I volunteered at the Disability Incarcerated Symposium during undergrad. At this point I knew very little about disability justice, disability studies, and the many, many ways our society and our built environment is ableist. What drew me in was Angela Davis speaking. Before watching her speak I was put to work helping set up the event. At the time, I did not understand the varied ways that things could be inaccessible, including smell. That was the first time I consciously remember things that made the space more accessible such as scent free zones and enlarged programs. I was ignorant. As a result, I was unashamed of my ignorance because I was unaware I was ignorant.
In many ways, it made sense. Although I have always dealt with disability in my own life, I never saw it as that. I saw the way I couldn’t get out of bed sometimes as my own laziness. And I definitely saw those self-sabotaging-now-I’m-late-for-work-naps I would take after high school and before my shift as me just being silly. And yes, I knew disabled people existed, but I had never heard of ableism, nor had I made the time to educate myself. And it’s really simple: We do not care because we do not have to. Reading work by people like Eb and doing my own research on my disability and the disabilities of others is what got me to care with my actions, not only my words.
When reading this, you may react with “I care,” but I see caring as concrete action, however small. Rarely do we “care” with our actions in ways that do not benefit ourselves. In my observation, we do not care about a particular group that society has marginalized until it affects us or those we love. Sometimes we have a relative/friend/spouse who fits said marginalized group, and then we care. Sometimes we read a book or see a documentary that changes the way we think forever, and then we care. And a lot of the time we know what is happening, but we just don’t care enough to do anything about it. We do not care with our actions because we are not forced to do so.
Reckoning with our biases
Please note, what follows contains broad generalizations and therefore saying “not all ______” is futile. The purpose is to examine the systems of racism, classism & capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cissexism, and nationalism.
The biggest issue I have heard from disability activists is the disrespect they receive from non-disabled people. For example, informing someone that a word is actually an ableist slur and instead being insulted with yet another ableist slur for being “too sensitive.”
Rather than recognizing how dehumanizing we treat disabled people, we play oppression olympics as if someone cannot be both disabled and [FILL IN THE BLANK]. Or as if their disability justice is less important than racial, sexual, gender, reproductive, environmental, or undocumented justice.
I am Black queer disabled person, but I didn’t see my own ableism much like white people do not see their own white privilege. So, for folk who recognize bigotry toward their own identity — but not the identity of someone else — I want to talk about another form of oppression.
For example, white folks don’t care about Black folks until our dead bodies are used to line their streets, and even that that is often not enough. Hence why police brutality has been going on for years with little attention until the Movement for Black lives shoved it in people’s faces. Truthfully, many white folks just began to even realize white supremacy is still indeed present on Nov 9, 2016 — the election of our 45th president — or Aug 12, 2017 — the day Heather Hayer, a white woman, was killed while protesting white nationalism in Charlottesville. But I’m not here to coddle white feelings, so I will tell you plainly that there are still people who do not care and will never care. While white supremacists go out of their way to lynch us, white moderates watch and do nothing to stop it.
Race is not the only example, however. We can look at…
- Class — rich folks do not care about poor folks or working class folks, especially globally [read more here]
- Gender — men do not care about women [read more here] and cis folks do not care about trans folks [read more here]
- Sexuality — heterosexual folks do not care about non-hetero folks [read more here]
- Immigration status — documented folks do not care about undocumented folks [read more here]
When the wreckage wrecks us
I’m an activist, an organizer, a student, a scholar, and a Black queer disabled human with both privileges and disadvantages. My identities intersect, they cannot be separated. I am constantly trying to unlearn, truly decolonize, and work toward getting us free. And the reality is, none of us are free until all of us are free. Black liberation that excludes queer people, feminism that excludes women of color, and any movement rooted in systems of oppression like ableism will not free us.
And honestly? It’s overwhelming, it’s taxing, and it doesn’t always feel worth it. For every one person who appreciates how I replace the word “stupid” with “silly,” I have another nine who think I’m ridiculous. For every one person who is grateful that I don’t misgender them, I have nine more saying “did you just assume my gender” as a joke; or folks intent on misgendering someone on purpose. This shit is tiring, and often the negativity and pushback from it is the norm. It’s not tiring to try to be a better human, it’s tiring to get shit from fellow humans for trying. Most folks in the world — outside of our individual little bubbles — do not want to change their ways, and constantly trying to shift them is almost never fun. That’s when my twitter addiction actually pays off.
I began writing this piece because the Harvey Relief sponsor wrote me a lovely note referencing my weekly efforts to lighten up my twitter timeline:
“Your questions based in promoting positivity are so powerful. Your seemingly simply requests for selfies or recalling something good have an effect that ripples out for those 140 characters into something much larger. I find that when I take a moment to reflect and/or celebrate myself, I have a larger capacity for generosity with those around me. It is especially rich against the backdrop of your own struggle with anxiety and depression. When those of us who follow you see someone who on some days can barely muster the ability to get out of bed, who is being honest about that struggle, and yet who can end the day asking what others are grateful for? What a powerful force that is. Perhaps you could write about your choice to live your truth in this way.”
Mental illness and hyper awareness suck and have literally sucked the life out of me in the last five to six years. So it’s simple, really. In order to combat the days when I cannot get out of bed or when all I can think about is trauma? I see if I can bring someone else joy. Bringing joy into a world so dark and cruel reminds me that it doesn’t have to be that way. Bringing other people joy does not magically cure my depression and it rarely gets me out of bed. But it does do two things:
First, it makes me feel less alone. I know I’m loved by those in my life and many people I have never met, but mental illness is a liar. It tells us that we aren’t loved, we are not worthy of love, and that we are alone.
Second, it allows me to use my personality and my platform. I have over 20,000 followers on twitter, something that still boggles my mind sometimes. And while I do a lot of intellectual and emotional labor, I also want to use what I have to help as many people as I can. In this case, I’m using humor and love as a coping mechanisms to combat trauma.
And truthfully, I’m still working to detach my self-worth from my level of productivity; but I’m just not there yet. Capitalism is ingrained into me just like my own internalized ableism, and as a result, I feel good when I “do.” I do not feel good when I am not “doing.” Being engaged in an activity, even if it is “just” tweeting, allows my brain to stop racing and feel good about accomplishing something, anything.
So I use gifs because I’m very visual person, I play the dozens because that’s how I was raised, I post selfies because affirmation feels good, I request selfies to make sure you all feel good, I ask if y’all cute today, I bask in the glow of your joy from the last 72 hours, I laugh at white people to keep from crying at white supremacy, I give love to my fellow academics, I ask for wholesome memes and gifs because who doesn’t love puppies ❤, I ask what are you proud of to remind myself that I have a lot to be proud of, I ask yes, no, undecided? about food to amuse myself, and I draw strength from all of you during this process.
While I believe in the power of self-care, what twitter can be good for — besides enabling white supremacy, wait lol that’s not good but twitter still does it lol — is collective care. I have the privilege of having mutuals and followers who love and care about my wellbeing. Friends and strangers who teach me, making it easier to be open about my own struggles with mental illness while also serving as a model for folks learning from me. Despite the cesspool that twitter is, I’m grateful for the growth and opportunities it has provided me. Thank you.
If you learned something or if this essay moved you, do me a favor and make it clap as many times as you’d like (it’s a way of showing that you liked the work).