So You Think You Are a Social Justice Activist.

Margo Stebbing
Jan 4, 2018 · 12 min read

The truth is that you may be unwittingly using it to create more harm. Here’s three trojan horses in social justice work: weaponized white fragility, weaponized trauma and abuse under power. Lets get to know these dynamics better so we don’t get hijacked in our social justice work by them.

At the end of last year, I encountered the dubious honor of being de-friended by a couple of women who consider themselves social justice activists. The first one is a white woman, a friend of mine from our local racial justice team, who came on to one of my posts in social media when I shared an article written by a well known black woman, Ijeoma Oluo, an American anti-racism writer.
My friend proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that I shared the ‘wrong’ quote from Oluo’s post.
Another friend of mine, who is also white, confronted her and said: “let me get this straight, you are a white woman, you center yourself and tell a woman of color what she should be posting or quoting from another woman of color”.

Unfortunately, the defensiveness escalated and my ex-friend ended up de-friending me, blaming me for not protecting her from the direct confrontation of my other friend. What I did do, is that I protected her from another person who came on that same thread and started taunting her, with what felt like high school bullying. I deleted that comment because it was shaming, it was personal and it was wrong.

However, being confronted about her white centering, her condescension toward me, and her turbo charged white fragility was not a wrong thing to have had happened, this is actually a good thing. My other friend was being a no-bullshit ally towards me and an ally toward anti-racism work in confronting white centering and its defensive posture. And whether my friend was too strong, just right, or not strong enough, in confronting my ex-friend’s white fragility, we are all entitled to our opinions on that. However, when my ex-friend de-friends me, that is escalating the micro aggressions toward me that she already engaged in, and moving into the territory of weaponized white fragility.

Basically my ex-friend de-friended me for not protecting her from the discomfort of her own white fragility, which she could not see, even though she is part of our racial justice team that teaches work shops on white fragility. Yeah, this is really bad news. When so called social justice activists fail at their own personal accountability, and think that they are committed to the cause of social justice, while they engage in micro aggressions against women of color, it is a big fail.
When the same white woman gets feedback from others in our racial justice group that she needs to do some deeper personal accountability and she continues to insist on blaming the woman of color, this is a big fail, and this is doing more harm.

I offered, after I expressed needing some time for self care, to come back to this with her, and discuss this in our racial justice group. She did not take me up on that, and I offered to my racial justice group that they meet with her alone, with only the white people in the group, as I thought it would be safer space to address her white fragility. Unfortunately, even the white members were not able to call her ‘in’.
Until each of us is willing to do more personal accountability work, the truth is, that we are creating more harm under the guise of doing social justice work because we are not starting with with our own ground zero with our own conditioned racism.
If she is not accountable for her own white conditioned blind spots, nor repair with another women of color, then it is only hyperbole to do social justice work. We must do better than this. And our social justice team is learning to be accountable to the integrity of our work and being willing to be more direct with each other’s blind spots. It has taken time and trust, but this crisis has us finally developing guidelines and stepping more truly into the heavy lifting of anti-racism work.

We must be willing to receive feedback, as hard as it is. White people live with perpetual blindspots in their white conditioning, and need to be constantly self-examining, most especially those who engage in social justice work. Or else it is just for show, but no real substance, it is only to collect social justice badges.

Now- my second friend who de-friended me, this is a much more complex issue. She is a woman of color, with lighter skin privilege like myself, who also sees herself as a social justice activist, though, her activism is only on Facebook. She has no groups in her city that she is connected or working with, as of my last contact with her in November of last year. There is only the two dimensional world of the internet in which it is easy to spout social justice rhetoric and get a handful of followers, without practicing the heavy lifting of ‘relational’ social justice work.
By relational, I mean, the heavy lifting of looking into another human being’s eyes, and knowing that they have their white conditioning, or even have their own internalized oppression conditioning if they are a person of color, but still having the intent to practice holding the heart of our common humanity with one another. And strong boundaries may be required, but compassion and accountability are our important practices, I see them more as essential verbs, not nouns, in social justice work.

The face to face, is heavy lifting because it takes us out of a sanitized perfectionistic idea of social justice, instead of just beating each other over the head with rhetoric, but in person, we have to begin to do the bridge building, the relationship building, and come into the nuanced world beyond the stark black or white, polarized thinking. Extremes are easy to do. It is the work of holding the center that is hard AF.

This de-friending cut deep.
She was a friend of mine, a friend who talked incessantly about her racial trauma, she was someone that I supported, and pointed her toward a racial trauma online workshop for support. She was someone that I supported most of the way through a three month decolonization course until I started to see some red flags in what she was doing. Within the group, which was a mixed race, mixed gender group, she was consistently talking about her racial trauma, as well as the general rallying call to anti-racism work. I thought it was good and needed at first, and I supported her voice, as I equally gave voice to these topics. I spent hours on zoom and private messaging with her to support her fragile sense of equilibrium, as I had much empathy for the racial trauma she always talked about. I understand it, I get it. I share it.

But then she asked me and a space holder of the group to protect her from Wetiko. It was at this point, that I started to examine what was beginning to feel like a co-dependent relationship with my friend. To ask me to shoulder the burden of protecting her from that, which is basically asking me to protect her from white supremacy. This was the signal that woke me up out of the trance of my co-dependency. As if I could protect her from it, and also, to even ask that of someone, is to make oneself very small without agency or ability to make the hard won shift to move from a victimhood mentality. If she needed to ask that, she should have just left the group for her own self care.

This is not to invalidate the impact on her life of white supremacy or Wetiko, but it is to acknowledge the edge where support moves into a mutual relationship of co-dependancy. I should have known then, when she asked me that question, what the outcome of our relationship would be. Typically in co-dependent relationships, the dependent one invariably ends up biting the hand of the giver.

At that point, I began to pull myself back from what I realized I had fallen into, which was a classic co-dependent relationship, and I began to re-center within my own self. I started to notice her incessant posting in the course which was always about herself, and never responding to other people, unless they supported her, in which case, she would lavish copious praise upon them. Her centering was beginning to stand out like a red flare in the group, and people stopped responding to her posts which by the end of the course began to sound like more of a desperate rant which invalidated every single person in the 90 person group, except the few who still supported her. Even the people of color who at first supported her voice started to recognize there was something else going on there.

Initially her posts were targeted toward the white people in the group. But they also started to extend to the people of color in the group. Let me be clear: I am not saying that there is not room for oppositional discourse, or disagreement. But her expressions were more like personal attacks, not meaningful nuanced discussions. Finally, one of the course leaders, who is a woman of color and has being doing social justice activism for decades snapped. She had had enough of my friend’s constant battering, criticisms and war she was waging in the group. She confronted her, and then a few days afterwards delivered one of the most courageous acts in the entire course. She gave a heartfelt apology and did a personal accountability of her own toward my friend.

It was when my friend privately mentioned to me, that she still had a hard time getting over the women’s initial stinging rebuke. And I finally spoke up. I said to my friend: well, your words were stinging to many many people in the group. And I also told her, that personally, I do not spend my time calling out people of color, because I figure they are in the process of unpacking their own internalized oppression, and they need more micro aggression from another person of color like they need a hole in the head. Especially in the context for a lighter skin woman of color to call out a black woman of color. Just no. I don’t do that. It’s not that I would not address talking about internalized oppression, but I am trying to make the shift from calling out to calling in. We are in this together.

And as a woman with lighter skin privilege, though I have experienced the impact of living under a white supremacist culture, I would be a fool to think that I have experienced the oppression that black people experience. I practice my own racial justice work in being an ally toward black people. I do not try to micro manage their own work, or call them out on where they still have corners of internalized oppression.
I am willing to have that discussion, but consent is a very important part of that dynamic. Consent and respect.
One of the course facilitators offered a list of questions to both POC and WP. At that point, I realized that many WP probably thought that my friend’s version of social justice was the same as mine own, as for many this was their first introduction to this arena. I decided to write a post of my own, to differentiate my own views from my friend.

It is then that my friend took my differentiation as an invalidation of her own views and she de-friended me, as if there was a hierarchy of opinion, or race to hold the seat of social justice czar in the group. She has since then proclaimed that she was dissed by WOC in this group, and that mine, as well as other’s motives in our personal truth speaking was for attention or competition and was due to ‘our internalized oppression’. Sad that this was her take away. But without a willingness to examine her own impact in the group, which was her own, and had nothing to do with anyone else, personal accountability is eschewed, and blame and victimhood resides on the throne placing its social justice crown on the ego, when perhaps social justice has been hijacked by weaponized trauma.

At this point, one needs to recognize when trauma gets weaponized and it turns against everyone. This is not about justice nor true social/racial justice work. I am beginning to understand what is called power under abuse.
Power under abuse occurs when someone who has less power behaves abusively towards someone who has more power. Andi Grace eloquently describes this:
power under abuse dynamics happen when the person who is behaving abusively perpetually identifies as a victim, and as a result of identifying this way becomes unwilling/unable to take accountability for the harm caused by their actions. And at the same time, the person with more power (real, perceived or falsely constructed) often tends to feel incapable of setting boundaries or asking for accountability because they feel a strong sense of shame or guilt because of their (real/falsely constructed) sense of privilege/power.’

This is the complexity that I write about, not to shame any of us, but that we may begin to look at this and understand the complex dynamics that are a part of social justice work.
I also need to state that white people really need to not use this understanding of power under abuse, to falsely accuse POC of power under abuse because of POC’s anger at social/racial injustice, or use it to tone police POC. This is the difficult nuanced territory that we walk, and requires ongoing self examination. I do not use this term power under abuse to describe the dynamics of my friend lightly.
Because of the historical impact of racism on POC, WP need to always question their second guessing of POC, and question their own default to bestowing the benefit of the doubt to WP.
Weaponized trauma, weaponized fragility and power under abuse operate at different frequencies than say, the usual angry reaction and such. These weaponized states are a whole other animal. WP need to continually self examine their impact vs. intent, and the unconscious default to reestablishing their sense of power and centering that they are unconsciously used to.

This is the wounded psyche of racism that is expressed in both white fragility and in abuse under power. The wounds we share, and must learn to be in the process of naming, not to accuse, but that in the naming we may free ourselves and do the hard work of deconstructing these unconscious shadow dynamics that we all share, and must face in order to get out from under the beast of racism.

We are in this together, and that ultimately is what social justice work is about: the we, the healing, not as a by-pass, but as a deep examination of our own shadow work, personally, as well as collectively. If social justice work only happens on the macro level, we fail. If social justice work only happens on the micro level, we fail. It needs to happen both personally and then in the world, less we fall into one-sided, inflated social justice activism that is all about ego, power, and rhetoric, but not true justice.

It is in the ongoing personal and collective accountability toward social justice, that we will continually be humbled. This is not about collecting social justice badges, but about the humbling, difficult work of letting the breadth of social justice work continually teach us. We are not its masters, but at best, its humble servants, always coming back to ground zero. It always includes repair. Without repair, social justice work is half baked and in its infancy, and just wearing the mask of the patriarchy under the rhetoric of social justice. Let us recognize when we get caught there, do the work, repair and walk on.

It’s a new year, it’s a new day as my friend Staci Jordan Shelton always says. One of my favorite Hawaiian words is a word that is like a battle cry or a call to continuance. IMUA! It means Onward! I use the word Imua as a personal mantra to continue on through the the mine fields of social justice work. I am always hopeful for the repair, that in time, we will broaden our perspectives, that we will see our own judgements, our own white fragility, our abuse under power, and do the uncomfortable, but deeply rewarding and humbling work of accountability. A fellow social justice friend of mine said that the work requires both accountability and compassion.

I see that accountability and compassion are like the Janus figure with two faces: one faces inward and one faces outward.

‘In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus (/ˈdʒeɪnəs/; Latin: Iānus, pronounced [ˈjaː.nus]) is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past’. And I might add She looks both inward and outward.

Imua in both directions. May we continue…

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