Mental health, privilege and performance allies
There are probably a lot more people than me who have got involved in activism and social justice not only because of the marginalisations they experience but also because they have a desire to see and do better in the world.
I feel like especially those of us who have been told that we hold the burden of being compassionate and providing emotional labour to the world — many of us sometimes take on the emotional labour of making the world a better place. And sometimes, the desire to try and be a better person can appeal to either a deeper sense of perfectionism or wanting to prove our value.
Mental illness and the drive for perfection
Specifically when it comes to my own experience, my mental health and life circumstances have always combined to create situations where I am interested in whatever can make me “better”. My self-attack and obsessive tendencies love to wrap their tendrils around something as a means of bullying myself into being “better”. This is essentially what created disordered eating in my life.
[CN: Disordered eating mention, weight loss]
The ideal of perfection in thinness was something I wanted to achieve and weight has the added bonus of not being something of an immediate result. So I could keep convincing myself that if I just kept pushing harder and harder to become thinner, it would eventually happen. And even as I can make an honest effort to eat more healthy and be active just for my health, my poor mental health will take what is a positive thing and turn it into a way to consider myself less than perfect.
This same tendency, I feel, is sometimes present in my activism. Within social justice, there are sometimes very stark lines that you can see not to cross. Although we all make mistakes, there are communities where making mistakes, even if you are apologetic about them, can earn you abuse.
It’s tricky because this is an environment where emotions are already running high because you’re talking about the microaggressions and things people deal with on a daily basis. It’s easy and understandable to feel upset. And it’s difficult to swallow that you may have hurt someone in such a socially powerful way, even without realising it.
Yet, I feel like the tendrils of my anxiety have wrapped around my activism to the point where it can use it as a means of self-attack. Mistakes happen and they inevitably will happen, but my mental illness does not care. If I mess up, my mind will use it as a means to beat myself up. I’m privileged in many ways and my mind will reinforce that I am part and parcel of systems of oppression that murder people. I am a bad person. And I should and do feel bad.
When activism meets self-attack
This is compounded by the fact that people of all types of privilege often expect the person they hold privilege over to do their emotional labour. Despite not identifying as a woman, I have cried white women’s tears. I have felt genuine upset by the thought that I (*gasp*) could have done something racist and displayed and foisted that emotion onto people of colour.
And while I don’t think anyone has ever told me that I am not allowed to be sad or upset period (but rather, I should not expect POC to do emotional labour for my white feelings), my mental illness twists this message.
I already feel like shit for making a mistake — but now I am even more shitty because I feel like shit. Despite not being able to control my poor mental health’s spiralling into self-attack, I still blame myself for focusing on my white feelings. I’m making it about me. I beat myself up for beating myself up.
And what this means is that I often don’t even realise when other people are beating me up.
Performing allies and good faith
There is a piece on Black Girl Dangerous about ‘ally theatre’, or the concept of someone performing their ally-ship in a very public way for a purpose. Social media amplifies this type of behaviour. Recently, another white person used me to perform their ally-ship. And the problem with this type of behaviour is that it can couch genuine concerns within a bullying veneer.
I have never been supportive of the argument that the right tone will help educate someone. Nor do I believe that people who experience marginalisations have the obligation to educate the people that have privilege over them. I don’t want what I’m saying to be misinterpreted as, “If you’re ever mean to someone, you’re doing ally theatre”, because sometimes there are people who enjoy creating drama that being ‘mean’ is the only way to draw a boundary.
But individuals with privilege calling out other individuals with the same privilege do have a duty to do so effectively — as in, if you’re going to waste your breath calling someone out in the first place, make sure you have the capacity and ability to actually educate them if they are willing to listen, specifically if you’re not the one marginalised by what you’re calling out. Otherwise, it begs the question as to why, other than ‘ally theatre’, you’re doing it in the first place.
In my specific example, and white person ‘collected me’ (in their words) for attempting to organise an anthology about polyamory/non-monogamy with an emphasis on a mix of different marginalised voices including POC, trans people, sex workers, asexuals, etc. It is perfectly understandable to question my fitness to lead a project myself of this magnitude, especially being white. Although many of these areas I’m focusing on do fit my experience, not all do. But at multiple points I emphasised that I was not intending on ‘leading’ it solely. I had only just started to try and brainstorm about such a collection and ask people if they were interested in contributing.
Rather than approaching me with a clear understanding of what problems they had, the individual ‘collecting’ me instead made general statements about me not understanding white supremacy enough to do this, about me needing to unpack my privilege, etc. (Oddly enough, this person didn’t seem to mind so much that I wasn’t a sex worker or a trans woman, just that I was white). And it may be due to my autism that I struggled to understand specifically what they were arguing. When I asked for an explanation, I was treated as though I was belligerent and hostile.
Literally, this person asked me if I knew what the phrase ‘have a seat’ meant.
Humiliation and learning
Initially in this discussion, because I was so used to beating myself up, so used to believing that I was always in the wrong, I allowed this person to badger me as though I was not willing to learn, listen or apologise — even as I was basically trying to explain that being autistic was making processing this information difficult.
It was only after I shared this conversation with a few of my friends that I realised that this person was more interested in a demonstration of how anti-racist they were than actually telling me the pitfalls I wasn’t realising or addressing and needed to realise and address.
During the discussion, my mental illness had a field day.
Nothing I could say or do would be interpreted in any other way than someone who was of unworthy of basic respect. Despite apologising several times, asking questions and trying my best to understand what was foul about the approach I was taking, repeatedly I was knocked down a peg. I was told how ignorant I was being without a mention of what specifically I was doing or how to address or fix it. At one point when I offered to pass on the list of contributors I’d gathered in the past few hours to any other ongoing projects, the white person told me to ‘stop pretending what I had done had any value’.
As an autistic person, I’ve often struggled to understand non-verbal communication and been in many situations where I have offended or upset people without understanding why. And as a person with poor mental health, my brain is more than willing to accept that I’m a shit person who deserves to be kicked around.
I actually thanked this person for the way they treated me. Despite the fact that they left me feeling so frustrated, I was scared to even ask any more questions, scared to try and understand more about what I had done wrong, and even scared to stay silent lest my silence be interpreted as not listening. I had no idea what to do. Just that I was shit.
Mental illness and ‘white feelings’
I was happy to be ‘collected’ because I already believed I was garbage.
Then on top of this, I kicked myself for supposedly being upset for being ‘called out’. Every positive activist tool in my box that I have used to try and understand my white privilege and not centre my feelings my mental illness used against me. Instead of listening to the real feelings I had of being treated like trash, I told myself I had no right to believe that I was anything but trash.
Like many abusive or even unfair situations I’ve been in, it sometimes takes some friends to point out to you that you’re being mistreated before you realise it. It can be easy to trap yourself into a self-hate spiral and believe that you deserve the treatment you’re given. And it took people reaffirming to me that I didn’t deserve to be treated like a piece of trash, even if I did make mistake.
In hindsight, I don’t think I was upset to be ‘called out’. I absolutely do understand and respect that, if I did choose to lead a project with primarily POC contributors, that myself being white would be problematic. And during the discussion, I was really excited specifically about the prospect of a 101 book because it was what I was looking for, so I dismissed other types of writing people had presented to me.
I would never expect a person of colour to explain and educate me about what I’ve done wrong, especially if I’ve upset them. A fellow white person however, I do expect them to make a cognizant effort to try and explain something. And I understand even as a white person getting pissed off about racism other white people exhibit. And I think I have even been someone who has produced ‘ally theatre’, who has refused to educate other white folks and has instead chosen to ‘call out’ more for spectacle than for anything.
If your goal is to educate, the people you are trying to educate should not be scared. And if you’re a privileged ally calling another privileged person out publicly, if your goal isn’t to try and address the issue, then what else are you doing it for, other than spectacle? Other than ‘ally theatre’?
The takeaway for white people trying to be ‘allies’
So there are two things that this situation has made me aware of as an activist: that I need to be able to recognise that I can make mistakes without allowing my mental illness to grab hold of it and abuse me for it (and allow other people to abuse me for it) and also that, whenever I am in a position of privilege and I decide to confront another person with the same privileges, I need to ensure that I am doing so for the purpose of actually fixing the problem, and not just telling that person how little they know.
We all have to start somewhere.
We are all born into systems of marginalisations and privileges that make us ignorant. I don’t know the right way to solve these systems. But I do know that if someone is willing to apologise, listen and learn, that is at the very least half the battle. It’s worth at least trying to explain it to them.
Part of doing ally-ship is more than just telling someone they don’t know enough (especially as that inevitably and logically means that you automatically do). It’s more than just putting people down a peg by telling them that they’re too ignorant. It’s actually doing the work. And if you don’t have the energy to do it, then don’t volunteer.
While it isn’t right for white people to burden POC with our white feelings, we’re still going to have them. We can’t get rid of our feelings. And while we know that POC are not telling us that our privilege and ignorances make us ‘bad’, our mental illnesses can definitely do that without our control.
Our mental illnesses will take the tools we have learned to try and understand white privilege and convince us that we are inherently garbage that needs to be ‘collected’. And while we need to be humble enough to know we can always make mistakes, regardless of how much we know, getting locked into a spiral of self-hate will, in the end, help nobody. Practicing self-care and talking to other white people about your feelings will help.
If you are a person who is genuinely willing to learn, then a person who shares your privileges shouldn’t make you feel too ashamed to ask for help.