10 ways to keep doing the work when you’re in it for the long haul

Photo: Amanda Sandlin

It’s Friday, February 2 at 3:39pm EST. I’m sitting on the small grey leather love seat in our living room. Out the southeast-facing window, the tall pines have shaken off last night’s snowfall. Icicles jut from the gutters and sparkle, temporary crystals in the sunlight. By Sunday, they’ll have melted. It’s an in-between month, spring still a ways off yet the days growing palpably longer and periodically milder. I can almost imagine the snowdrops’ subterranean stirring.

I stare off into space, as I often do when I’m writing. A pause, my gaze not landing on anything in particular but seeing almost as if into sound. It’s a way of listening, and maybe if you write, too, you’ll know what I mean: How the words are there, stringing together just a beat ahead of you. The breath catches and I remind myself that I can in fact type and breathe at the same time. (I am notorious for driving too slowly whenever I get animated during a car conversation, so the reminder’s not for nothing.)

I’ve been drinking from a firehouse lately when it comes to reading articles, blog posts, Facebook conversations, and Patreon posts related to whiteness, racism, and oppression. This afternoon, I read some threads I knew I had no business commenting on. I did comment on something earlier in the week that I almost immediately regretted; it wasn’t the place for it, and my comment lacked context. So I posted this instead: When you mess up, take responsibility, reflect, learn, and change. Beating yourself up eclipses the learning. 

Confronting my own white privilege and fragility is a full-time job. But it’s more like parenting than, say, climbing some kind of corporate ladder. There are no promotions or paid vacation days. Don’t expect validation from your colleagues, pats on the back, or cookies in the staff room just for showing up to work.  The benefits and bonuses are bigger than any one person.

That doesn’t mean going it alone. Finding your people, your team, your fellow humans who are also showing up every day is crucial. You need to have someone you can shoot a message to, asking: Can you read this before I share it? Would you check me for blind spots? Do you have a minute for me to run something by you? I just read something and I need help unpacking it.

If you are white, find other white people to learn with; do NOT go to your friends and colleagues of color asking them for help understanding the oppression they live with everyday and we don’t. Do not ask them to do  your work.

I’ve learned this much.

You will fuck up. Expect to be humbled. Expect to put your ego on a platter, along with so much of what you have spent your whole life believing. Maybe, like me, you’ve believed racism is worse in some parts of the country than others. Maybe you’ve thought that caring about things like the school-to-prison pipeline means you’re not racist. Maybe you’ve been self-conscious around your friends and colleagues of color, wanting to make sure you didn’t accidentally say something “wrong,” all while not realizing that your fear of this is itself a form of racism and whiteness in action. Maybe you are only lately waking up to how everything in our country is premised on a story of white supremacy, colonialism, Christianity, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgendered patriarchy.

It’s a lot to take in and it has to happen. If you’re opting out, if you’re thinking, this isn’t “my thing,” I’m begging you to stop for a moment and to really consider that this means.

Anyone who’s been doing this job for a long time will tell you burnout happens. That said, taking time “off” or only doing this work when you have the time and energy, is privilege in action. So how do you balance this with taking care of yourself?

  1. Create some structure.
    While oppressive systems function 24/7, as humans we’re not built to stay focused and engaged without routines, rest, and some semblance of rhythm to our days. This is an extremely personal thing and there’s no one size fits all. I’m enrolled in a year-long program with Desiree Adaway called Freedom School, which entails monthly webinars and extensive reading lists for which we’re each responsible between live learning sessions. Desiree encourages participants to share the learning — be it on social media, with friends and family, or in our work places. For me, these all tend to intersect quite a lot.
  2. Seek out information.
    Read, read, read, read, read. Gather with people, be it online or over coffee, where you can talk about what you’re learning and unlearning and also who are with you in seeing how oppressive systems are playing out in your everyday lives. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. People of color have known this forever. Expose yourself to voices, stories, and perspectives that are new to you. Maybe these will make you confused or uncomfortable. That’s a good sign.
  3. Listen to yourself.
    Start noticing some of your default habits and unconscious beliefs. For example, “I can’t believe this kind of thing is still happening!” Or the impulse to apologize to people of color. Shock and absolution will get us nowhere and are acts of violence.
  4. Expect discomfort.
    Know you’re going to make some people uncomfortable when you start acknowledging and confronting your own discomfort. When I got divorced, some of my friends who were married distanced themselves from me, as if it might spread. Notice the fear of loss. Honor it for yourself, but don’t let it keep you from talking about white supremacy. Your sister-in-law, your neighbor, your kid’s teacher, your Facebook friends — there will inevitably be people who don’t want to hear it, who say, “I know this matters, but aren’t you getting a little over-involved?”
  5. Listen to other people.
    This doesn’t mean tolerating or apologizing for white centering or fragility, but it does mean deciding where it’s worth engaging. If someone genuinely wants to learn and grow, starting with themselves, they may not have the same vocabulary as you but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing the work.
  6. Know your role.
    I am here as a student, not as a teacher. I am here as a writer, as someone standing at my own intersections and endlessly committed to growth, personal freedom, collective liberation, and talking about real stuff. (“Real stuff” — a technical term!) I adore humanity and want to throw the book at humanity, usually at the same time. “We are not all having the same experience” is something my friend and fellow writer Isabel Abbott has often said, and it couldn’t be more true. Remembering this is crucial.
  7. Write your way in.
    Devote a notebook to the examination of how whiteness, privilege, ego, assumptions, and internalized oppression show up in your everyday experience. Tell the truth. Get curious and honest.
  8. Think long-haul.
    This is not a sprint or a show. There’s no closing time.
  9. Shabbat.
    For us, this means lighting beeswax candles at sundown on Friday and calling it a week. For 24 hours, I shift my focus to quiet, to care, to home, to woods, to my love, to kids, to my body, to sleep, to food, to fun. It’s not that these aren’t all present throughout the week, of course; the difference is the intention. Abraham Heschel called it a “palace in time.” We enter into a sanctuary of rest, stepping away from the world of constant communication, engagement, productivity, and doing. It’s a day devoted to being, and it restores the soul like nothing else. If you’re not Jewish, consider carving out some day or time of the week that is unplugged. If we’re not present, we’re good for none of the above.
  10. Love.
    Love your people. Love the learning. There will be disgust, rage, grief, overwhelm, and awe. Don’t try to avoid any of it. The history of our country is a brutal one, and the current realities are the living legacy of the oppression that’s woven into the fabric of our institutions, or social “norms,” our textbooks, our education system, our government, and our white, liberal psyches.

A Jewish text called Pirkei Avot teaches: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”(2:21). This mandate guides me. Maybe it can be helpful to you, too.

It has been an hour since I sat down to start writing. The light has shifted further west and the wind seems to have quieted. Soon, I will start thinking about what’s for dinner.

The kids are with their dad this weekend, so it’ll be just me and Mani taking rest. There will no doubt be bulldogs on Instagram. Maybe we’ll watch the last four episodes of This Is Us (we’ve both been avoiding spoilers like the plague) and/or catch a movie. I will probably go walk in the woods alone. On Sunday, I’ll welcome 20 or so people to a new writing adventure.

The weeks fly by. The light shifts, kids seem taller from one morning to the next. My love grows. I get tired and then I get energized. The work is deep and wide and never done. Do everything you can and need to to keep showing up for it. To start and to keep going, no matter what.

We need all of us here and now.

Shabbat Shalom.

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