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I Can’t Save You… I Can Barely Save Myself

feminists of color

It’s 11am now — typically the 2- or 3-hour mark into my work day.  But, on this day, like many of the days over the past two weeks, I have been awake and working in some capacity for 6 hours now.  I can assure you that I did not intentionally rise at 4:30am, not over summer, not ever.  I blame the anxiety, the growing uneasiness about an impending move from apartment to house — that is, while interrupted by attendance at an academic conference on the other side of the country.  Anxiety about my partner’s ongoing job search on the eve of taking on a mortgage.  Frustration that I’ve poured hundreds of dollars into acupuncture, personal training, nutrition, massages, and therapy, plus the free yoga class at my university’s gym, only to gain weight and feel just as anxious as I did months ago.  Even the supposedly easy way out — taking anti-anxiety medicine — doesn’t seem to be enough these days.

Oh, and should I mention the recent slew of hate-motivated assaults and murders, state-sanctioned executions on the street, and terrorists attacks on places of peace against people like me?  Black.  Queer.  Trans.

Meanwhile, the 2016 election circus, which seems to now be in its second year, serves as a perverse laugh track to news of death after death.  Murder, execution, and genocide are obvious in their disruption of our lives.  Increasingly, researchers have documented how even experiencing exclusion, discrimination, and microaggressions wears on our health and well-being.  The effects on entire communities — namely fear, distrust, alienation, and trauma — come at a cost, too.  Even hearing news about all of this violence wears on us.  For the most unfortunate, death comes quickly; for the rest of us, death is slow, like being poisoned over decades.

After the queerphobic terrorist attack on Pulse in Orlando, FL, I felt okay, but was probably numb.  Marriage equality, pushed hardest by those who benefit most from it (i.e., middle-class white gay cis men), did not prevent the senseless murder of 49 people, mostly Latino gay men.  Oddly, I heard a voice in my brain say, “see — it was only a matter of time.  Marriage didn’t liberate us.”

After the televised executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I thought I was okay. I tried to avoid watching Diamond Reynolds’s video of her fiance (Castile) being murdered before her and her four-year-old daughter; but, thanks to my school’s gym, I couldn’t help but catch it playing over and over on the big screens airing CNN and MSNBC. I wept while walking on a treadmill.  But, I generally felt I was okay. 

I jumped into high gear with doing more anti-racist advocacy while others pulled back, overcome with grief.  I encouraged Dr. Judy Lubin to restart the Sociologists for Justice initiative, and successfully scheduled a forum for the group at the upcoming American Sociological Association annual meeting.  I started an associated Facebook page for the initiative, now kept active by several sociologists of color.  Weeks before, I had created Sociologists for Trans Justice, an associated Facebook page, and scheduled a forum for this group at the ASA annual meeting to advance transgender rights through sociology.  Did I mention that I run a blog, Conditionally Accepted, that features weekly essays by marginalized scholars?  And, that I am now co-editing a book on academic bravery among women of color scholars?

Maybe taking on initiative after initiative, project after project, was just a means to distract myself from the weight of the world.  But, it certainly did nothing to help me outrun it.  My sleep has been interrupted more and more over the past couple of weeks.  I feel incredibly overextended, yet surprisingly isolated and hopeless.  A bit of intense organizing, largely within the walls of the ivory tower, doesn’t feel like much; and, it certainly did not shield me from the nausea I felt after seeing a picture of Sterling’s funeral on Facebook.  My mind screamed, “Emmett Till,” and I promptly logged off, keeping a low profile online thereafter.

I’m in the thick of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity‘s (NCFDD) “bootcamp” — Faculty Success Program — right now.  This week, our homework is to lower our standards and expectations, hopefully calling out those among us who are perfectionists.  Would you know, perfectionist describes me well.  So, I brought the issue of being controlling to my therapist yesterday.  Surely, the need to control things and other people, to make everything neat, to tidy up loose ends, are all at the core of my anxiety.  It now seems to me that I will continue to be anxious until I get to these root issues.  I was a bit disheartened to hear my therapist say that that’s just who I am, and that the lifelong goal is maintenance — to keep the need to control in check.

But, we made some progress during the session, specifically engaging my need to perform at a high level.  I have a tendency to work so long as there is enough energy to get out of bed.  I have convinced myself that I have perfected the 40-hour workweek, not counting the time I put into blogging and other forms of service and activism.  But, now I am being forced to reconcile with a limited capacity for productivity.  I can’t do it all, even without suffering from mental illness.  But, with the ongoing symptoms of anxiety, I certainly have to scale back on all that I do.

It is hard, though, because what seems to be the most appropriate level of concern, labor, and advocacy is just barely outside of myself, envisioning concentric circles of concern here.  I have a limited capacity to concern myself with what’s going on in other people’s lives and what’s going on around the world because I’m overwhelmed just managing my own life — at least until I can learn to scale back.  My starting point for responding to tragedy in the world can no longer be, “what can I/we do?!”  Rather, it has to be, “what do I need right now?”  (Sshhh, internal critic; self-care is not selfish.)  I admitted to my therapist that this felt like resignation; I feel like the kid with asthma who is stuck in the house, watching other kids run and jump outside of my window.

What seems even harder is that the situation was already bleak for me as a Black queer non-binary person.  Think about the trauma inherent in being queer in the midst of ongoing queerphobic violence, or of being Black in the midst of ongoing state-sanctioned violence against communities of color.  If you can even fathom it, imagine being at the dreadful intersections among racism, heterosexism, cissexism, and sexism.  (Fuck intersectionality.)

I haven’t been as attuned to this baseline of oppression, distracted, instead, by the unique oppressive reality of academic institutions.  I’ve been working through and writing about the trauma inherent in my academic training.  Maybe I was already traumatized by this oppressive society.  Maybe every social institution is already set to crush me, just as graduate school did and, on some days, as my current institution does.

I don’t have much to offer.  I’ve resisted the temptation to just yell “Black women rule the world!” on Facebook and Twitter, and then deactivating my social media accounts.  For my own survival, I’ve got to back off for a while.  Unfortunately, I can’t save anybody else, since I’m barely hanging on myself.


2 Comments

  1. […] self-definition has not been a smooth process. I regularly burn the candle at both ends trying to exceed the expectations of mainstream academe (to keep my job) and subverting the […]

  2. […] self-definition has not been a smooth process. I regularly burn the candle at both ends trying to exceed the expectations of mainstream academe (to keep my job) and subverting the […]

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