Consciously Exhausted: The Exigency of Social Justice Work & Emotional Labor

Image featured in “When Dismantling Power Dismantles You Instead” by Marie Solis, a writer for Vice

I love studying social justice more than most things. I love critical thinking and anything that forces me to interpret the physical and conceptual world. I love discovering new things. I love uncovering profound truths about myself and my surroundings. I love to read and write; I can feel my mental library expanding when I do. My studies help me better understand that in a world like ours, it’s okay to be enraged, tactful, and articulate all at once. I love academic theory. I love academic research papers that have big, complicated words in them — the ones that demand my attention, the ones that obligate me to Google them. But I also love non-academic writing that puts me in touch with other people. I love learning about the lived experience. I could spend forever talking to other people about their positionalities, journeys, concerns, and points of view. I refuse to let my academic inclinations create dissonance between myself and those around me. Academia only serves to bridge my understanding of the world with my daily human interactions. After all, what’s the point of studying equity and justice if I don’t bother to apply what I learn in a meaningful, impactful way?

But this work is emotionally and physically draining. Burn-out is real. My anxiety reminds me every single day that I can never fully know the answers to my many questions and that I can never truly finish all of this work because there simply aren’t enough hours in my lifetime, even if I’m constantly going. I can only try my best to do my small part. I’m not talking about scholarly work — writing a paper is the least of my worries. I’m talking about grappling with the desensitization, numbness, and helplessness one feels after learning the truth about a number of ugly, difficult subjects. It’s the “red pill”.

My example is one of millions: I lived through my middle school and high school years knowing that there was more to this whole “social justice” thing than I realized. I became interested in active resistance, but only what I considered to be a safe amount; I hesitated often. I came to college. I entered classrooms where I was surrounded with people who wanted to talk about their opinions. These people possess all types of identity characteristics and come from all walks of life — they are Black, white, rich, poor, conservative, progressive. Some are men, some are women, and some are neither. I learned very quickly to respect when someone tells me who they are, in spite of how so many of us are taught to make assumptions and assign labels. I ask them to let me know how to best address them based on how they identify themselves. This first step was and still is crucial.

I take Introduction to Feminisms. Introduction to Sociology. Feminist Pedagogy in Theory. Feminist Pedagogy in Practice. Classism, Racism, Sexism. I begin to learn in-depth about the physical, emotional, socioeconomic, medical, and generational impacts of racism, antiblackness, queerphobia, neoliberalism, and countless other things. I watch Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix — I watch it four times. I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I pick apart excerpts of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I am invested in antiracist activist work but I stop myself — it is too much to process all at once and I can physically feel my brain working harder than usual. It’s like when you use your laptop for six hours straight and you can hear its fan whirring and feel its hardware heating up, but inside your head. I have an abundance of ideas all at once. It is overwhelming; almost excessive.

I walk back to my apartment and I notice, viscerally, that a university police officer is parked right in front of my building. I think back to what I learned about the historical development of policing in class and I think back to the many times that my friends of color and I were pulled over in my hometown, seemingly for no reason. I wonder if my white classmates experienced it as frequently as we did. I am suddenly so much more… aware. I finally know what is at the root of my fear of police. I can put words to it now more easily than I could before. Those people who are most immediately affected by militarized policing have always known about the consequences of resisting or simply existing. Immediate physical threats to my life were never an issue, though, because I grew up in the suburbs and white utopias are rarely explicit with their disdain for blackness or otherness; it usually seethes beneath the surface. I am angry when I realize that I was not given access to these understandings on purpose. I feel as if I should’ve known and then I realize that I’m not actually supposed to; the system deliberately shields us from its grotesque inner workings. That’s the most alarming part — by normalizing overt marginalization, the establishment enables us to believe that it isn’t there. Over time and through the progression of history, discrimination and bigotry have found a comfortable, inviting home in which to thrive: our genome. Hatred lives through us. It exists in how we breathe and speak, it is present in every room that we enter, and it rears its ugly head at every turn; we are just too accustomed, too numb to ever notice.

With that being said, I want to point out that I make my statements as an academic who is constantly surrounded by other academics, many of whom are primarily concerned with showing off how much they know. Too many of my academic peers are simply earning their grades in classes that interest them. Very few are personally invested in addressing the dehumanizing, often fatal results of being born into the oppressive structures that we talk about so often. We are taught to think critically, or “outside of the box”, but very few of us act on these thoughts in order to disrupt these systems through active engagement. The most valuable lesson that my schooling has taught me so far is this: being well versed in feminist theory does not rid me of my inherent, learned prejudice. Being aware of antiblackness, for example, does not take away from the fact that it lives within me and people like me. It has been passed down to me by my people for centuries; it is woven into our language and culture, it is ingrained in our laws and systems. I have realized, over time, that the act of catching myself is key.

When you think those horrible thoughts about the people around you, when your unconscious bias crawls out from the darkest crevices of your mind, when your brain goes there — what do you do? Remember that those thoughts are there on purpose, acknowledge them, and train yourself to think differently. Rewire your thought process. Resist.

It is not enough to be not racist; you must be staunchly antiracist with everything that you do. It is not enough to merely tolerate the people that discriminatory systems have taught you to unconsciously dehumanize and devalue; you must recondition yourself to constantly accept, embrace, and uplift those of us who are most often hidden and silenced. It is hard. It is tiring. It takes exhaustive vigilance that comes from within. The world will be a better place because people like you will be watching constantly with a sharp eye that is always open. But it will wear you down. Investment in this work cannot be faked.