I’ve had an email draft sitting in one of my accounts for about a year and a half.
It’s a compilation of links and research summaries that would have made a very good answer to a question from a friend of a friend. I spent more than half an hour searching Google and skimming abstracts for them. I organized the best results, interpreted the findings, and summarized them to make the list easier to read.
Then, just for kicks, I checked the word count: nearly 1,000. I laughed at myself, hit “save,” and abandoned the entire thing.
About two years before that moment, I had an extended back-and-forth with someone who’d made a video trafficking in shoddy rhetoric about the LGBTQIA community but only wanted conversation about it if he could record it. (I don’t quite remember the comment that inspired me to swan-dive off that ship but the relief when I finally did was delicious.)
Part of social change work is having awkward conversations with new people and inviting folks to learn with us.
Yet a world that works for all doesn’t emerge from my exhausting myself or trampling my own boundaries in the name of being helpful. I get to choose when to answer. At any given moment, I can refer people who approach me to peers of mine with more energy, time, or patience, to other resources, to other sources.
And when I do that, the sky doesn’t fall. I can tag back in later.
Being on call means paying psychic penalties and sometimes physical ones as well. As Toni Morrison, Brittney Cooper, and Nora Berenstain have all noted, engaging and explaining the impacts of social oppression while still experiencing it involves both “a tax and a toll.”
Marginalized persons frequently have symptoms of psychological distress and trauma resulting from their experiences of oppression… In order for marginalized persons to do the labor of educating others about their oppression, they must first overcome the cognitive burden of dispelling the negative emotion associated with it. This makes performing educational labor about oppression significantly more costly for someone who experiences it than for someone who does not… When marginalized persons are called on to educate their oppressors, they bear increased cognitive and emotional costs that take a cumulative toll on their mental and physical health.” —Nora Berenstain, “Epistemic Exploitation“1
It doesn’t matter whether, like me, you’re good at compiling answers to incoming queries about your social group. It doesn’t matter whether, like my daytime colleagues, you feel called to serve faith, community, and a vision of a just world by spending the best hours of the day surfing the news cycle and looking for opportunities to educate the willing public.
It matters whether you’re always on and whether you can ever step off.
It’s been a whole lifetime since last November, and the theme of rest has never been more salient. In my corner of the world, this week has been about anticipating and then responding to the Affordable Care Act repeal and the executive order on religious exemptions; prepping for a grant submission and gathering my stories and life learning for a—you guessed it—public education panel; and recovering from last week’s travel and planning next week’s events.
The days have been long and the nights have been short, and yet I’m fortunate not to be in personal crisis too. Things could be worse!
When you’re always on, and often-to-always in a position where you have to explain your experience as well as live it, cortisol becomes a companion and burnout is more a likely risk than a punchline. Sabbaths, vacations, breaks, deferrals, and silences—all of these are just as essential to progress as is full-throttle responsiveness. The pauses between notes are as much part of the musical experiences as are the sounds.
There are no prizes for dying on a treadmill. And not every excellent email needs to be sent.
- Read all of Berenstain’s article. Read Cooper and Morrison in full too. This isn’t a post about never responding to inquiry or proactively informing others. It’s about having and taking at will the option to decline, to stop, or to change. Gifts that aren’t being freely given are being stolen—and that includes the gift of explanation.
This is not to say that a marginalized person cannot genuinely choose to engage with a privileged person on topics of the oppression they face. they may even choose to make themselves generally available as an educational resource about their oppression to those who want to learn about it and do not experience it. But it must be their choice rather than something that they are coerced into out of concern for their safety and well-being.” —Nora Berenstain