How we can tackle burnout to make anti-racism work sustainable
Anti-racism is a game of endurance played on a decidedly uneven playing field. Our enemies are white supremacist ideologies, institutions and laws that have been cultivated since the arrival of European settlers on American soil. Furthermore, much of the burden of both advocacy and education falls on the stakeholders closest to the issue, people of color on the receiving end of overt and systemic racism. As a result, one of the biggest impediments to systemic change is burnout.
Pushing back against racism in real time is exhausting, lonely work. In addition to fighting against individuals and institutions with far more funding and political connections, people on the frontlines also have to navigate the emotional minefields of apathy, allies working through their own anti-racism journeys and the health effects of being overworked. Understandably, many people quit abruptly because the work feels increasingly hopeless.
This also applies to people who aren't necessarily involved in anti-racism work, but are just trying to live their lives as people of color in places like Lake Oswego. Far too many families are forced to move because the persistent racial harassment and lack of support are not worth the stress, especially to their children.
Respond to Racism has highlighted these sentiments with activities like last year's student panel and the RtR Storytelling Project. Almost every time, the audience reaction is a mixture of horror, shame and sorrow. Yet, the factors that fuel burnout are as strong ever.
So what can we do to create tangible change? Here are a few suggestions:
Identify areas where you can lesson the burden on those on the frontlines and step up to fill those needs- Whether it's direct advocacy, fundraising, communications or promotions, there is no shortage of needs for individuals and organizations on the frontlines or anti-racism work. Far too often, the physical and emotional labor falls disproportionately on the shoulders of a few. Finding places where you can plug in those needs goes a long way towards increasing productivity, effectiveness and longevity.
Educate yourself and others about the health effects of racism- While finding new people to step up is vital, the reason the "usual suspects" take on disproportionate workloads is because you want these efforts to come from a place of deep understanding and competency. To that end, when looking for places to contribute, you must also make a proactive commitment to your own education. When you operate from a place of partial or little understanding, you risk making decisions that will have negative effects on the people you're advocating for. Or, you put the burden of educating yourself on your colleagues, slowing down the actual work and increasing their likelihood of burning out.
Provide funding, resources and space for community building and mental health support- Since LO collectively taking anti-racism seriously is a relatively new phenomenon, there is a lack of understanding of the infrastructure needed to make this work effective. Specifically, when it comes to combating burnout, we need to not just further increase access and availability to counseling and other mental health support, but ensure these services are culturally relevant. We also need to provide more funding, resources and space for community building among marginalized groups to directly combat isolation and its effects on identity and sense of belonging.
Challenge the weaponization of kindness- Ask many people of color and outspoken allies why they chose to move from LO and you'll notice a recurring theme of frustration with allies policing their politeness, in many cases, more vigorously than actually fighting racism. While being more respectful is something we should all strive for, too often, the concept of kindness is used to prevent us from having uncomfortable, but necessary conversations. Calling out racism, especially when it's unconscious, can hurt people's feelings. However, those hurt feelings shouldn't carry more weight than people of color's safety and wellbeing. When kindness is being used to shame people and/or dismiss their very real concerns, call it out. Being inclusive means making space for marginalized people to be their full selves, not simply what makes the majority comfortable.
At the end of the day, while burnout doesn't grab headlines the same way as police violence, racist bullying or overtly white supremacist policies, it can be as detrimental to the success of anti-racism work as anything. If we want to create tangible, lasting change, we have to find the zeal for not just tackling the issues, but also taking care of each other.
Respond to Racism will meet Monday, March 2, at 6:30 p.m. at the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ (1111 Country Club Road, Lake Oswego). The topic will be the recent West Linn Police scandal and its ties to Lake Oswego.
Bruce Poinsette is the media action team leader for Respond to Racism and a 2007 graduate of Lake Oswego High School. He currently works as a freelance writer.
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