Last week, I attended my third Round Table discussion (I've mentioned the other two in my monthly recaps). Students, faculty and staff from the university where I work, as well as members of local churches in Atlanta, gathered for a meal and to discuss the question: What does it mean to be an activist?
This is a question I've been internally thinking about a lot recently--since the election, mostly, which is a very white woman thing to even be able to say. Lots of people have been thinking about it long before that. I won't say it didn't entirely enter my mind on November 9, snippets of thought about how to stand and speak up have floated into my head and heart since Ferguson. But even then--others have been asking what it means to be an activist, and defining it for themselves, for decades, even centuries, before I got here.
What does it mean to be an activist?
As it was at all the tables, my conversation partners were both black and white, female and male, a range of ages--all with meaningful stories and powerful voices (even if they spoke quietly). Some of the ideas and thoughts shared:
Activism is standing up in dissent.
Activism can't happen unless we take care of ourselves, and don't burn out.
Activism means different things for different people.
Activism means using your particular gifts to stand in solidarity. (You may not feel comfortable at rallies or marches; but maybe you're an artist and you can create beautiful signs for your friends to take downtown. You may not want to go speak up at a town hall meeting, but you can have a one-on-one conversation with someone who doesn't see the same way.)
I greatly appreciated the conversation, especially the pieces about using our particular gifts, about claiming the role of activist in different ways based on our personality, our talents, our passions. That speaks deeply to me, as an inward-looking, self-aware soul who loves deep personality tests and dumb Buzzfeed quizzes equally. I savor the sense of knowing myself, and knowing what I'm good at, and applying that to my space in the world.
But there was something itching at me as we sat around the table, and I voiced it to the extent that I knew how at that moment, and I'm writing it down now to see if anything new comes out.
The itchy piece stems from being a white woman, and being more aware of those roles--particularly those two roles smushed together--than I ever have before in my life. The itch says, Hi y'all, I'm Claire. I'm an introvert who loves cozying up on the couch with a book or a movie. I hate calling strangers on the phone and I don't love standing in crowds, or shouting, or even chanting. If it is not made easy for me to get somewhere, I will usually make the choice to stay home.
The itch ends with the question: But aren't those some pretty shitty excuses, white girl? By the way, where have you been up til now?
I feel like maybe I've been myself too much up til now; that as a white woman, existing in that demographic that so overwhelmingly voted for Trump, even though I did not, I now have to prove extra to the world--perhaps especially the black world, the Muslim world, the immigrant world, the LGBTQ world--where I stand, and who I stand with.
They're not going to know it simply by looking at me. They're not even going to know it simply by seeing the ring on my right hand that bears a cross.
And you know what I realized as I wrote this? Maybe that's how my black neighbors, my Muslim neighbors, my immigrant neighbors, my gay and lesbian and trans neighbors--have been feeling for an interminably long time. That they have to prove extra to the world. That the world won't know or trust or see inside them simply based on how they look. Or it will be based too much on how they look, and the ones doing the looking will make up negative things to see. And so they have to try harder.
Maybe in this itch I'm sensing a small, small part of how that feels.
The voices around my table, black and white, echoed over and over again the importance of being an activist in your own individual way, and seeking self-care and avoiding burnout in whatever form suits you. And part of me--most of me, if I'm honest--clung to that, like a permission slip to work for justice in (what I think for me would mean) a quieter way. But there was/is still part of me struggling with the need for white people, women and men, to use our base of privilege--present whether we realize it or not--to speak louder, to march more, to make ourselves uncomfortable on behalf of our neighbors who need that from us in this historical moment, and have needed it long before.
Part of me wants to say it's a balance between those elements--the what-comes-naturally and what-feels-harder. But even saying it's a balance feels a little undercutting, shallow, copping out. Not saying that it is. But for me, those exist in tension.
Bishop Rob Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta was also present at this Round Table discussion. He closed us out, sharing what he thinks an activist is: "Activists quietly or loudly point out the gap between stated aspiration and current reality."
Then he asked us to think about our purpose. "Purpose" stems from a root word (in what language, I forget) that means fire, he said. It's different than passion, he said. "It's a journey to find out what you have to do to be you. Purpose gives you immediacy and authenticity."
We are "bundled with gift and capacity, but beautifully unique," he said. "Given your unique gifts, capacities, all that you have, what does activist mean for you? What's stirring in you to try or to do or to land more squarely on?"
Yesterday afternoon, I joined about 15 church members from my (predominantly white) congregation in conversation with about 15-20 church members from a predominantly black congregation. The topic? White privilege.
We all gathered in a circle of chairs in a classroom, smiling politely at one another, writing out name tags and introducing ourselves, making small talk about how many years we'd each been at our respective churches. After opening us in prayer and an introduction about why we were here, we broke into small groups and discussed several different passages from Jim Wallis's book America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (which is now on my reading list).
As soon as we began, I knew that this was something I had been longing for. To be in true conversation, not disrespectful, but honest and open and tough. I have spent so much time over the past year-plus reading and posting articles, maybe having a brief Facebook comment discussion, commiserating with coworkers (often very helpful) and writing posts like these--but so little time actually listening to the stories and thoughts of my black sisters and brothers who encounter the negative impacts of white privilege every day. I shared pieces of my journey as well, but I really aimed to listen and soak it up, even when it was hard to hear. And a lot of it was.
I'm still processing the experience--which I hope will be the first of many, as our churches continue this growing relationship--but a couple of items that we discussed stand out to me in this moment.
It resonated not for the first time, but maybe for the deepest time, that we really are living in more than one America--that the way I teach my someday children about how to interact with the world will be very different than how the people sitting next to me have had to teach theirs. They are having conversations with their children that we never even have with ours. "Look for the helpers," Mr. Rogers told us, and it's a quote that's always trotted out after a mass shooting or terror attack. But what if the helpers you're supposed to be looking for don't always want to help you? I always feel that I will be respected and taken care of by forces outside of myself and my family. The police officer. The store clerk. The bus driver. The hiring manager. Never once have I thought or expected or experienced anything different.
"I don't think any of these white people would want for a second to trade places with us." It's a concept that I've heard before, but I've never heard it stated directly to me, about me. And I felt ashamed that the speaker was right.
One person said that on November 9, they weren't surprised at all, just went on with their day, while a younger white woman arrived at their office in tears. I was one of those naive white women in tears, downing a doughnut and wiping my eyes, scrolling my newsfeed, still in disbelief. I got absolutely zero work done that day.
Why does the idea of equality for all evoke such fear, even subconscious fear, within white people? Why is there this foreboding and hand-clenched sense that in order for others to gain access to equal rights and justice under the law, we must lose something? That's not the issue, that's not what is being asked of us.
The lack of white men in attendance (there were only two from our church present) did not go unnoticed, when white men are going to be central to dismantling the structures that currently hold our country's systemic racism in place.
After two hours, I was mentally and physically worn out. But I was so, so pleased and almost relieved that we had begun to have these conversations. That our black sisters and brothers were willing to have them with us, to go over experiences and emotions that they have had no choice but to carry, that they can never put down. "We know that this is a white problem," my friend (one of the two white men) said to the entire group before we closed, "And we are thankful that even as you bear the burden, you are also willing to teach us." (Paraphrasing his eloquence here, but I hope the sentiment is understood/felt.) My eyes filled with tears as my fellow church members and I murmured affirmations of his words. We held hands and prayed, we thanked each other for sharing. I was thankful, I am thankful.
I am a listener. I am one who connects. And this was activism as I feel called to it.
As I continue to sit and listen, may I be moved to stand up and speak.
(P.S. I'm becoming more and more convinced that these sorts of conversations should be mandatory for, like, the whole country. Just an idea...)