What happens when fighting racism means trying to overthrow and reform supremacist ideologies, institutions, and power structures?
The energy and vigor fueled largely by frustration and the desire for change is strong, but in constant danger of fizzling out as activists young and old drain themselves on all fronts.
It takes great resilience to face a powerful foe such as racism. Emotions are heightened. Daily healthy habits are put on the back burner. Exhaustion steps in because the line between processing current and past events while working towards new and future events is thin. This is all while guilt yells at you, “If you stop, your work is done and this will end.”
Something inside makes you feel that if you stop and take a break, you can’t trust your community or your allies to keep going. Part of that could be true, but it’s not a reason to ignore your burnout and not face it head on.
Bruce Poinsette touches on this in an article about why burnout happens when going against racism in particular:
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 is a journey with a set destination and a lot of road in between the starting point and the end goal. It’s hard to see that when you want reform right now and rightfully so. History is cyclical. Once the fanfare dies down and empty statements stop making their way into the public eye, the worry is that things will return to normal.
I wouldn’t count that out just yet. A quick scroll down your timeline will show that people on both sides are wearing out. Some are tired of hearing about it. Some are tired of talking about it. Either way, the show must go on. It needs to and you know that.
Black history is being made right before our eyes. There is momentum behind real change and the stepping stones of equality are being laid out. It feels like so many of us have been protesting, petitioning, calling on officials, donating money, and donating time and effort behind sharing information to others for months.
It’s only been a few weeks though. There is a toll being taken on the black psyche and our “I’m tired” isn’t from a long day at work. It’s from long days of yelling into the void and hoping that the powers that be not only listen, but respond in a way that disrupts the status quo completely and creates a new normal.
Burnout has crept in and it’s what our opposition is banking on. They need us to wear ourselves out so that we don’t have any fight left, so that we’re not still applying pressure, and so they can continue to benefit off of our backs and a severely broken system.
- There was a 6 year gap between the end of segregation in the armed forces and in schools.
- The Montgomery bus boycotts lasted a little over a year.
- Sit-ins and freedom rides lasted months.
- It took 4 years for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act to be signed and put into law.
Blacks fought over 20 years for basic freedoms. It took protests, deaths, court cases, and brutality for systemic structures to crawl slowly, but surely to change. This process shows no mercy to casualty and takes time.
Now the fight has morphed into something as equally as important. The riots of Los Angeles in 1992 sparked a decades long war for other freedoms.
We want an end to racial injustice, systemically racist infrastructures, to stop seeing black people killed at the hands of entities like police and vigilantes. We just want to feel valued and be treated equally and not just by law, but by deed. A noble cause to rally behind indeed.
In the midst of this, we can’t forget what it takes to make this happen. It means a lot of work and something that’s often left out of the equation: rest. Racism has been documented to have dangerous effects on the mental health of many blacks and burnout only accelerates that.
Part of this is because there’s a general lack of trust within the healthcare system. Black voices feel absent in this field, they don’t get as much recognition, and black feelings are often lumped into other broader issues that minimize the black experience. And this is without mentioning how black people have been underserved by the healthcare industry.
Another reason is because many of us don’t think we’re allowed to be or deserve to be tired. We see our ancestors and experience a sort of a survivor’s guilt. We ask ourselves if we even have the right to be tired.
Right now, you’re trying to prove your humanity while also balancing your other responsibilities and it’s weighing on you.
So What Do You Do?
- Take a break from social media and news. Unless you have pertinent information that needs to be shared, you can miss a day or 2. What you’re leaving behind will still be there when you return. Over-saturation can become overwhelming and it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough to change what’s happening around you.
- Get a black therapist. There are a rising number of black healthcare and mental healthcare professionals who can understand what you’re feeling and can point you to resources that won’t underserve you. Rebecca Ruiz of Mashable made a great list you can find here.
- Get active, find a healthy form of escapism, and unplug from anything that adds stressors to your life. This is where culpability comes in. In your mind, you’re thinking, “How dare I think that taking a day off is okay after all my people have been through?” There’s an answer to that. You’re a black person trying to navigate through an impossible time. You feel everything that’s happening around from a perspective of the past, present, and future and it’s heavy. On top of that, you have bills, your career, and other people to worry about, but you need some time to find joy in troubling times. Take it. For the sake of you. How can you keep going if you’re not here?
The author Mokokoma Mokhonoana says, “It is rest, not a vacation, that is a biological need.”
That couldn’t be more true. Resting because of burnout isn’t a vacation. Resting because of burnout is a necessity. Don’t let it be the reason you stop fighting the good fight.