What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice

This week has been INTENSE. As a writer, educator, and person committed to racial justice and the work of healing internalized white supremacy, I’ve been following and affected by the dysfunction, injury, and trauma on display. I’ve been confronting my own shadow, while watching collective shadows in the United States come into light.

And these shadows ask us to reckon with legacies of colonialism and slavery, institutionalized racism, and deep dehumanization. These shadows ask no less than for us to answer: Who are we as a people?

With this question in mind, I share five lessons I’ve been learning (and re-learning) this week. I share these in hopes that they may be of help to others, especially other white folks, as the work for racial justice is ongoing far, far beyond this week.

1. To make a commitment is to make a long-term investment.

Yes, tactical, improvisational, and immediate responses are needed when intense events/emotions erupt, but these must be paired with strategic, sustainable, and long-term plans to make commitments actionable for the long haul.

I think I know and will remember the importance of pairing tactics with strategies, but then a major event arises, emotions take over, and I get pulled into the moment, burning myself out through the immediate response. So, I’m learning again that a commitment to justice is a commitment to long-term investment.

Commitments ask us to put in the work regularly and not only when there’s a crisis.
Commitments ask us to look within, recognize what’s hard, and engage in healing work.
Commitments ask us to ready ourselves with response-ability (the ability to respond).
Commitments ask us to look to the future, readying ourselves with the willingness to act.

2. Self-care really, really matters.

It’s a tough time to talk about self-care because it can be used as the exit line to disengage from racial justice work. Still, I’ve been reminded this week that if I’m getting depleted and not refueling, then I’m no any good to myself or anyone else. I need to practice self-love in order to write, speak, and act with love.

What I’m re-learning is that while I can skimp on sleep for a night or two, by day three or four, I’m a crying, complaining wreck. If I sugar binge for more than a few days, my body rebels, and I truly don’t want to be doubled over in the bathroom or aching all over! And if prioritize play/pool time and meditation/movement, I actually come to more creative solutions and more compassionate stances sooner.

The more that I ride the roller coaster of emotions, the more I need self-care to support critical self-work that’s required for unlearning conditioned racist crap.

3. It’s important to name lies and look at my own complicity.

I’ve been living with so many lies (many I’ve internalized), and the more I identify them and call them lies, the more they lose their power. Countering the BIG lie of “I’m not enough” feels especially important for building the courage, resilience, “willingness to be disturbed,” and other attributes needed at this time and going forward.

When I see myself as “not enough,” then I need to be sure of my goodness (that I’m a “good person”). And that need to be “good” keeps me from recognizing, much less befriending, the “bad” within. To confront my shadow, I need the certainty that I’m already enough, worthy, valuable, divine. From this certainty, I find the courage to visit my inner dungeon, looking where I’ve actively and passively participated in white supremacy. I see that racism is here, at home, and within me. It’s not just out there, with them, with “THOSE racists.”

This blog post that’s been circulating—“How America Spreads the Disease that Is Racism by Not Confronting Racist Family Members and Friends”—includes a racism scale for plotting attitudes and internalized beliefs. In the past week, I’ve had several conversations about this scale, and I believe it’s helpful for digging into internalized lies that need to be named and reckoned with. To name racism only as covert, explicit, hateful acts—as only Nazis marching—is to perpetuate another damaging lie. And I’m invested in naming and owning my own lies, my own complicity, and my own responsibilities.

4. I keep learning from feminists and womanists of color.

This week I’ve been especially inspired and challenged by Adrienne Maree Brown, A. Breeze Harper, Sagashus Levingston, Vanessa Mártir, Mia Mingus, Docta E Richardson, and Loretta J. Ross, among other colleagues and friends and scholars. (Deep, deep gratitude!)

So, when I’ve been asked by white people this week what I believe are authentic questions—like “How can I learn about racism?” and “I know what I’m seeing wrong, but what can I do?”—I’m clear that the answer must involve reading and learning from feminists and womanists of color. If you’re white and reading only white authors, changing this is one good place to start. Check out these blogs by feminists and womanists of color, and please add other resources/links to this post’s comments.

I’m learning again that sharing resources can help with building community and capacity. And it’s clear that we need each other—we need community—for the long-term investment.

5. Truth-telling can feel shaming when the truth if shameful.

So much is written about white fragility and emotional resilience, I believe, because of lies associating whiteness with “goodness” (that I am good, that the United States is good, that our neighborhoods are good, and so on). And when goodness needs to be complicated (because, really, how could there be a single, flat narrative?), realizations about dirty, ugly histories and ongoing, violent injustice raise intense emotions of betrayal, hurt, anger, guilt, and shame.

This week I’ve had some tough interactions in which I’ve blushed red. I’ve felt anger and heat rush through my body. I’ve felt both defensive and like a guard or bully on the offensive team. And what I’ve realized from these interactions is that truth-telling can feel like shaming when there’s deep shame around internalized white supremacy. Unpacking this shame is important healing work.

Like naming lies lies, it’s important to name shameful histories and realities as shameful.

It’s important to engage in truth-telling work that is sure to be messy and involve messing up. I write in other posts about countering perfectionism, in part, because perfectionism is a construct of whiteness. Letting go of being “good” or “right” (much less “perfect”) is central to racial justice work, and I can’t help but notice it’s central to my own healing work as well.

This is to say that I’m learning yet again that it’s important to say something, even when saying it awkwardly. And to do something, even when doing it wrong. And to show up, even when showing up incomplete, imperfect, and truly as “a mess.”

May we keep learning together.
May we keep speaking, writing, and standing up.
May we listen more openly than ever before.
May we keep committing to racial justice.
May we resolve to the work that lies ahead.
May we ready ourselves and be ever-ready.

In solidarity! ~ Beth


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” and “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

 

Playing Through the Pain

I’ve written recently about violence in our everyday lives, in our shared social world. For many of us, this violence is internal and personal as well. Even though I aspire to self-love and self-care, I fall back into patterns of negative self-talk and “playing through the pain.” I continue to push myself even when I recognize the desire to slow down. I do violence to myself even when I set the intention of being gentler, kinder, and more forgiving. With this recognition, I’m setting an intention to re-purpose play in my life—to redefine what it means to “play through the pain.”

I set this intention during a guided healing session last week, in which I embraced the affirmation: I flow freely with life.

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This affirmation invokes a sense of playfulness, lightness, wonder, awe, and joy. Still, I walked out of that healing session and set to work, not to play.

Within a day or two, my back started speaking up, getting louder in its complaints. I continued over-working and over-stretching. My back responded with more pain, enough to limit mobility and enough that I had to STOP and LISTEN.

I have a history of back pain (degenerative disc disease), which has motivated me to learn and practice yoga, Reiki, and other healing modalities. This history has taught me how to manage acute pain. Care includes specialized pillows and heating pads, homeopathy and balms, and gentle movements like rolling on the floor and floating in the pool.

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To care for my pain, I took to the swimming pool—a place where I also have a history, but a history with good memories. I think of warm summer days, fieldtrips with friends, and the summer camp I longed for year-round in childhood. I remember unexpected triathlon training during graduate school that allowed me to find strength as a lap swimmer. I love swimming not only for this history, but also for the fun of movement. I repeat mantras and think through complicated questions as I propel myself forward. I kick and flail and float and surely look silly. I allow my body to make big movements and to take up space. And after this play, I soak in the hot tub, taking time to relax. Truly, I enjoy myself.

Despite my love for swimming, I don’t often do it. I complain about the time involved. I complain about putting on goggles, washing off chlorine, and drying out swimsuits. I get hung up on the details. I don’t prioritize play.

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As I found myself in the pool this week, paying attention to sensations in my back, hips, and legs, I kept repeating: “I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life.”

I felt myself floating. Flying. Flowing. And I laughed when I could see that acute pain had gotten me to the exact place where I’ve known play, where I experience play, and where I prioritize play.

Apparently, I had chosen to “play hard”—to wait for pain to motivate action—instead of “playing easy” and choosing joy. It took a serious problem to get me into the pool. What if I actually allowed myself to act on affirmations and intentions even when they conflict with productivity or ideas of what I “should” do? What if I resolved not to “play through the pain,” but to PLAY throughout, alongside, and for the pain?

*     *     *     *     *

Along with violence, there’s so much pain in our shared social world—so much pain in witnessing, internalizing, and participating in injustice. Thinking about swimming, I’m struck by how racism marks this activity and how layers of privilege (race, class, ability, size, sexuality, age) show up here, as in other places.

Like my back pain, this pain has much to teach, including the importance of play. I am reminded that commitments to justice must be JOYFUL—full of potential, vision, and hope. I am reminded, too, that embracing play in a time of pain (a different version of “playing through the pain”) builds stamina, momentum, and even resilience. Lightness, wonder, and awe are qualities that support the seriousness of attempting to live for justice.

Going forward, I embrace PLAY. Not to ignore pain, but to recognize and heal it. To heal myself so that I can show up more fully, more vulnerable, and more true.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger” or “Potato & Kale Casserole (vegan + gluten-free): Finding Comfort in the Growth Zone.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Imperfect Meditation and the Desire to “Slow Way Down”

Lately, I’ve been craving time to feel-think-move my way through transitions and even physical pain, as my lower back has been speaking up again. In response, I’ve been practicing daily meditation: sitting for just 10 minutes on my yoga mat each morning. Even when practicing imperfectly, I find that meditation gives me the permission, the opportunity to slow down.

I’m finding that the more time I spend in meditation—breathing, noticing, releasing thoughts, and being curious about what arises—the more that I’m desiring additional stillness, silence, and softness. Additional time for listening and for what Adrienne Maree Brown calls “slowing way down” in her essay titled “The Scale of Epiphany”:

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The irony is that I’ve had to slow down a little—enough to listen with curiosity to my body and to the signs and signals of everyday life—to understand this desire for slowing WAY down.

To give a sense of what I mean, I’ll share the thoughts that arose during one morning’s sitting meditation:

  • Wow! The seagulls are especially loud this morning.
  • Maybe the pain is more in my left hip or knee than my lower back?
  • These areas are all about the root chakra, grounding, security, and trust.
  • I think there’s a future blog post here about managing back pain.
  • I need to write about why I value collaborative writing in my research statement.
  • Will I be able to keep up this daily meditation practice when the semester begins?
  • I wonder if my mom’s rocking was her form of meditation.
  • I haven’t ordered more Epson salt yet. I need to do that today.
  • Oh! Next time I meditate, I could use candles and crystals. I should set up an altar.
  • Those snapped rubber bands. Those aren’t just coincidence. Rubber bands bend and hold, stretch and conform. When they snap, they’re over-stretched or stretched out. Oh … That’s totally what I’m feeling. Over-stretched. Stretched out.
  • Thank you—deep gratitude!—for this beautiful message and sign of the snapped rubber bands.

Though I keep coming back to my breath throughout sitting meditation, I also notice the thoughts that arise. I notice how questions and reminders manifest as implied should statements (e.g., I should meditate daily even during the semester, I should order Epsom salt, and I should set up an altar). Whether big or small, these should statements are keeping me in a busy, getting-things-done mode. Even when sitting down to quiet the mind and listen to my breath, I’m still thinking about my blog project and research statement. I’m aware of the upcoming semester and what work needs to get done.

I’m also deeply grateful that I can recognize in these thoughts the impulse to stay busy—a state that prevents the reflexive self-work that’s needed for de-routinizing injustices in everyday life and for inspiring new ways of relating. Relating with the self, with others, and within social structures.

2017-07-19 12.55.38Too often, I stay busy, checking off what’s next on my to-do list. And that busy-ness is likely why I’ve been finding so many snapped rubber bands. In the past week, I’ve found no fewer than 10 snapped bands. At first, I didn’t notice them. Then, I thought they were just interesting. And, finally, as the repetition became too great to ignore, I became curious: “What’s up with these snapped rubber bands?”

The amazing thing about slowing down—even a little—is that the answer appeared. I could see the symbology about being over-stretched and stretched out. It was only minutes after stepping off the yoga mat that I came across Adrienne Maree Brown’s post and her words:

“i’ve been slowing way down. no one likes this. everyone likes it in theory but they still want their things attended to. it’s OK. i got a turtle tattoo to whisper ‘go slow’ in my ear.”

Ah, “go slow.” Slow way down. To feel, to think, to move. To step away from the constant getting-things-done. To do the work of heart, head, and hands.

I don’t like it either. I want it. I desire it. But, ahhh, do I struggle with it. Yet, I commit again to be in the struggle, this struggle with myself and this struggle for justice.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Gentle Yoga Practice for Healing,” “Practicing Yoga Through Writing,” or “Welcoming Winter by Looking Within.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Why I’m Vegan: Ecofeminism

I’ve been holding myself up, preventing myself from writing about why I’m vegan and how central food is to my understanding of justice. I’ve been holding myself up because this writing feels especially important, like it needs to be good, and, therefore, is triggering my need to counter perfectionism.

I’ve also been holding myself up because it’s so damn hard to write about being vegan without re-inscribing notions of whiteness and privilege. Especially from my positionality as a privileged white woman. For example, check out the commentary “Here’s Why Black People Don’t Go Vegan” or the edited collection Sistah Vegan.

I’ve been holding myself up, too, because I want to amplify vegan voices of color and question how to put my voice in the mix. Vegans of color are explaining how meat is linked to white supremacy and an intersectional web of oppression. I’ve mentioned before the blogs Black Vegans Rock and The Sistah Vegan Project. If I could accomplish nothing else, I’d hope to send readers to these and other great resources.

Against this backdrop, I still want/need to explain why I’m vegan, and a sense of urgency is becoming clear. In just one week, I’ve had three different people ask me the familiar question: “Why are you vegan?” I’ve been invited to a vegan potluck, asked to provide vegan snacks for a campus event, and asked to support a student’s vegan activism. It’s clear I need to claim and explain why veganism means so much to me.

My first two answers to why I’m vegan—cookie dough and doing something small and sustained—are pieces of the larger puzzle. For this post, I’ll attempt to share a more philosophical piece: ecofeminism.

So, Why Am I Vegan?

Short answers include the following:

  • Veganism presents daily reminders for me to acknowledge and to counter violence in all its manifestations. It asks me to look at myself, my positioning, and how I’m relating (or not) with others.
  • Structures of oppression build on each other, and so I want to break down speciesism alongside and as part of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, sizeism, etc.
  • I want to affirm rights, including human rights, civil rights, linguistic and epistemic rights, and—yes, animal rights.
  • I value “all my relations,” including with animals and the earth, and I continue to learn the wisdom of interconnectedness through Malea Powell’s and others’ scholarship on indigenous epistemologies and relational worldviews.

These and other answers have emerged over decades of thinking about and reframing many relationships, including with what I eat and why. I’ve been vegan for more than three years, since December 2013. Before that, I’d been vegetarian since 2000. Though the transition from vegetarian to vegan was surprisingly smooth, I still end up at restaurants and in gatherings where options are scarce and where people look at me with tilted heads in total disbelief.

I’m frequently asked the question at the center of this series: “Why are you vegan?”

Related questions include:

  • Was is hard to give up ______ (fill in a popular food)?
  • How do you get enough ______ (fill in any vitamin, mineral, or protein)?
  • Aren’t you still doing harm by eating ______ (e.g., quinoa, grapes, almond milk)?
  • Aren’t you still killing plants?

As a recovering perfectionist, I recognize in these questions all-or-nothing thinking—or the idea that only a perfect/complete solution is a solution worth seeking.

In contrast, I believe we must invest in small and sustained actions—in whatever form they might take and however they might look.

Clearly, I was vegetarian long before vegan, and my reasons for being vegetarian are largely the same for being vegan. This is why I start with my “origin story” of learning about and wanting to strive toward ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism

Perhaps the trickiest and yet most true answer to why I’m vegan is that I believe in ecofeminism, which is a feminist belief in the equity and rights of all beings. I believe in countering all instances of exploitation, oppression, and injustice. And in affirming all forms of justice, including social, racial, gender, and economic justice. Relatedly, I see instances of injustice/justice as intimately woven together. To begin unweaving the tapestry, I take a thread that’s possible to pull. This thread is my relationship with food.

In one of my first women’s studies courses, I remember studying a pyramid like this one:

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This hierarchical structure places god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth. It represents domination and helps with visualizing the interconnected nature of –isms. The closer to the god, the more godly, good, worthy, and worthwhile. The further from god, the more exploited, demeaned, undermined, and devalued.

The goal of ecofeminism, then, is flattening hierarchies. This means seeing all beings—god, men, women, children, animals, and the earth—as worthy and worthwhile, as all having innate value and rights. This means not prioritizing men over women or humans over animals, but asking tough and sticky ethical questions that imagine relations of equity and justice.

It was studying this pyramid and imagining flattened, interconnected relations that led me to become vegetarian while still in college. From this starting point, I have continued to learn, and the more I learn, the more I see the need for everyday practices—like eating vegan—that lead to more questioning, more learning, and more desire to make change.

Dismantling systems of oppression involves, I believe, dismantling the hierarchies that are both internalized and normalized. And dismantling this pyramid is about not only countering sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also countering white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and other forms of oppression. This is similarly what intersectional veganism seeks to address.

Ecofeminism is why I embrace animal rights, while emphasizing and affirming human rights. People have historically been dehumanized by being associated with animals (e.g., “dogs” or “monkeys”). As a strategy to deny human, civil, linguistic, and other rights, the association of humans with animals assumes that animals are lesser-than and unworthy of having rights. If we affirm animals as beings who also have rights, then we can disrupt dehumanization and the related stripping of human rights. Black vegan feminist theorist Aph Ko has an AWESOME video about how animal oppression relates to human oppression.

There’s a LOT more I want to write about why I’m vegan, which is why this is just one post in an ongoing series. What I can say simply is that my commitments to feminism and racial justice relate to environmental justice and veganism. So, one answer—and the one that defines my origin story and shares my philosophy—is ecofeminism. I’m certainly on a path to live and learn more, and I look forward to following where this philosophy might lead.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other posts in the series “why I’m vegan” or vegan + gluten-free recipes. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Why I’m Vegan: Doing Something Small and Sustained

Being vegan, for me, is about imperfectly striving for justice.

Rather than all-or-nothing thinking, it’s small-but-sustained action.

It’s not a finished state, but about always being in the middle (and mess and muck) of it all.

It’s constant, everyday, and enduring—something that keeps me focused daily on the long haul toward justice.

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Of the many reasons why I’m vegan, an important one is the ritual of doing something every day (actually many times throughout the day—whenever I eat) that keeps me re-articulating my commitments and re-committing to justice.

As an always/ever-recovering perfectionist, I understand the thinking that critiques this imperfect action, for it will always inevitably fall short. I also understand the experience of being overwhelmed by the weight of so much to do when there’s so much hurt in the world. When feeling overwhelmed, anything more than critique can feel like too much.

Yet, I also know that all-or-nothing thinking leads to weariness (from shouldering such weight). And weightier projects (whether writing books, changing relations, or working to redress wrongs) are done bit by bit. Shifts are made through doing something small that’s sustained over time.

Important thinking about social change emphasizes the significance of small actions over time. Take these few examples (from different activist traditions and with different sorts of misattribution):

  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead
  • “You don’t have to see the whole staircase; just take the first step.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The people are the only ones capable of transforming society.”—Rigoberta Menchu
  • “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”—Mahatma Gandhi
  • “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”—Mother Teresa

These memorable quotes promote a sense that doing something (however imperfectly, however small) is better than waiting for change, a sentiment that educator Paulo Freire similarly expressed in dialogue with Myles Horton:

“I am convinced that in order for us to create something, we need to start creating. We cannot wait to create tomorrow, but we have to start creating today.”—We Make the Road by Walking (56)

we make the road

Truly, we make the road by walking. And as a hiker, I know that walking involves stumbles, falls, cuts, and scrapes—and also some of the most amazing experiences, views, interactions, and learning along the way. Walking builds strength and endurance, so the simple act of walking makes what was previously unimaginable (like climbing mountains or going long distances) possible.

This metaphor of walking guides me as I practice being vegan. And I do see it as a practice with everyday actions, reminders, rituals, questions, and curiosity.

So, why am I vegan? It’s not only for the cookie dough, but also for the constant striving and small-but-sustained action. It’s for doing something to enact a more just world, even if that something is imperfect.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other posts in the series “why I’m vegan” or vegan + gluten-free recipes. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!

“Do you consider yourself a writer?”

I’ve been teaching for almost two decades, and throughout this time, I’ve routinely asked this question on the first and last days of the semester (and often in-between). I’ve found my own strong YES to the question, asserting: “I don’t just study writing. I write. I am a writer.” And I hope that students, colleagues, friends, and family will similarly see themselves as writers, as people who write (who do the embodied act of writing). I believe there’s power in claiming this identity, as writers are positioned to speak up and speak out.

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View of my writing activity.
Writing and the relationships built around writing have the potential for countering injustice and bringing about more equitable relations. As I have explored in my dissertation and subsequent publications, writing has the potential to challenge and transform power relations. It has the potential to clarify and make actionable commitments to social and racial justice.

But what about art?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of writing to art, and I’ve been asking myself a twist on the familiar question, contemplating: “Do you consider yourself an artist?”

This question has been lingering since I wrote “It’s Time to Go to Work—Time to Write from the Heart, Head, and Hands” for the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL):

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To read this post, visit <aeplblog.wordpress.com>.
In this post, I respond to Toni Morrison’s call for action, call for art in tough political times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.”

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And I think: artists … Artists go to work.

Early in my life, I was quick to call myself an artist. I loved painting, drawing, sculpting, storytelling, and dancing. One of my earliest memories (around the age of three) involved being in big, big trouble for decorating the apartment door with crayons. Throughout elementary and middle school, I loved visual art, photography, calligraphy, and clogging classes. I put myself in charge of constantly changing seasonal decorations. I created my first books—a novel and scrapbook—in fourth grade. My mom found the owner of local bait and tackle shop to teach me crocheting one summer. I designed my first science fair projects to focus on art: understanding the color wheel and visualizing rock sediments with layers of colored sand. I submitted photographs to 4-H youth competitions. And I learned to bake, to make bracelets, and to write poetry. My memories of youth are full of creation. (Growing up rural East Tennessee pre-internet days, creation came naturally.)

Yet, somewhere along the way, I began to struggle with this self-definition, as I internalized a sense that only some people could be artists, and those people were ones who produced “great works” recognized by others. Though I still flirted with art and briefly considered minoring in visual art, I let go of the self-identification of “artist.” I considered friends—those who really studied and perfected their crafts—to be artists. I learned to hold the identity of “artist” at arm’s length—likely for the same reasons that many of my students hold the identity of “writer” as something “out there,” something that others can claim only after recognized achievement.

Today I’m wondering if my reluctance to claim “artist” might be another form of playing small. Might this be another form of internalized inferiority, especially since my art was often feminized and I’d learned not to associate myself too closely with the feminine? If so, might claiming the identify of “artist” be another way to embrace feminine energy and feminist activism?

Recognizing the need for encouragement, I’ve started speaking to myself as I do when mentoring students, urging myself to claim the identity of artist. Since childhood, I have continued to create art—writing, storytelling, taking and editing photographs, designing cards, creating recipes, crocheting, and now blogging. I choose to believe the identity of “artist” is in the doing, just as I believe that one becomes a “writer” simply by writing.

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View of my artistic activity.
As further encouragement and a great synchronicity (or “god wink”), I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and this week’s queued episode was titled: “Who Gets to Decide Whether You’re a Legitimate Artist?” As you might imagine, the episode made the sort of argument I’m making here: it’s important to focus on the doing—the verb—of creating, making, writing, artist-ing.

So, if I embrace this identity—artist—and want to answer Morrison’s call “to go to work,” I can ask some new questions:

  • Where do I find inspiration, and how might I inspire others?
  • What needs to be said now, even if it’s been said before?
  • Whose voices need to be amplified, cited, credited, and made visible?
  • What am I called to create, and how might I listen to and hear the call more clearly?
  • How might creation help to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be”?

I ask these questions on a day in which students and I have generated lists of the genres (types of writing) through which we “write for social justice.” We showed each other the work we’re engaged in and the possibilities that lie ahead. One student urged me to “blog about this class”; another suggested creative nonfiction; and still another encouraged me to keep working on my academic book project. This encouragement reminds me that students see me as a creator (a writer, researcher, and artist), even as I’m encouraging as them to step into and claim these roles—to become writers and artists for justice.

I also ask these questions on a day when a friend shares the article, “Finding Steady Ground: Strengthening Our Spirits to Resist and Thrive in These Times.” Of the seven behaviors outlined here for strengthening ourselves and taking strategic action, #5 pops out to me: “I will be aware of myself as one who creates.” How about this for an affirmation? For a reminder that art isn’t frivolous, but part of resilience and resistance?

As I create—as I write, teach, research, blog, and share my work with others—I must say, “I am an artist.” And as an artist, I encourage artistic activism. I hope you’ll join me. I hope you’ll claim the identities of writer, artist, and activist. I hope you’ll create and act in the world, countering passivity and taking up Morrison’s call.

Countering the Lie of “I’m Not Enough”

I like following the blog Raising Race Conscious Children because it helps me relate with the young people in my life, including my own inner child (my younger self). Among the blog’s resources are examples of scripted conversations and sample statements that align with racial justice. Such language helps me think about the language I use with myself, including language that reinforces an old lie: “I’m not enough.”

I’ve been thinking about this message—“I’m not enough”—as a lie since a student recently shared Jim James’s song “Same Old Lie.” At the start of my “Writing for Social Justice” class, we typically listen to protest songs. Students bring into class music that they enjoy, music that shapes their understandings of justice.

When the student shared this song, I listened carefully, following along with the lyrics. Then the student asked us each to identify a “same old lie” we’ve been taught.

At first, I wrote about internalized sexism: messages that my value is tied to being thin, pretty, and white; messages that I should wear make-up and should not have body hair. I could see how these “lies” are wound up with a much bigger one: that, as a woman, I’m not enough. Constant efforts to reshape, refine, and re-create the body all indicate this not enoughness.

As I wrote about the work I’m constantly doing to unlearn sexism, I thought about a different but related set of messages I’ve inherited about class, education, and even productivity. I often try to shore up my sense of self (to shield or secure myself) through credentials, educational attainments, honors, and other markers of “success.” I fall back on degrees and measurable productivity to create a sense that I’m doing well, that I’m meeting my next goal, and that I’m worthy. In doing so, I’m unintentionally upholding the Protestant work ethic and the social stratifications it creates. These old patterns are related to my perfectionism (something that’s served me well in the past, but is now tripping me up). They are also related to the deeply internalized message that I’m not enough as I already am—that I must be striving for something more, something better.

I’ve been working with mantras to let go of this not-enoughness discourse, affirming daily:

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Still, I’m finding something new, something powerful in this exercise of naming “I’m not enough” as a “same old lie.”

I can see more clearly that this internalized and seemingly individual issue perpetuates and is perpetuated by larger systems of injustice—the holding down (denigrating) of some people and the holding up (elevating) of others.

I can also see more clearly the relationship between being rocked by internalized sexism (feeling that I must shield myself from awful feelings of inadequacy) and the inability to confront white supremacy and other forms of privilege (experiencing white fragility when faced with seeing one’s position as more-than-enough—that is, socially constructed as superior—within race, class, religion, ability, and various other social hierarchies).

It feels especially important to name the dualistic problem of not-enoughness facing people who experience both internalized oppression and internalized supremacy (for example— white women like myself). Imagine a single coin with two sides, one facing up and the other facing down. We can see only the side that’s exposed to us (this side representing lesser-than messages of “you’re not enough”).

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What happens if we don’t ask what’s on the other side? If we don’t turn the coin over? If we only focus on the feelings of being lesser-than? Then we fail to see the still present, though hidden, side—the side in which we’re actually positioned as greater-than (in a position of privilege, power, and supremacy).

My sense is that too often we don’t flip the coin, which explains why white women can deny or fail to explore participation in white supremacy. It’s as though the fixation on the lesser-than side makes it impossible to turn the coin over. Perhaps it feels too painful to touch the coin at all?

Though we may only look at one side of the coin, the other side is still present and simply hidden from view—though perfectly visible to others who are scratching their heads, asking why folks just can’t see what’s going on. What I’m hoping to explain through this coin metaphor is that there’s a close relationship between internalized oppression and internalized supremacy.

To step back for a moment, it might help to name the warrants (or assumptions) this metaphor is built on. I’m assuming the following:

  • That readers share a commitment of working to attain equity and justice.
  • That though we’re socially constructed as unequal, we as humans are equal (all valuable, worthy, and human).
  • That there’s a relationship between buying into internalized oppression (e.g., buying into sexism, even while feeling/experiencing its harm) and buying into the conditions of inequity (which keep us feeling/experiencing separation).
  • That buying into internalized oppression is closely related to buying into internalized supremacy, so that these ideologies can co-exist within the same individual, even when trying to hold ourselves accountable through self-work.

In my life, I can see that I’ve bought into internalized sexism at the same time as using class, race, and other positions of supremacy as a shield from gendered oppression. Only when looking at feelings of not-enough straight-on can I see my own participation in perpetuating the lie. Then possibilities emerge for seeing and changing my own participation in passing along the lie to young people—to my own inner child and to children in my life.

So, there’s BIG TROUBLE in the lie that “I’m not enough.” This lie limits the ability to see systems of inequity, injustice, and violence. It limits the ability to act. It limits the potential of undoing sexism, classism, racism, and other -isms. It limits the potential of imagining alternatives—a vision of the world in which we all are already enough, already worthy, already valuable.

To stop telling the lie, I affirm today that I am enough. I speak to myself as I would to a young child, affirming my humanity. Being human is messy, sure, and I’m sure to mess up. But the mess does not make me less. I remind myself to that I am worthy. And to step into worthiness, I step into the ability to stand TALL, to speak UP, and to act with COURAGE.