I took my first Gender Studies course during my senior year of college. It was taught by an incredible intersectional feminist Russian male professor. It was awesome. But perhaps the most memorable lesson in that class came via a guest speaker from our school’s outreach office.
She remembered realizing in college that she wanted to be an advocate for diversity but that her introversion would hold her back from an activist’s career. A mentor changed her mind. She told her that not every single one of us is going to be the activist chained to a municipal building in protest. Someone has to buy those chains, someone needs to coordinate resources, make signs, get permits, and call the press. It was a nice reminder that there are behind-the-scenes activist roles.
That really spoke to me, because I felt a pull toward becoming an advocate for causes I believed in, but I also avoid conflict in general. Growing up, my progressive-minded parents would not put a candidate’s sign in our yard, their bumper stickers on our car, or engage in much political discussion because keeping their opinions private was very important to them. I still relate to that sentiment strongly, but I also feel that not speaking up for the oppressed can make you complicit in oppression. I’m still working these juxtaposing feelings out, but I know I have more to offer than the occasional shared Facebook article. Maybe I can offer some administrative assistance to a cause I stand behind.
Quick caveat: Know that I am coming to this from a place of MAJOR privilege. As a white woman, I care about the Black Lives Matter movement and try to be an advocate for it, especially when it comes to talking about it with other white people who may not understand or support the movement. However, I also get to choose my level of participation in the movement and I can stop thinking about it, worry free, at any time because of my whiteness. #BLM advocates of color can never stop thinking about it because their lives and the lives of those they care about continue to be in jeopardy. Also, I’m a garbage person who continues to avoid and confront my own internalized prejudices all the dang time. So: working on it.
Anyone who has ever spoken up for something knows that it is scary. You feel like you’re putting yourself out there as some kind of perfect social justice expert. Anyone who has ever been called out knows that even if you know the other person is right, it’s hard not to get defensive. And being an advocate can be exhausting: dealing with people asking you to explain and defend your platform, feeling like you have to be this model activist, and having moments when you realize you just judged someone using the same stereotypes that you’re trying to smash.
Remember to go off the clock sometimes. You’re allowed to keep scrolling and not engage with every damaging Facebook posting, especially if you’ve already been through it today. You can block people who always play devil’s advocate (SO helpful) to your feminist article shares. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. You’re allowed to shut that part of your brain off and just watch your guilty pleasure TV show (“The Bachelor”) without analyzing it from a Gender Studies perspective. Put yourself first, and later, when you’re on the clock, you can be the kind of activist you want to be.