Action is the Antidote for Despair
Image courtesy of @lisaengler
“I don’t want to be in a battle. But waiting on the edge of one I can’t escape is even worse.”
Welcome to the dark liminal space between Roe v. Wade getting overturned and the shitstorm of brazenly misogynistic, trans- and homophoboic legislation that’s about to rain down on us. We’re like Gandalf and Pippin watching the dark cloud of Mordor blot out the horizon, knowing a battle is coming, knowing we can’t stop it, knowing we’re just gonna have to stay put and fight.
Because yes, a fight is upon us whether we like it or not, and we are going to have to stand up and do something about it, even though we’re tired and busy and have a lot on our plates already; even though this country is discouraging and fucked up and no one can afford health insurance and the oceans are full of garbage. The sad reality is, most people—yes, even the good, well-meaning people—think that all they have to do to change the trajectory of this country is show up once every two years and vote. They may be outraged and sad and whatever else, but they’re not taking any meaningful action other than that.
And that’s not enough. Not anymore.
In many cases, the reason for this lack of action is twofold—one, it’s unclear just what exactly it is we’re SUPPOSED to be doing. And two, it all feels too big and powerful and evil for any one action to make a difference. “What can men do against such reckless hate?”
(Sidebar, Lord of The Rings is VERY applicable to our current situation!)
(PS, King Theodin is speaking of men, because in the LoTR universe, all the “women and children” do is hide in caves and look innocent and worried (and white). But this is also very applicable to our current situation, because we women are gonna need some backup.)
Aaaaanyway. I get it. I too spent a long time doing nothing. First, it was because I was ignorant. Unwoke, if you will. Then, it was because I felt like a guilty piece of shit and didn’t want to say or do anything wrong. After that, I was paralyzed by the vastness of just how MUCH there is to do, and I didn’t know where or how to start.
The permeating feeling underneath all that inaction was despair. Just utter grief and rage and hopelessness.
Know what snapped me out of it? Barack Obama’s speech at the 2020 DNC:
Here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine):
“Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in fire traps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshiped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.
“If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans… And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work.…”
“Democracy was never meant to be transactional — you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. I am… asking you to believe in your own ability—to embrace your own responsibility as citizens—to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.”
In the wake of January 6, the covid-19 pandemic, this BS Supreme Court, Uvalde, and Don’t Say Gay, it’s easy to forget what a total shit year 2016 was, but yeah—it was pretty shit. Record droughts; the Flint water crisis; Brexit, grab-em-by-the-pussy. My best friend and my brother in law died within months of each other. David Bowie, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Prince all died as well. The Indians lost the World Series after an exhausting 7 games and many extra innings.
And on November 8, after the most disgusting election cycle ever, Hillary Clinton walked out of the Javits Center, glass ceiling fully intact.
The next day I went to an 8am networking meeting, even though I hadn’t slept at all. I spent the whole meeting in tears and bailed halfway through, but not before using my 30-second spot to talk about the power of words and the importance of getting your messaging right (because you know, everything is copy).
A few days after that, I sat down with a friend who’d skipped the meeting because she “just didn’t feel like being Black that day.” She told me she wasn’t surprised and couldn’t deal with white people’s tears right then. “I’ve been living with racism all my life,” she said, and shrugged.
At the time I felt so sad, so foolish, and so ashamed. This was the very beginning of my divestment from the white supremacist delusion, and it hurt like hell.
Uncomfortable truth: In November 2016 I felt personally attacked by this SNL skit, which poked fun at how shocked and devastated white democrats (especially women) were after election night. I was shedding lots and lots of white woman tears at the time, and I really didn’t get it. (I do now, though.)
That conversation with my friend was a pivotal part of my awakening to the daily reality and long-standing history of systemic racism. And that awakening is how I ended up freezing my tits off outside a polling place four years later, making sure no right-wing shenanigans were taking place, and discovering a really cool thing—
Action is the antidote for despair.
Divesting from whiteness has been and continues to be one of the most difficult and challenging things I’ve ever done. It’s also been the most liberating, rewarding, compassionate, beautiful, and expansive, and my life is much better for it.
Before we go any further, I want to clarify a couple of things. Number one, this is not about what a good little white person I am. This is about how many white women I’ve spoken to in recent months who’ve been saying things like:
“I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing.”
“It feels like white people can’t do anything right.”
“I just want to give up and leave this country.”
It’s also about how many men I’ve seen and heard since the Roe v. Wade news broke, who’ve been saying things like:
Have you noticed that the way white people feel about acknowledging their privilege and working to become anti-racist is eerily similar to the way most men feel about unearthing their internalized misogyny and divesting from the systemic subjugation of women?
“I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing.”
“We can’t do anything right.”
“It’s like I can’t even talk to you!”
This will not do, y’all. We’re out of time, and staying frozen in despair and resentment is just not an option anymore. So I’m going to tell you how I got unfrozen (like a Caveman Lawyer) and hopefully it’ll help one or two of you to do the same.
The first thing you need to know is that my evolution from pre-2016 “feminist lite” (mostly preoccupied with media representation and who should be in charge of vacuuming the living room) to intersectional and inclusive feminism runs parallel to my understanding of (and disentangling myself from) systemic racism and anti-Blackness. Which is why this essay, which is ostensibly about Roe v. Wade, is actually about white privilege. Fun with intersectionality 👍🏼
The next thing you need to know is that this is not a finished story. Right now, for example, the “action” I’m taking is writing this essay, which I started working on like three months ago, and which I have been agonizing over ever since. I still feel paralyzed with despair and rage, and I absolutely have phases where I feel like none of it matters and we should all just give up and wait for the planet to melt.
The last thing you need to know is that all the reasons you have for not stepping up right now—it’s overwhelming, it’s discouraging, nothing matters, you’re too busy and stressed as it is, there’s no money, etc.—you’re right where you’re supposed to be.
Those people who volunteer at polling stations, who protest on the courthouse steps, who write letters to voters, who travel to Ecuador and work on ocean cleanup crews—they’re doing those things because their eyes are open, man. The only difference between them and you is that they aren’t waiting to feel some type of “better” before they go out and do shit.
Doing shit is what makes them feel better.
Of COURSE you feel disgusted, horrified, guilty, angry, or ashamed when you confront the horrors of chattel slavery, colonization, genocide, rape, Garbage Island, and Mitch McConnell. All of this should make you extremely uncomfortable, because it’s extremely fucked up. Congratulations, you’re a human being! And the blinders are finally off.
Uncomfortable emotions aren’t a reason to stop; they’re beating your door down trying to tell you that humanity is in trouble, and you can help!
Get it, Sam!
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you that I had to go through a whole heap of learning, unlearning, and being in my feelings before I was ready to make any significant moves.
And the first thing that had to happen was a very painful wake up call.
I pushed back, hard, at the concept of white privilege. My life hasn’t been all roses and rainbows, I thought. My parents got divorced when I was 15! My ancestors were slaughtered in the Armenian genocide! My mom was at the Kent State Massacre! I felt indignant and defensive, because I “couldn’t help where I was born.”
Privilege is a really slippery thing to get your head around when you are the one who benefits from said privilege. That’s the point—it’s invisible. One of the ways the white supremacist delusion continues to thrive is by hiding in plain sight, and by convincing white people it doesn’t exist. See also: the completely whitewashed version of history taught in my prestigious high school, or the fact that we spent months discussing Puritanism but never once talked about present-day sexism.
So much of privilege is about the things you DON’T ever have to think about, like how it would never occur to a man to clutch his keys in his fist like Wolverine in case there’s a rapist, or how it would never occur to a white person that getting pulled over for driving too fast could result in their being murdered.
It takes time and practice to grasp this concept. And this right here is where a lot of well-meaning white people and would-be feminist men get tripped up. This learning curve is no joke, man, and we just want a little space and grace and patience while we work our way through it.
“Your Black anger is upsetting me! I’m new at this! Stop yelling at me!”
The inclination to ask for that space and grace is the right one. But we’re asking the wrong people. You need to learn to give YOURSELF that grace, because coddling your feelings while you struggle out of your white supremacist chrysalis is not Black people’s jobs. They have enough to worry about, thankyouverymuch.
Similarly, soothing a man’s butthurt feelings when he’s confronted with his own privilege and/or internalized misogyny is a real drag. Here we are, planning all the trips, makin’ money every single day,making sure the kids get to school, cooking dinner for grown-ass people who don’t know how to feed themselves, getting interrupted and talked down to and paid $.83 on the dollar—AND we have to comfort and soothe these men when sexism makes them uncomfortable? A) we’re too tired for that shit. And B) It adds insult to injury. Find another man to talk it out with.
Unlearning something you were unconsciously, surreptitiously taught since birth is a pretty hard thing to do. It’s difficult to get your brain to think in ways it never had to think before, to go down pathways you didn’t even know were there.
The good news is, it’s not hard to find a brand new map.
I found my map (mostly) in books. In the work and words of Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Helen Oyeyemi, Erika Hines, Roxane Gay, Rachel Cargle, N.K. Jemisin, and so many more.
But learning the truth meant reckoning with the realization that I’d been lied to. By teachers, by parents, by movies, by politicians—by everyone everywhere. As I was coaxing my brain to rewire itself, I was also stewing in an all-consuming fire of rage and betrayal, because I’d been raised up in a society whose real rules and values I wasn’t given a chance to consent to.
This is sort of specific to social media culture, with its soapbox-style platforms, but sometimes it seems like all you ever hear about is how white people are fucking up, what NOT to do, and how generally shitty white people can be. Even when we think we’re doing something good, it turns out that that’s not right, either. What a drag.
I worked in restaurants for a long time, and there was always an assistant manager who was constantly fussing at the servers for doing their side work wrong, or not adhering to the proper protocols when picking up food from the kitchen, or some other micromanage-y power-tripping bullshit that made it super annoying to do their jobs. We used to say it was like being in an abusive relationship, all criticism and no appreciation. (And it was an abusive relationship, and almost always that assistant manager was a short white man micromanaging smart women who made more money than him. But I digress.)
Sometimes I feel like allyship is a little bit like that. It’s not that I want to be praised or even appreciated—I think working on being anti-racist is just what a person should do, like brushing your teeth or making sure your cat has food—it’s just that I don’t want to be constantly criticized. No one does.
This makes sense to me, and I know based on my temperament, my High Sensitivity, and my experience with abusive relationships and perfectionism, that I need to listen to that instinct and maybe take a break from social media.
But none of this is Black people’s problem or responsibility. You know who’s in an abusive relationship? Black people, and our government, going back CENTURIES. I might not always like bearing witness to that rage and frustration, but that doesn’t mean they should stop expressing it. (Also, no one ever died from having hurt feelings. Just sayin.)
If you’re familiar with the 4-A Change Paradigm (Awareness, Assessment, Action, & Accountability), we’ve roughly gone through Awareness and Assessment so far, with some dabbling in Action and Accountability. If you’re not familiar, you can learn about it here and on Google. 🙂
It’s those last two “A’s” where I got stuck.
The more I learned and discussed and wrote and studied, the worse I felt. Grief-stricken and ashamed and guilty and furious. I was also intensely embarrassed by how ignorant and blind I’d been, and how long it took me to wake the fuck up. And you know, throughout all this time I still had to work and survive a pandemic and shit. This is around the time I got paralyzed by how awful and fucked everything was, and how overwhelming it all seemed. With so much wrong in this country, where do you even begin?
The thing I needed to do was let go of ALL the things, and just pick ONE thing. I unsubscribed from all the political emails I’d been getting, and I canceled all the panicky monthly donations I was sending all over the place. I decided I’d focus on the voting process, so I just did that. As we approach the midterm elections (ugh, I know), I’ll do the same things I did in 2020—letter-writing, poll observing, combatting disinformation online. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, I honestly don’t know if I’ll do anything else. It still seems to me like the electoral process is clutch here; also I kinda want to watch and see where my help is most needed.
Read: This piece in the New York Times, which does a pretty good job of answering a lot of the questions around a post-Roe America.
One more thing before we go—systemic racism cannot be separated out from any other human rights issue, including but not limited to reproductive rights. You might be feeling indignant and righteous about the Supreme Court right now, but the reality is that any future abortion bans will probably not affect you very much (if you are mid- to upper-class, and white). They will, however, affect BIPOC women more than anyone else. You don’t get to celebrate Black women for turning out and helping Democrats win the 2020 election, and then ignore them (or yell at them) when they ask you to fight for them in return.
I know plenty of men—nice, good, sensitive men— who “get” the racism thing, but not the misogyny thing. They think sexism is a “someone else” problem, not a THEM problem. They think Roe v. Wade is a women’s issue, not a human rights issue. But male fragility is a lot like white fragility—you have to go through the same mental and emotional process (more or less) to get over yourself and start fucking helping.
And HEY, MEN—WE NEED Y’ALL TO GET OVER YOURSELVES AND START FUCKING HELPING.
I recently did a deep dive into Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” as a potential inspiration for some copy I needed to write (yes, my job is fucking cool.)
The sentiment of the poem is twofold: many believe it’s a commentary on the lack of media coverage around instances of police brutality, and/or the way Black and brown stories are presented in a biased light, if at all. And yes, all of this still tracks, 50-odd years later.
But it’s also a call to action to his community. He’s saying, you won’t be able to sit on your ass and watch the revolution from the comfort and safety of your own home.
And that’s what I’m saying to you, right now.
This is happening.
It’s not going to be easy or convenient (although it will in fact be televised, thank you TikTok) and you no longer have the option to sit back and watch from the sidelines.
Images from this BuzzFeed article and Getty Images.
Samantha Pollack writes creative copy (mostly emails) for feminist companies and/or thought leaders who are working to build a fairer, more connected culture. She’s also the founder of The Highly Sensitive Entrepreneur, a 6-week course that helps HSP business owners create healthier, more sustainable systems in their work.
She publishes frequent essays on feminism, privilege, pop culture, entrepreneurship, the creative process, and more on her website, cultofpersonality.co. She currently lives in Asheville, NC, and while she can *technically* work from anywhere, she prefers her adventures laptop-free.
Emails for cult thought leaders.
Want to learn how to craft emails that inspire action and engagement WITHOUT the “tried and true” (cough: patriarchal) norms we’ve all been taught?
I’m doing it, and I can show you how to do it, too.
(But sometimes, I also like to write about the books I’m reading, or the creative process, or the entrepreneurial experience, or why I hate Steve Jobs, or how I met my BFF. I’ll send you emails like that, too.)
*Just kidding. It’s only an email list.
Books. Cats. Rants. Drawrings.
(and every couple months or so, an unexplained absence 🤷🏻)