I run. A lot. I spend ridiculous amounts of time on my feet, running through the woods and escaping a social and political world that increasingly perplexes me and leaves me shaking my head. My partner often shakes her head and rolls her eyes because she knows that I could be gone for 1 hour or 24 hours. In many ways, it’s my opportunity to attempt to process the deluge of conversations, media coverage, and social media crazy that leaves me wondering where our country is heading. In many ways, my ability to literally escape from the rest of the world and run off into the woods for hours on end is an apt analogy for the privilege I have as a cis-gendered White male to pick and choose when I want to be “on” and when I just want to let it go. I can decide when I want to be an ally and advocate, and when I just don’t have the energy to challenge yet another ignorant comment or casually racist comment.
As my own thinking on oppression and what it means to be an anti-racist ally has evolved, however, I’ve begun to understand more about what it means to be truly committed. In talking with friends and colleagues over the years, it has become more and more evident to me that not everyone has the same privilege to decide when to act and when to remain silent. That is a luxury I have despite the fact that there are reports of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression on a daily basis. Peoples’ lives are intricately woven into the fabric of oppression in such a way as to be inseparable from one another. They can’t simply walk on by, can’t choose whether or not they are going to be affected by what they see, hear, or experience. For many folks from underrepresented groups, their guard is always up. Simply existing in the U.S. means always being on guard, trying to tread water between events, and hoping that the next one won’t hit even closer to home. This conscious tension and anxiety has been studied, and absolutely has a direct and negative impact on other aspects of folks’ lives. I know I’ll never feel that in the same way.
Being an anti-racist social justice ally means seeking it out, though. It means attempting to divert the flow in your direct, even just for a moment, to give someone else the chance to take a deep, cleansing breathe and summon the strength to keep going. In the running world, especially at longer distances, many people talk about “embracing the suck”. By this, I mean acknowledging that at some point, the distance is going to get hard. Really hard. Your body is going to hurt- your muscles will ache, your lungs will burn, your energy will be tapped out, but you’ll still have to move on. All you can do in this instance is embrace the discomfort as an expected way of being, and keep moving forward. The finish line isn’t getting any closer if you aren’t moving. That’s why I truly believe that many of the longer distances are much more a mental than a physical exercise past a certain point. All of this is to say that in being an ally, we need to learn how to embrace the suck.
We need to embed in ourselves the understanding that this work is hard. We need to remember that there will always be one more act of violence, one more casually racist remark, one more ignorant person, one more person struggling to get by and carry the historically and systematically entrenched weight of oppression on their shoulders. We need to consciously decide not to set that weight down when it’s too hard. We need to be ready to walk into the woods, embrace the suck, and keep moving.
This work is hard. It’s hard in a way that I can’t grasp entirely at any given point. That’s where listening comes into play, and not simply acting instinctually. So many of the struggles around oppression are deeply embedded into the fabric of our country, and that can make it hard to see progress, especially when voices are consistently silenced in our collective dialogue. It can make it hard to feel like you are making a difference. It can mean shrugging your shoulders in confusion as a White ally. That feeling of helplessness has left many folks wondering what to do in the wake of so many tragedies. I feel that same sense of helplessness at times myself. There are always going to be shifting pieces and changing rules in this game, but the weight of history that oppressed peoples’ carry around with them remains consistent. So, if I can embrace the suck and carry some of that burden myself to support those that aren’t given a choice about carrying it, then I’m allowing them to stand up straight, take that much needed deep breath, and carry on.
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