Why I Don't Want to Be a Black Activist
Putting yourself out there daily comes with great cost to your mental health.
Art By. Noel Ransome
It was a glorious tweet back in 2016. Not in what it implied, but in the lack of empathy it exposed from responders thereafter.
"Plz Allah give me the strength not to cuss/kill these men and white folks out here today. Plz plz plz," read the 101-character tweet by Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder, Yusra Khogali.
In a Toronto Star column, Khogali admitted to being angry by the endless comments from white men questioning the existence of racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia during Black History Month when she sent off that tweet. But what amounted to a few seconds of frustration for Khogali turned into days and months of ridicule.
"Black Lives Matter Toronto Co-Founder Needs To Resign," stated Huffington Post blogger James Di Fiore. "Hatred shakes Black Lives Matter Toronto credibility" said a headline in the Toronto Sun. Another headline in the Sun, this one by Rob Ford apologist Joe Warmington, screamed "Banish Black Lives Matter Toronto to fringes where it belongs." And Tyler O'Neil of the right wing PJ Media wasted no time with his label. "Toronto Black Lives Matter Co-Founder So Racist, Even Huffpo Turns on Her."
And you can imagine the angry white Twitter chorus joining in with their pitchforks.
As for the source of Yusra Khogali's anger? They didn't care. Her hurt? Didn't matter.
It's stuff like this that makes me no civil rights activist. I don't have the stuff. I can only take so many trash opinions. I can only take so much racist BS, and the last thing I'd want to do is take on a job that invites that.
The fact is that my experiences—indeed most experiences by people of colour—inspire certain fantasies. Fists thrown, jaws broken, insert terrible thing here____ in response to some racist comment or action. It sounds scary on paper, but they're only fantasies in the end. Most of us won't ever act on these thoughts. We understand that answering overt/covert racism with aggression doesn't exactly work and probably isn't a good thing— possible arrest, jail time, criminal record, all that good stuff.
My moment of non-action happened when I was 12. A couple of white teenagers yelled the N-Word at me like they discovered a new curse word and couldn't wait to use it. I wanted to punch a Nazi that day, a la Richard Spencer, but thoughts to action rarely go down like a bombastic scene out of a vengeful Tarantino script. It's more of a shock, like being told you aren't shit and almost believing it. Responding with anything other than indifference or humour only validates the insult.
It's why I never understood how activists can do what they do: be the product of oppression and still remain sane. My 9 to 5 takes up most of my day. The worst I have to worry about is a trash piece and my lunch choice. My skin colour has little bearing about how well I do my job. But an activist dedicates their time to a cause that invites the toxic.
That same sort of toxic that can police Yusra Khogali instead of trying to understand her frustrations as an activist, and a black woman. Ignoring that her life has likely been threatened, that she's been racially brutalized by police or systematically disadvantaged.
I wanted to make sense of what these people experience, aside from own my assumptions. Sure, I've personally had stresses about being carded or called the N-Word. I can empathize to an extent. But I don't put myself in front of that negative energy by choice. What does the civil rights activist today really feel and go through? And how do they balance what they do from how they live? I reached out to a number of activists to understand how they channel the anger.
"I'm going to say, and I don't care who knows it, most black people have had similar thoughts," community activist and journalist, Andray Domise, told me in a phone call about Yusra Khogali's tweet. "I've seen it written in Ta-Nehisi Coates's writing, I've seen it in James Baldwin's writing, I've seen it in Audre Lorde's writing and usually it's not saying something a black person hasn't already thought."
Shellie Love, a youth activist in Toronto has thought these thoughts herself between her everyday and Twitter timeline. Her opinions are in-your-face direct. She's never been a woman that could hold back her convictions because of a few racists.
"As a black woman, I don't have anything to lose. As black folks, we're already excluded from spaces, even when black folks are welcomed in, it's a particular kind of black folk," she told me. "That was never who I was. I was never invited as a black person. Instead I was always seen as the Angry Black Woman or woman who intimidated because I was always outspoken."
Few are able to take in this concept—that activists actually deal with stresses like everyone else. We're too used to seeing them as figures of strength to the point of being spoiled by it. The Desmond Coles and DeRay's Mckessons of the world. Those well rehearsed rebuttals they deliver during interview segments, the conviction that roars from their voices—it becomes difficult to recognize vulnerabilities under all that. We don't see the symptoms that cumulative exposure to racism can bring.
Clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Monnica Williams terms it plainly as "the last straw."
"Eventually these things are going to take a toll on a person internally, which includes ailments, but also moments of exploding anger. Some may even cause violence, harm and ultimately take it out on other people," she told me in an interview.
According to Dr. Williams, there's been research showing the connection between low level discrimination, PTSD and physical ailments.
Love says she has experienced these issues herself.
"I know for a fact that in times when there's so much happening within the community, we have to be hyper vigilant and it's then when my health starts to deteriorate," said Love. "My anxiety is at an all time high. Raising my blood pressure, catching colds every other week. We're affected psychologically but also physically, it's all connected."
According to Dr. Williams, separating oneself from the movement is a required balance for recovery. That's something that Domise continually tries to get some of his followers to understand.
"It's like, god, give me a fucking day to myself so I could recuperate from this shit because I'm not a mule," says Domise. "I'm not a pack horse. I'm a human being that has my own life and my own wants and desires and I do this because I feel like this is important and it's not my responsibility to take this whole burden on my shoulders and drag it across this imaginary finish line."
Clearly, activists, however strong on the surface, can never be exempt from anger. Frustration and irritation is the product of being human. Even the pinnacle of the black activist ideal, Martin Luther King, suffered through severe depression, migraines, and a lack of sleep during his Poor People's Campaign that wasn't the success be envisioned.
For Love, her source of calm comes from the simple things.
"Sometimes self-care is just turning off the TV for 15 minutes and just listening to your thoughts," says Love. "For me, I'd rather binge watch an entire season of Grey's Anatomy just to get my mind off of things. It's different for everyone."
Through my conversations, it's clear that self-care is defined by each person differently. Every activist doesn't have the luxury of affording a therapist, nor does Twitter have the technical tools to prevent sexism, xenophobia, or racism. In the case of Yusra Khogali, self-care just might have been the product of a single tweet. And it's a shame many won't understand that.
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