By Jana Trehan, Special Appearance by Dr. Tahira Abdullah
I've been here so many times before. A few times, it was some stupid white boy who blurted out the n-word with incredible conviction and defiance, daring me to call him out on it. Once, it was a girl who said a person’s poverty was their own fault. Once, it was a teacher who dropped the n-word at least ten times within five minutes of class—trying to shock us into understanding the weight of the word with no explanation. Another time, it was a teacher who said that abusive relationships were still examples of true love.
I've been here so many times before. I can feel the same burn in my chest, the same red rise in my cheeks. I can feel the fury in my eyes, the utter disgust with the blatant ignorance of this particularly stupid entity. This time, this person was telling me that Eastern cultures, my culture included, were less moral than Western cultures. We sat around a table, in a loud dining hall—the noise was roaring in my ears, every shout and sound bouncing around as I felt them vibrate.
I remember the day after the Election of 2016. All these people gloated, happy to see me and other leftist activists defeated. All these people that I went to school with didn't care about the election, they didn't care about the candidates, they just felt like they had something to gloat over. In my English class, everyone went around the room to say what they were feeling. One boy made eye contact with me, stating, "I gotta say, I'm feeling pretty happy right now." The most audacious part was that my classmates were not politically active. They didn't care about politics at all. They just felt like they had won something just because I was hurt. When the day was over, they would go back to not caring and wouldn't be paying attention long enough to understand the fallout.
I felt the full impact of it.
What it meant to be an immigrant in the age of Trump. What it meant to be a woman in the age of Trump. What it meant to be queer in the age of Trump. What it meant to be brown in the age of Trump. I felt it when Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule. I felt it when he expanded Mass Deportation policy. I felt it when he tried to get rid of DACA. I felt it when he put kids in cages, when he continued to support the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. I felt it when he pulled troops out of Syria and basically set the Kurds up for slaughter, when he supported “Stop and Frisk” and told police officers to be rougher with criminals. I felt it when he called African countries "shitholes." I feel it every day when I turn on the news.
Activism through confrontation comes at a cost. I believe that when you land in situations where people ignorantly promote ideas of inequality—racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., it's my responsibility to say something about it. For a long time, I felt I was alone in this. In high school, I was one of the few people of color—the only Indian immigrant—and witness to the sort of rampant and blatant ignorance that I described above. I made it my job to say something in a public setting, feeling like the representative and sole defender for every marginalized group who weren't present to defend themselves. When I graduated, I hoped that my role graduated with me, but lately, I've found that it hasn't.
In this particular case, sitting around the table and being told that Eastern cultures were less moral than Eastern ones, I tried to explain (to the person I had considered a friend), that they couldn't try to claim that Western cultures were more moral than Eastern because he didn't have any experience with Eastern cultures. I told him that he was making a blatant and ignorant generalization about multiple societies and cultures with their own set of moralities and that he didn't have any proof for his blatant generalization. In return, he said that he felt bad for my partner because of my inherent inability to let his ignorance occur without being corrected.
His exact words were, "Boy, I feel bad for Jackson." I was shocked into silence. Jackson…my partner of a year and a half. We had gotten together before the senior year of high school and ended up at the same college by coincidence. No one had watched me struggle more than him. Even my mom doesn't know the full extent of what I went through regarding my race and ethnicity in high school. He had been there when I cried after Trump was elected in 2016. Multiple times throughout senior year, I cried to him about the inherent unfairness of feeling this weight on your shoulder, how badly I wanted to move out of my hometown, and how hard I was fighting to make sure my sisters never went through what I did. He had watched me suffer the most extreme burnout of my life, ready to drop out of high school. And here was this blatantly uneducated white boy, who tried to claim that my activism was something that my partner had to apologize for. The audacity.
We don't have time to delve into all the reasons that this boy's comments are definitely, without-a-doubt sexist, but I will say this: regardless of whether you're a man or a woman, you should never have to feel that you have to apologize to your partner for standing up against racism, sexism or anything else that you feel is wrong—especially in the age of Trump.
Activism burnout is a real issue. If you consider yourself an activist—and that means more than just going to protests and signing petitions—it is a consistent, never-ending fight against ignorance—ask yourself whether you've ever felt despair for long periods. Ask yourself whether you feel like you're not really making a difference through your efforts, or whether the issues that once inspired you to be an agent of change now leave you feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. George Mason University Professor Paul Gorski describes "the overwhelming sense of urgency that activists feel"³ when they are trying to break down these huge power structures. When that change doesn't happen right away, they feel a sense of burnout. Activists often treat their jobs like sprints when long-term, structural change is more like a marathon. During this marathon, you trip twice for every mile that you run.
Gorski conducted a study in 2015 with fellow George Mason University colleague Cher Chen in which he interviewed 22 social justice and human rights advocates across a variety of issues. Within this study, he detailed the ideal of "martyrdom" that exists within SJHR advocates.¹ There is a certain competition among them and that they haven't done their job or made a significant impact until they are so burned out that they leave their fields entirely. He found that nearly half of the activists experiencing burnout didn't take time off or go on hiatus—they left their fields entirely.³ I think we can all relate to this—turning a blind eye to the injustice of the world around us and focusing entirely on ourselves.
There have been so many times when I've wanted to just let comments slide, let people go about their day. Who cares if they knowingly say something problematic? Who cares if they go about their day dropping racial slurs as they dropped change? I shouldn't care. I've tried to make myself not care. I hoped that by picking a more diverse university, I was officially quitting my job as the "problematic police." I was hoping it wouldn't be my problem anymore, and that other people would pick up what has always seemed to be my slack and take care of it. I was really hoping that the universe would say, "You did a good job. You stood up to injustice when it was committed and now, you can take a break." I know that's not how it works. I know that injustice occurs whether you live in the most Irish town in America, like me, or whether you go to the most diverse university in your region. That doesn't mean that it didn't hurt more than ever when I was faced with more of it.
To help me come to terms with what happened that day in the dining hall, and the subsequent fallout of my friendship with that boy, I sat down with UMass Boston professor and faculty-in-residence at the dorms, Dr. Tahirah Abdullah. Dr. Abdullah is a Professor of Psychology, with a focus on the mental health of African Americans and the impact that racism (among other "isms") has upon the mental health of African Americans and people of color. Dr. Abdullah is an activist and academic who is deeply invested in understanding the deep-rooted causes of inequality and wants to encourage youth activism within our UMass community. She's involved with the Social Justice Living Learning Community in the Residence Halls and gave me a different perspective on the impact that activism and confronting these instances of racism have upon people of color.
She began by sharing her philosophy about confronting racism in the age of Trump, saying, "I think definitely confronting the interpersonal or individual level issues is important but also confronting the systemic or root causes of oppression is also important." She said that she shares my feelings in the resurgence of blatant racism that has had a deep and disturbing impact on her. When I asked her about her own experiences with activism burnout, she shared with me the emotional turbulence that she felt following the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina that claimed the lives of nine black Americans, committed by white supremacist Dylan Roof.² At the time, Dr. Abdullah was completing a study on resistance and empowerment against racism with fellow UMass Boston professor Dr. Karen Suyemoto and focusing on other research and writings that she wanted to do. She related that following the secession of police shootings such as the death of Mike Brown and Eric Brown, and then the shooting in Charleston, she felt a loss of purpose. "Why am I even doing this? Am I even doing anything? What's the point?" She described the hopelessness of her burnout, not being able to see change occurring.
For me, it was disturbingly familiar. The same hopelessness cycles through me at times, like during that moment in the dining hall. When I asked her what her advice was to deal with activism burnout, she said that the best thing you could do is to take a step back and reassess your purpose, as well as focus on other work that still makes you happy. "Taking a break gave me the opportunity to focus on other work." Her biggest piece of advice for activists? Don't wait until you experience burnout to take a break from your work.
Sitting down with Dr. Abdullah helped me understand how deeply activism burnout affects every corner of society. Just like issues of race and gender inequality are woven into the fabric of society, there are people everywhere trying to facilitate change in their own way. There's hope in that, but there's also perverse loneliness that wears you down over time. From the resenting college freshman to a well-established and accomplished academic, the effects of racism on our emotional states are prominent. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from—the effect that facing systematic abuse has on you is devastating.
When I think about the next time I end up in front of someone else who spits racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or anti-Semitic language, I feel dread pool in my stomach. I'm already exhausted thinking about it. There's a silver lining though. When I meet people I admire, like Dr. Abdullah and other activists, part of me sees the work they are trying to do and I feel a unity in trying to contribute to a better world. What feels like a personal loss is transformed into believing that I am part of a larger community. A community that is trying to create change, and by standing up to ignorance, I am a part of that community. To every activist experiencing burnout, to every lonely brown kid who feels that they've been wronged, to every person who has stood up to an injustice and felt like they lost something for doing so: you are not alone, you are not the first to feel that way and you have absolutely done the right thing. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
¹Gorski , Paul, and Cher Weixia Chen . Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications. George Mason University, 27 Sept. 2015, Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications.
²Payne, Ed, et al. “Charleston Church Shooting Suspect Arrested in N.C.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 June 2015. <www.cnn.com/2015/06/18/us/charleston-south-carolina-shooting/index.html>
³Solis, Marie. “When Dismantling Power Dismantles You Instead.” Vice, 7 Dec. 2018. <www.vice.com/en_us/article/3k95kk/when-dismantling-power-dismantles-you-instead-v25n4>
⁴Trehan, Janhvi. “Sitting Down with Dr. Tahirah Abdullah to Discuss Activism Burnout.” 23 Oct. 2019.