brain: oh no
anxiety: SOMETHING IS WRONG
anxiety: THAT PERSON YOU SAID THAT ONE AWKWARD THING TO THREE YEARS AGO PROBABLY HATES YOU
brain: you woke me up at 3am for THIS?
anxiety: LET’S THINK ABOUT THE VOID NOW
— Christine is on editing hiatus 🖤 (@christineexists) March 12, 2018
Friends, this is my life.
I’ve lived with anxiety for so long that it took me forever to realize that I had a problem. I knew I had issues with social anxiety, but I thought everyone ruminated the way I did and had intrusive and frustrating thoughts that kept them up at night. I hate the amount of time I spend obsessing about inconsequential things and how I let my anxiety ruin my day-to-day life. I’ll be trying to enjoy time with my family and my head will be somewhere entirely different. Little things that most people wouldn’t think about twice will lodge in my brain for days or weeks. A big part of why I started blogging was because it was a way to process my thoughts and get them out of my head. When you grow up being told terrible things about yourself all the time, you come to believe them, and to believe that everyone holds these views about you. It’s made me tremendously self-conscious and full of negative self-talk that’s hard to quell.
For a long time, I thought it was something I couldn’t change, but I’m beginning to recognize that I have more power over my thoughts than I’ve given myself credit for. And I want to take steps to change my thought patterns and work towards becoming more mindful. A big part of that requires changing my relationship with social media.
Social media is something that I’m recognizing is terrible for my anxiety. I don’t think social media is inherently bad, but I think the ways that I’m using it are not doing me any favors. It’s notoriously difficult on Twitter to communicate effectively and misunderstandings are rife. I will fully admit that I am not perfect. I make mistakes, I often miss sarcasm in people’s responses, and I’m a slow thinker. Recently, a white female librarian I don’t know attacked me on Twitter and basically portrayed me as a “nice white woman” who doesn’t recognize her privilege and understands nothing about cultural, social, and institutional forces that constrain people’s lives and choices. I found myself trying to think of ways to better explain myself to her so she (and others) did not have an inaccurate picture of me, but then I recognized that in her performance of “wokeness,” she needed a “Becky” and nothing I was going to write was going to change her perception of me. What I’d done was argued against the idea someone had suggested that for half of white women in librarianship, their work is a “hobby job” (because they have access to wealth through their family or spouse). I said that calling it a “hobby job” was not accurate or helpful, and that the whole notion of librarianship being a “hobby job” of wives is, in good part, responsible for historically low wages in our field. Somehow, I ended up being characterized as someone who is ignorant of their privilege and doesn’t care about marginalized people in the profession.
I’m still puzzled how arguing about the idea of “hobby jobs” meant that I was denying that white women, by and large, have more social capital (and wealth) than people of color. One does not necessarily follow the other. Even the most wealthy women in any career do not deserve to have their work characterized as a “hobby job” by others. But, as someone who suffers from anxiety, I obsessed over the exchange for days — what I could have done differently, what people must think of me, etc. The thoughts were intrusive. I wondered if I had done things to make other people feel this way in the past and felt ashamed of doing that. It also made me think about other times when I felt I had to justify myself about things online. In many cases, it was times when the person and I really did not differ significantly in our view of that issue (patron privacy, systems of privilege, etc.) but the person I was chatting back and forth with seemed intent on proving that they were “better or more” than me on whatever issue it was than actually creating understanding. Yes, you’re the best ally. You’re the best privacy advocate. You’re so much more ___ than I am. It often felt more like a performance than anything designed to help, educate, or create change.
I’m intrigued by the idea of recognizing privilege as an end in itself. I definitely understand that people’s lack of recognition of their privilege keeps them from understanding how others are oppressed (and their opportunities constrained) by people and institutions, but that feels like saying that people’s lack of awareness of being an alcoholic keeps them from recognizing they have a problem that needs changing. Yes, recognizing you’re an alcoholic and that you need to change is vital, but it’s only the first in twelve steps. If you only recognized you’re an alcoholic and kept on drinking or didn’t make amends for the hurt you caused, you haven’t really done anything.
There’s nothing that made me more aware of my privilege than working with children as a social worker. Longtime readers know that I was a child and family therapist in South Florida prior to coming to librarianship. I worked with families who qualified for psychotherapy through Medicaid, which usually meant that the kids were experiencing some pretty serious psychological and behavioral issues (since Medicaid is stingy with funding to actually prevent more serious issues). The vast majority of families I worked with were of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent and some were 1st generation immigrants. With every child I worked with, you could see how legacies of abuse, poverty, and institutional/educational racism conspired to limit their future. I love that saying “some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” I started life at third base with only a little league catcher between me and home plate. The children I worked with didn’t even start out in the ball park, and they had a massive chain-link fence to scale, a stick instead of a bat, and a full roster of major league all-stars between them and home plate. No therapy I could provide could materially change those odds for them and I found the most valuable work I did as a social worker involved advocating for kids with their teachers, their schools (in IEP meetings especially), and their psychiatrists (who mostly wanted to overmedicate the kids into a stupor). I fully believe that most of the kids I worked with were perfectly capable of achieving everything I have in life had they been born into different circumstances.
But how did my recognizing my privilege help those kids? If I’d apologized to them for how much it sucks that they don’t have the opportunities I did at their age, would that make them feel better? Of course not. And talking about my own privilege — or the areas of my life in which I do and don’t have privilege — just centers the conversation around me. Recognizing my privilege was only valuable in informing how I worked with those kids and how I advocated for them. It was only valuable in how I used that understanding. As an inexperienced 23-year-old social worker, standing up to an experienced psychiatrist at my job who wanted to overmedicate a young client of mine was a risk worth taking, since it was clear to me that the behaviors the child was exhibiting would not have been treated in this way had he been an affluent white child. It’s a hell of a lot easier to recognize privilege than to work to your own disadvantage to dismantle things that create privilege or to take any risks to really be an ally to individuals or groups. And what risk are you really taking clapping back at someone on social media?
Social media often feels to me like a performance space and I’ve become more and more aware of performative allyship. When I read Tanya D.’s Medium article about performative allyship a while back, I found myself both nodding along and feeling badly for the times when I know I’ve done this shit myself —
IMHO it serves as ally performance to show you’re a good white person, that you’re “woke”. It also refocuses the issue back on you. … Miss me when you wanna get angry cause I won’t mange your white guilt. That’s what performative allyship comes down to. Demonstration of white guilt in hopes of praise for being more aware than other whites. Spoiler there’s no prize for being the most woke white person on Twitter, or FB or for slapping down other white people.
I’m not saying that all advocacy on social media is performative allyship, but I think we all could benefit from looking at why we post the things we do to social media and whether we are actually helping or just centering the conversation on ourselves (and our wokeness/goodness). Because if it’s about moving toward greater social justice, it definitely should not be about white people. Centering things on us is just replicating the whole of American history.
Of course social media has a role in social justice work. Giving marginalized people a space to share their stories and amplifying those stories is important. Raising awareness is important. Fighting trolls and getting them banned is important. Standing up for marginalized people who are being attacked online is important, but I also hope we’re all doing the same IRL. Social media can be a great tool for organizing protests and other actions that lead to real change — Shaun King’s work is a great example of that. And, of course, it can be a great place to get ideas, share good ideas, and keep up with friends. But if you’re railing about social justice issues on social media and are not taking any steps in your regular life to do good, it’s worth examining your motives, as suggested in this article from Affinity:
What you need to know is that impact matters more than intent. Waving your hands in front of people of color’s faces and proclaiming that you’re “so woke” is more for you than it is for us, if we’re being honest. Do less. Or rather, do more. If you want to be seen as a real ally, try doing something of substance for us instead of just calling other white girls Becky and “feeling bad” when your grandpa says that people of color are subhuman over dinner.
The articles goes on to suggest lots of really easy ways people can contribute in real life. They are truly the least we can do.
I’ve decided to step away from social media for a while to see how I feel when I’m not so connected to it and focused on it. I want to refocus that time I spend on social media on my family and on mindfulness work, because I’m so tired of feeling anxious all the time. I may still use social media a bit when a travel (I have two trips coming up in April), but I also may not. I don’t feel the need to make some big all-or-nothing pronouncement because that’s not healthy behavior either and also feels like a performance of some sort (like people who brag that they don’t own a television).
I think I’ll probably engage more in social media in the future, though in different ways, and I want to be more mindful of how I and others are using it. If I use social media to share something, I will question whether I’m doing for a constructive reason or because of how I want to be seen by the world. If I share information about something, it’ll be to get people involved, not to show them that I’m involved (since studies show that there is value in peripheral participation — aka slacktivism). I’m just over the competition to be the most… whatever.
Saying all this doesn’t mean that I’m more woke or aware or good or whatever. It means that I recognize I can be better and can do better. And that my participation in social media is not good for me. Your mileage may vary. You may see things totally differently and that’s fine; I would never ever assert that the way I perceive the world is necessarily the way the world is. I’d like to believe that we can have different views and still respect each other so long as those views don’t deny rights, safety, or dignity to others. You do you.