Equity work is many things. It is fulfilling, powerful, and chock full of potential to change the world around you, be it in small or significant ways. We know the work is difficult, but that’s part of what makes it so important to be involved. Without effort, change won’t happen.
It is important, however, to recognize that equity work can be beyond difficult. It can be exhausting. The work is non-stop; you live and breathe an equity mindset, you have to apply it to every aspect of your life. Equity work requires self-reflection, some of which can be disheartening, even devastating as you realize that people whom you might love very much hold dehumanizing opinions of you or other people you care about. Sometimes your own brain doesn’t align with your ideals, supplying unwanted thoughts trained into you from the time you were born. Finally, it’s disruptive, meaning that it often isn’t supported by your workplace. For these reasons, it is no wonder that many of us wind up “burned out.”
I witnessed this process first-hand when one of my closest friends began his new, equity-oriented position at a small school. He had the following to say about the experience:
“This past year was the most challenging of my professional career. I began a new job where I had to facilitate cross-cultural exchange, support a broad variety of student needs, and respond to major crises, some with life or death consequences. On top of that, I was working in a very white, conservative organization that was institutionally not enthusiastic about my work. By the time my one-year anniversary rolled around, I was exhausted and couldn’t bear the thought of going through that cycle again.”
Thankfully, the scientific community has turned its attention to workplace burnout and its impact. Their study, based on the General Social Survey of 2016, found, alarmingly, that burnout is a never ending cycle of loneliness and emotional exhaustion. The more exhausted you feel as a result of your work, the lonelier you feel, thus exacerbating your exhaustion and loneliness.
This finding has huge consequences for equity work and those of us dedicated to it. Namely, this kind of work has the potential to be hugely isolating, having major negative impacts on our mental and physical well-being. I spoke recently in my post on voting about how left-leaning ideology is only heard as a complaint. Equity work is included in this definition. People who work in equity disrupt the structures around them by pointing out their inadequacies.
I recently spoke with the Director of Diversity at my job to see if I could help him in any way. He spoke to me for an entire hour about his exhaustion and his alienation from the other employees. Part of his alienation was due to his status as a person of color, the other part was from constantly having his work questioned and his ideas repudiated, his time and budget whittled away over time. The disruption that is required of his position simultaneously de-legitimizes it, as he works solely in complaints, of pointing out that his colleagues are not doing enough. He becomes a problem by doing what he is paid to do.
Our community isn’t immune, despite our values. Equity work requires us to live it, but within minutes of reviewing the vitriol my own work faces I am exhausted. It is here that the spiral begins. How can I feel so exhausted when my relative privilege allows me to escape the work at times? How dare I let out that I am tired, when my job merely requires sitting and crunching numbers? And thus I am isolated. Whether it was the voices of others or my own policing standards that put those voices in my head is unclear. The result remains the same: I continue to strive, unable to or just afraid to take a day off to clear my head and am therefore distracted and distractible, working less over longer periods of time.
But still I don’t dare complain. The threat of becoming a “bad object” (Ahmed, 2018) and ostracized from the work is too big a risk. It would be identifying an inadequacy in the work: that it is not only fulfilling, but also draining. Admitting so would delegitimize my work, the work; I am complaining and therefore become part of the problem.
It’s a story I’ve heard over and over again because so many of us are tired, but only tell each other behind closed doors. We talk a big game about self-care but my experiences make me wonder if we truly believe it. And so I have a thought. It’s not enough to give yourself permission to rest. Find someone else who is tired and give them permission to rest. Make them rest. And when they’re rested tell them to find another exhausted ally to make rest. And so on and so forth. Because you’re allowed to close your eyes sometimes, and sometimes you need someone else to tell you that. We are stronger when we are fully awake and we are stronger when we trust each other. So trust me and go rest. I will look forward to seeing what you’re capable of when you next get out of bed.