In examining my life, three significant areas of personal and professional exploration have always been front and center. I’ve come to think of these subjects as “The Three Rs” — Racial Justice, Relationships, and cReative Expression (yes, I’m taking some liberties with this one). These three subjects are ones I frequently find myself talking at the edges of within my professional spaces, and ones that I have always desired to explore more deeply, particularly in my writing. In doing so, some key questions have emerged:
Are all activists somewhat codependent?
Can we think our way through racial justice?
Are any of us ever really enough for this work?
How does my personal pain measure up against structurally imposed pain?
These questions are ones that tug at my psyche as I reflect on how I relate personally to the Three Rs – both individually and at their intersections.
I wrote the following, at first, as a letter to myself, one in which I attempt to grapple with these questions. I explore my journey through racial justice by way of witnessing a family member’s hardships, the complexities of codependency in both my relationships and in my identity as an activist, and the transformative power of body awareness in the pursuit of social change.
On Racial Justice
Why, as a white woman, has racial justice been such a consistent theme in my life?
I believe it all began with my brother. He was white and male, yet chronically faced exclusion and teasing during his childhood. Tragically, he died in January of 2022 from an unexpected heart attack at the age of 45. He was “different”, not particularly skilled in sports, labeled as “socially awkward.” This sense of “otherness” was something he grappled with throughout his life, and as his sister, I did too.
I was both aware yet didn’t fully grasp why this happened. I could perceive his social awkwardness and the way in which he didn’t conform to typical “boyness,” and yet he was my favorite playmate. I, on the other hand, fit in easily. This dichotomy between our experiences, coupled with our close bond, led me to develop a keen radar and intense drive to understand why some individuals effortlessly “fit in” and others did not.
My brother’s pain was so raw, I quickly equated it to the pain of any exclusion, including from race or class. It took time to fully appreciate the distinction between individual adversity and systemic oppression – to learn that laws, policies, money and even state sanctioned violence reinforce exclusion and compound oppression of certain identities, without negating the legitimacy of personal harm inflicted on my brother.
In my early days as an earnest activist, I also failed to fully comprehend the extent of privilege that came with being white. I am still learning to see all the ways in which my race protects and elevates me, and did so for my brother, despite the challenges he faced. I distinctly remember believing that being a “good person”, and expressing a willingness to listen and help, set me apart from “other white people.”
My racial justice journey has been most marked by the idea of “both/and thinking” – the recognition that multiple truths can coexist, even when they seem contradictory. For example, I have spent sleepless nights filled with regrets over words spoken from unconscious bias that caused harm – knowing both how deeply mistaken I was, and knowing also I am a learner, giver, and healer at my core. I have had, through trial and error, to step into the unknown places where my unconscious bias lives and listen to feedback about my behavior or words and trust there is learning for me, and there is repair for me to do, even if I don’t yet see the whole picture. And at times, I have also had to learn to trust my instincts that just because I am white does not mean I am always making the wrong call around navigating issues of race.
This journey, naturally, has permeated my personal life. This is hardly surprising, as racial identity and experiences of inclusion/exclusion are profoundly personal matters. And yet, these intersections are seldom topics of discussion within activist or social movement building spaces.
In my case, you might have guessed that I have suffered from what psychologists refer to as codependency. I have heard this word for as long as I can remember, but often dismissed it as another overused term, or one exclusively relevant to individuals navigating far more abusive relationships than me.
Well, sure enough, it was me.
I went through a divorce in September of 2020, ending a 23 year long marriage. It’s been both the most terrifying and grounding experience I have ever had. (There’s that “both/and” thinking!) I felt like I completely unraveled and then put myself back together in a reconfigured, and more authentic, form of me.
Over the past three years, I have been reading, reflecting, and interrupting my tendency towards codependency. I believe many activists, including myself, grapple with or lean towards codependency, essentially forming relationships with troubled or dependent individuals and becoming overly fixated on controlling their behavior. My path into codependency began with my relationship with my brother, extended to the broader world, and then reached my ex-husband.
So let’s acknowledge first that the world is troubled. If any of us have the relative security to have a job oriented towards helping or trying to change the world, we have the potential of falling into a codependent relationship with the world itself. The world is deeply addicted to some pretty awful behavior, and we are committed to changing it.
There are a myriad of definitions and descriptions of codependency out there, and like all states of mental health, we express ourselves on a continuum. I realized that, for me, codependency originated from a combination of radical empathy, a willingness to challenge my own viewpoint, to see and validate all sides of issues, the guilt that accompanies witnessing others’ suffering, and a genuine desire to help coupled with a sense of powerlessness. All of this eventually became entangled to create feelings of low self-worth. To combat these feelings, I appointed myself as a “fixer” or even at times a “hero or savior” to change the world (and my brother, and my ex-husband).
I have felt both exaggerated guilt and responsibility as a white woman and well adjusted older sibling (and committed mother and wife). I’ve had to find a deeper sense of my own self-worth outside of helping, “fixing”, or “saving” others. I’ve come to understand that, like all human beings, I have needs that are worthy of fulfillment, and I deserve genuine happiness. It has been a process of recognizing that my contributions to the world are meaningful, even if I can’t change everything.
Healing my codependency is essential not only to have healthier personal relationships, but also for allowing me to show up more authentically in the realm of racial justice. This journey is ongoing, much like resisting an addiction, and it requires a lifelong commitment.
On cReative Expression
If you can’t tell by now, I spend a considerable amount of time within my own mind. I am often actively thinking and reflecting about how to build teams and leaders that might move us closer to social and racial justice. But what about my body? What might be possible if I turned my brain “off” and practiced greater awareness within my physical self?
A few years ago, I was exposed to Resmaa Menakem, an author and therapist who writes about using a somatic approach to racial justice and self care. His work has radically altered how I approach racial justice, and has transformed my relationship with my own body, as well as with the bodies of those around me. Here is one of my favorite quotes of his:
Racism of course is directed at bodies. It is based on the absurd notion that bodies possessing white skin and eurocentric features deserve comfort and protection, while all others deserve to endure pain, exploitation, violence and even murder. Our human reaction to these atrocities also lives in our bodies. The trauma of that violence lives within the bodies of those who endure it and who’s family and community members have endured it. But our resistance also lives in our bodies.
Dr. Menakem introduced me to the idea that our bodies have a different form of knowledge than our cognitive brains.
I learned through his work that if I am stressed, overwhelmed, or otherwise disconnected from my body, I may say the wrong thing, react defensively or disengage, and ultimately perpetuate more hurt. The realization that I can choose to mindfully ask my body to soften, towards myself and towards others, has probably been one the most useful, and unexpected, tools in my anti-racist practice.
This idea that our bodies hold a different kind of wisdom, resonated for me, because of my experience dancing. For me, dancing is one of the few moments in which I can actually turn my brain off and fully immerse myself in the physical experience, relishing the present moment. I can block out everyone around me, allow the music to guide my body, and feel a sense of transcendence. I am reminded in these moments that my body is a powerful instrument.
Resmaa Menakem’s work makes me believe even more in the power of connecting with our bodies as acts of resistance. Choosing to rest, to prioritize being outside, exercising, cooking, or choosing to make art are all ways of resisting white supremacy, racism, capitalism, extraction and domination. By dropping into our bodies, we let go of the reasoning, rational, productive, logical mind, and allow ourselves to trust a different kind of wisdom to guide us.