I used to consider myself an activist. When I was a teenager, I was that dorky kid who tried to organize protests that only five people came to. The last time I called myself an activist, I was 22, the age when many people are just as bright-eyed and idealistic as I used to be. A lot has changed since then: I had some up close and personal experiences with how sexist the activist community can be; struggles with my mental health made it difficult to remain idealistic; and current events chugged along, destroying any hope I had as a young person that social movements could make a difference in this country.
By now, the flame of hope and action that I used to have is pretty burnt out. I don’t read the news much and I tend to stay away from political commentary on social media. My activism consists of trying to be as decent a human as I can be to my loved ones, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, I am numb.
But in light of recent events, that resolution has been challenged:
Is it possible to be numb to Mike Brown’s killing?
When I heard the verdict, I felt like liberal white voices didn’t mean shit, shouldn’t mean shit to the world at large. Liberal white guilt simply does not matter in the face of a country that let Darren Wilson walk free after murdering an innocent boy. But knowing that my voice wasn’t the one that the world needed to hear in that moment didn’t keep me from speaking up, because for once, I felt that I had something to say.
I noticed after a while of aimlessly rambling on Twitter that some small, ugly part of me was paying attention to the retweets and favorites that I got. After realizing that, I stopped tweeting. It brought me back to the reason that I left behind a life of activism: my ego.
I can no longer separate any moralistic actions I take from my ego-driven bullshit. How do I know that I’m not just doing something for attention and a self-righteous thrill? How do I know that others aren’t just doing it for attention? This question eats at me. Once I started seeing the ego in activism, I saw it in everyone, myself most of all.
I was far from the only white person tweeting on the night of the grand jury’s decision on Darren Wilson. I watched as the white people on my Twitter list and Tumblr dashboard reacted in various ways: some didn’t say anything and retweeted black activists instead; some spoke about their own personal feelings of despair, as I had; some provided links to concrete actions people could take to support the Ferguson protests; some tweeted quotes from James Baldwin or To Kill A Mockingbird. There is no graceful way to be a white person and grieve Mike Brown. We were all clumsy, trying to make what little offerings we could.
I used to be very judgmental of other white activists that I saw acting out of ego-driven self-righteousness, rather than humility. They’re turning what could be useful work into a circle-jerk, I would think to myself as I watched Twitter conversations on political subjects happen, without even participating. But in the case of the reaction to Mike Brown and Ferguson, after I noticed the my own tendency to crave attention, I didn’t have the heart to judge others. Sure, some of the tweets I was reading were no doubt ego-driven. And so what?
The ‘so what’ part of the equation is that too often, ego-driven white activism drowns out other voices. As white people, we are raised with the unquestioned assumption that our voices have value, and we can make even the act of shutting up and listening into a display of selfishness. Hopefully, that kind of damage wasn’t done on the night of the Darren Wilson verdict. Hopefully, our collective egos didn’t overstep the bounds of decency.
Ego also drives us to make decisions about what actions to take, based on attention, rather than usefulness. So much of our current political action framework is based on getting the attention of the various media outlets that could not give less of a shit about social justice work. Until we can get past the desire to see our names and our issues in the headlines, we won’t be able to think outside the box and come up with non-media-driven tactics to effect change.
Unfortunately, the only way to completely take the ego out of activism is to quit activism entirely. That is the route that I took, and it’s a choice I’ve come to regret. I wish that I hadn’t stopped hoping, stopped caring, stopped standing with others for what we believed in. I wish that I had an outlet for my rage over Mike Brown that went beyond Twitter. I want to break through the shell of cynicism that I’ve grown around myself and participate in something, not because I know it would definitely make a difference, but simply because it might.
Ego is what drives us to do anything, and that includes our engagement with social movements. It gets in the way of intersectionality so often, and the best way to keep it manageable is to acknowledge it. Acknowledge that sometimes, we say things because we want attention, in addition to our outrage; acknowledge that we like going to protests because of the social reward we might get, in addition to the difference it might make. This is the only way to keep the ego in check.
For myself, I’m going to try not to assume that other activists are as ego-driven as I am. On the night of the Darren Wilson decision, I saw a lot of rage and a lot of grief, but the solidarity was a beautiful thing, even if what caused it was horrific. If there was ego in the conversation, I didn’t let it bother me. Instead, the thoughtful things I read helped ease some of my bitterness about the world and made me want to engage more.
Ferguson is still suffering. I’m going to try to find ways to support them as much as I can in the coming weeks. And maybe this is more ego-driven than selfless, maybe I’m still pursuing some image of myself as holier-than-thou rather than doing it for the sole good of doing it. Maybe others are, too. But that’s okay. May we have the self-knowledge to be humble despite ourselves.