Dred Feminist Rant #9: Ritualizing Social Justice
I just left yet another meeting that was supposed to be about envisioning what the future could look like for the social justice movement to plan a series of programs to address some pressing issues of the day. Things like white supremacy, the destruction of democracy, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo hashtag, the attacks on immigrants, the transfer of wealth to the 1%, the new Poor People’s Campaign. You know, those things I expect are important to human rights activists in the U.S.
I left the meeting angry instead of energized because ritualized performances have been increasingly substituted for the hard and challenging work of taking on ways people are killed, brutalized and devalued around the world because of plunder capitalism. What do I mean by ritualized social justice?
Too much precious social justice space gets sucked down into the black holes of performance rituals – breathing exercises, calibrated movements, naming which revolutionary martyr we’re calling into the room, ringing bells, lighting incense or sage, worshiping altars, coloring pictures, posting phrases on newsprint that say how we feel, etc. I really don’t have a problem with rituals, per se. I call on my ancestors and pour libations in the fervent spirit of Sankofa, understanding that we’re all connected in a timeless human chain of existence. Rituals for self-care have their place in politics and organizing, but they are no substitute for action, no more than prayer at church substitutes for taking responsibility for one’s choices. Lately, these rituals have not been limited to the first few minutes of the meeting. They have swollen to take up most of the time people are together, so that the hard work of organizing gets short-changed, and yet everyone leaves congratulating themselves on how they’ve passionately contributed to movement building.
I’m calling bullshit!
It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s people of color or white activists who facilitate and host the meetings. There’s a prevalent culture in which pseudo-yoga practices and bad artistic offerings are legitimized as viable substitutes for engaging in the difficult work of learning to struggle together and develop an outcome-based participatory process for creating social change and delivering undivided justice. Instead, the only outcome I’m witnessing is the self-congratulatory smugness of liberal activists mis-using radical language to hide their deflection from serious engagement. This is neo-liberalism contaminating what should be radical, change-making activism that speaks truth to power, not namastes to each other.
What is not occurring is any serious self-criticism and commitment to improvement that moves the needle on how we can work better together to understand the nature of the global proto-fascist threat we’re facing. We are not developing visionary, pro-active strategies or practices to build an effective human rights movement. Moreover, so-called activists and leaders in the Global North also impose these terrible rituals around the world and call it “development,” forcing people in the Global South to endure their performances because their vulnerable dependence on the good will of the northern donors are the difference between life and death. To dance this waltz of political malpractice, let’s ignore how we are all fortifying the very systems of oppression we claim to oppose with our brain-numbing self-indulgences.
Today’s two-hour meeting was an example of too many settings I’ve endured while hoping that this time would be different. First, we went around introducing ourselves, our gender pronouns, calling into the room a revered martyr, and saying what we hoped the meeting would accomplish. Since there were 20 of us, that took about 25 minutes. Then we were instructed to drum our feet on the floor to create a rhythmic energy, punctuated by someone ringing a bell to tell us when to stop and begin. After that, we did a wave – yes, a wave like they do in football stadiums – to engage our bodies in motion to prepare us for using our intellects. Next was the passing out of post-it notes, so that we could write two or three phrases and paste them on newsprint that described our vision for the future. But before we could do that, we were told to close our eyes and envision 100 years into the future, and tell a little girl walking through grass what our present (her past) looked like, and how we overcame this terrible moment.
By then a full hour of the two-hour meeting had dissipated. When the facilitators pulled out the post-it notes, I’d had enough and frankly, let my anger show as I interrupted this process. I first started off by saying I wanted to be heard, not read. Maybe that was my ego talking, but how could I trust that people who don’t know how to effectively manage a planning meeting can effectively produce a political program I would not be ashamed to invite others to? How can we build a movement without talking to each other, debating ideas, making mistakes and learning from them? Can we chant a new world into being? I'm not a political Buddhist monk and I bet no one else in that room was either.
Then I pointed out that 20 people had carved time out from their busy Saturdays trusting that their time would be productively used. Instead, a full hour had been consumed without any dialogue amongst each other, no articulation of what we hoped to accomplish together, and frankly, no earthly idea of how to move from point A to point B. Somehow, through our post-it notes to be read out by the facilitator, a plan would emerge that could help us figure out how to organize the programs we were promising to produce. Talk about magical thinking!
I’d be tempted to blame this waste of a perfectly good Saturday afternoon on just bad facilitation, but this has happened so frequently in social justice spaces recently, I believe it’s a pandemic of performance activism masquerading as constructive organizing. I’ve been in spaces of predominantly people of color who spent hours burning sage, calling on ancestors, constructing and building altars, line dancing, standing in circles offering one-word praises, exercising in our seats, and frankly, listening to bad slam poetry shouted at me, all being called “doing the work.” One time, a Soul Train dance line took up nearly two hours of time at a meeting that cost tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor. While everyone does have a story to tell, doesn’t anyone recognize that every mouth doesn’t deserve a mic?
And when the spaces are run by white people claiming to do social justice work, it doesn’t get any better. They are so afraid of being called racist (or homophobic, transphobic, or whatever), they just meekly follow any inane instruction to perform as if they are in kindergarten and told they must color within the lines. They are not self-reflective enough to understand why people who really do the hard work of community organizing, crossing borders, smuggling health care drugs to save lives, door-knocking among apathetic neighbors, stealing educations for our children, calling out elected officials and cops, and getting Black people to vote to save white folks from themselves, have no time for pretending we can solve our collective problems by ritualized practices that may be better suited for a mountain-top retreat chanting to become one with the universe. No wonder people died in that fake sweat lodge!
In some ways, this is just cultural appropriation run amok. In other ways, these are dangerous practices that suck up energy, time, resources, money, and importantly, trust. How can anyone who’s life is in danger take us seriously when we spend our time as social justice dilettantes?
Get our martyrs’ names out your mouths. You are not honoring them with this bullshit, but pimping them so that you feel better about the risks you are not taking, the trust you are not earning, the sacrifices you are not making, Instead, try actually engaging with other human beings -- even those who are not part of the social justice movement -- to solve our common differences. Many of us need to "get our families" rather than getting on my nerves!
C’mon. We can do better. Yes, we need to make the revolution fun. Yes, we need to lighten up and enjoy being alive and together, and conscious enough to engage in principled struggle for justice and human rights. Yes, we need self-care but not self-indulgence. But don’t invite me to the meeting to demonstrate how woke you are by ringing bells, dancing away your oppressions, and filling the room with smoke and colored paper. I have better ways to party, and I don’t confuse that with political activism. I want to honor the time people entrust to me, not fritter it away because people can’t organize their way out of handcuffs made of toilet paper.