By Paul C Gorski Equity Literacy Institute, Asheville, NC, USA and Noura Erakat School of Integrative Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
Racism, whiteness, and burnout in antiracism movements: How white racial justice activists elevate burnout in racial justice activists of color in the United States
Social movement scholars have described activist burnout—when the stressors of activism become so overwhelming they debilitate activists’ abilities to remain engaged—as a formidable threat to the sustainability of social movements. However, studies designed to map the causes of burnout have failed to account for ways burnout might operate differently for privileged-identity activists such as white antiracism activists and marginalized-identity activists such as antiracism activists of color. Building on previous studies of activist burnout in racial justice activists and examinations of the roles of white activists in antiracism movements, this study represents one attempt to fill this gap. We analyzed data from interviews with racial justice activists of color in the United States who have experienced burnout to identify the ways they attributed their burnout to the attitudes and behaviors—the racism—of white activists. These included (1) harboring unevolved or racist views, (2) undermining or invalidating the racial justice work of activists of color, (3) being unwilling to step up and take action when needed, (4) exhibiting white fragility, and (5) taking credit for participants’ racial justice work and ideas. Implications for racial justice movements and the participation of white activists are discussed. Keywords Racism, whiteness, activism, burnout, racial justice, social movements.
Racial justice activists endure a variety of stressors that could impact their abilities to remain engaged and effective in their activism. Some face violence, or threats of violence, from institutions or individuals hostile to their activism, including law enforcement officers (Davenport et al., 2011). Some experience economic vulnerability, especially if they bring their activist commitments into non-activist workplaces (Gorski, 2018). Many struggle to cope emotionally with profound levels of awareness of structural racism and its implications for communities of color (Blaisdell, 2016). Others are worn down by judgmentalism and in-fighting within activist communities (Plyler, 2006). Social movement scholars have used the term activist burnout to describe when stress associated with these conditions wreaks so much havoc on activists’ emotional or physical health that their abilities to remain effective and engaged in their activism are compromised (Chen and Gorski, 2015; Cox, 2011). More than nagging frustration or temporary weariness, activist burnout is a long-term and accumulative condition that can be mentally and physically debilitating (Maslach and Gomes, 2006). It can have dire consequences for individual activists, often forcing them to disengage from movements in which they had invested considerable portions of their lives. Equally important, it can destabilize movements, creating high rates of turnover (Rodgers, 2010) and deteriorating interactivist relationships (Plyler, 2006). Pogrebin (1994) thusly characterized activist burnout as the deterioration of the well-being of activists resulting in the deterioration of social justice movements. He and several other social movement scholars have described activist burnout as among the most formidable barriers to movement persistence and success (Cox, 2011; Pigni, 2016). Any activist can be susceptible to activism-associated stressors and, as a result, to activist burnout. However, studies on activist burnout and persistence have begun to show that their impact is not distributed equally. For example, research has shown that women activists face intensified levels of public ridicule and invalidation when compared with their male colleagues (Bernal, 2006; Norwood, 2013). Similarly, activists of color cope with intensified hostilities in response to their activism when compared with white activists, including higher levels of criminalization (Davenport et al., 2011) and general violence in response to their activism (Jacobs and Taylor, 2011). In the United States, racial justice activists of color contend with the stressors to which all activists are susceptible while also coping with the impact of structural racism in their lives and in their activism (Gorski, 2019)—an impact from which white racial justice activists are protected. In two recent studies on the causes of activist burnout in US racial justice activists, Gorski (2018, 2019) began to uncover a distinction in how activists of color and white activists characterized causes of their burnout. In those studies, based on interviews with racial justice activists who had experienced burnout, participants of color identified among many sources of burnout the way they were treated by white racial justice activists within their movements—not white people in general, but white activists—as one primary cause. They shared how they grew emotionally and physically exhausted coping with the ways white activists carried their privilege and entitlement into racial justice movements—how it deteriorated their well-being, contributing to their burnout.
Although some racial justice scholars have described ways white antiracism activists can undermine activists of color and racial justice movements in general (e.g. Jonsson, 2016; Mallett et al., 2008)—we synthesize this scholarship in the literature review—activist burnout scholars have been slow to incorporate these conditions into their scholarship. Causes of activist burnout generally have been described without consideration for how racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression operate within anti-oppression movements. In order to begin to unpack these conditions, we reexamined interviews with the 22 activists of color in the United States interviewed for Gorski’s (2018, 2019) previous studies— activists of color who have experienced activist burnout—in order to capture in greater detail how they described the role white racial justice activists played in causing their burnout. Although drawing from the same interview data, this study differs from the previous two in that (a) it focuses specifically on how activists of color attribute their burnout to the behaviors and attitudes of white activists rather than focusing, as in Gorski’s (2019) first study, on the full spectrum of burnout causes across a sample of both white activists and activists of color, and (b) it focuses on activists of color whose racial justice work spans a wide variety of contexts rather than focusing, as in Gorski’s (2018) second study, specifically on those based at institutions of higher education.
This study is contextualized in the existing literature on activist burnout—the process, according to Maslach and Gomes (2006), by which the stressors of activism become so chronic and overwhelming that “the initial ‘fire’ of enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment… ‘burn out’, leaving behind the smoldering embers of exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness” (p. 43). More specifically, it emerges from the body of activist burnout scholarship in which scholars detail common burnout causes. Research on burnout in racial justice activists is thin. However, the causes of burnout identified through that research have been largely consistent with causes identified in studies of peace (Pines, 1994), feminist (Barry and Dordevic, 2007), educational justice (Gorski and Chen, 2015), and other social justice activists. These causes generally revolve around three burnout cause categories: (1) internal causes associated with the pressure activists put on themselves due to deep levels of commitment to social causes (Lowan-Trudeau, 2016; Pines, 1994), (2) external causes associated with retaliatory repercussions of challenging institutionalized power and structural injustice (Jones, 2007; Pigni, 2013), and (3) within-movement causes associated with how activists treat one another and how activists are treated by social movement organizations (Plyler, 2006; Rettig, 2006). Unfortunately, as stated earlier, activist burnout scholarship has failed to account for what Gorski’s (2018, 2019) previous studies began to show constitute one cause of burnout in racial justice activists of color: coping with the attitudes and behaviors of white racial justice activists. As such, we adopted a grounded theory approach. We examined interview data gathered from activists of color who have experienced burnout in order to develop new insights, through their stories, about the nature of activist burnout. Embracing conceptualizations of “activists” used in previous activist burnout studies (Gorski and Chen, 2015; Pines, 1994), “racial justice activists” and “antiracism activists” in this study are people who identify antiracism activism as their primary lifework. Following Szymanski’s (2012) study on the experiences of racial justice activists, “activism” is action taken to effect social or political change. Although a small number of participants worked full time for racial justice organizations, most participated in their activism outside their non-activist jobs (see Table 1 for a summary of participant identities and areas of activist focus).
Paul is a white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class man who has been a racial and economic justice activist for nearly 25 years. He has never experienced fullfledged activist burnout, but he has experienced and observed conditions that often are associated with it. He feels particularly connected to this issue due to his role as a mentor to young activists, predominantly women of color—a role he has played as a professor teaching social justice-oriented courses and as a community activist. He recognizes that his privileged identities can make it difficult for him to recognize and understand the nuances described by participants of this study.
Noura is a Palestinian-American, cisgender, middle-class woman, with the benefit of higher education and fluency in two languages. She has been active in social justice movements in the United States and the Middle East for two decades in her capacity as a student activist, a community organizer, an employee of a national advocacy organization, and a human rights attorney. Most recently, her move to the academy has given her a comfortable distance from which to observe movement work and become involved in her capacity as a scholar-activist. She has experienced activist burnout at least three times over the course of her involvement in movement work. She is aware of her privileges as well as the risk of over-identifying with the participants and projecting her experiences onto their narratives.
This study is situated at the nexus of two primary knowledge bases. The first, drawn from the larger literature on activist burnout, is scholarship on its causes—especially the within-movement causes related to how activists treat one another. The second is the thin, but growing, scholarship on the attitudes and behaviors of white racial justice activists and their implications for activists of color.
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