I used to be scared of speaking in front of people. It was my second greatest fear throughout most of my childhood, awkward adolescence, and beyond. Basically, I was afraid of being seen and heard at the same time – afraid of my insecurities showing and my mind going blank. In my head, that and my house catching on fire were about equally as frightening…
I wondered what would happen if I had something really important to say later in life. Would I have the guts to say it? Or would I sit still and keep quiet…
For the most part, I’ve kept quiet. I’ve made myself busy with school and work, minding my own business, and participating in social justice efforts when it fits with my schedule. I have shied away from initiating difficult conversations about injustice when sensing that it might be perceived negatively and I have been more inclined to raise my concerns individually than to bring them up in groups when the spotlight might shine uncomfortably on me.
When I told a white acquaintance the other day I was going to join a march on Martin Luther King Day to call for respect for human rights in Philadelphia, she asked: “How long have you been an activist?”
My first reaction was disappointment. I keep hoping that fellow people of privilege see how critical and urgent it is to work towards justice and equality for all, instead of seeing that as the personal business of “activists” and marginalized groups.
And my second thought was that showing up at a march doesn’t make one an activist. Real activists are the multitudes of people who work tirelessly to organize and implement programs and movements in their communities, in universities, in health care, and in grassroots political settings; to be dissenting voices in dominating groups and speak up over and over again against injustice; and who risk their jobs, health, and lives while disobeying civilly and taking to the streets when nothing else seems to work.
Going to an organized march is an easy gesture of solidarity. Being a real ally requires some real effort.
By entering their field of work, psychologists and other mental health professionals have signed up to promote health and wellbeing. That cannot be done without challenging the forces that corrode quality of life. Poverty and racism won’t be eradicated through individual counseling, research papers in academic journals, and poster presentations. Perhaps we’d like to think so, but really… it’s not happening.
And at the end of the day, speaking up for what is right is not about me. It is about lending my voice to what needs to be said. Being uncomfortable is no excuse.