I often say and write things that stir up big emotions in people. It’s usually the very point of my work - to disrupt someone’s comfort and ask them to consider a different perspective. What’s challenging about that is folks often don’t know what to do with those big emotions. I wish they would do some self-reflection. I wish they would seek out additional resources and do some learning. I wish they would ask themselves why they feel upset by what I said. I wish they would take a period of time - several hours, days, weeks, months - to allow their emotions to settle so they can more rationally think about what I’ve asked them to wrestle with. I wish they would find someone they trust and have a conversation with them about it. Yet, instead of doing any of that, many people word-vomit all over me, make me the target of their feelings, and then expect me to comfort them or help them sort it out. They send me e-mails, they tag me in comments across social media, they force themselves into my life. Unfortunately for them, I have learned that it is not my responsibility to help anyone sort out their emotional baggage or their ties to systems of oppression. That is their work to do. It's only my responsibility to ask them to do the work and maybe give them some resources for doing it.
A few months ago an older white man asked me for a book recommendation on the topic of racial justice. From what little I knew about him, I thought he could first really benefit from reading and wrestling with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Unlike many people I make reading recommendations to, he actually read the book. He reached out to me when he finished it and asked if I would be willing to sit down and unpack it with him (i.e. listen to him explain all the ways he was not fragile and not privileged and validate him so that he could feel better about himself). I told him that I would prefer he find a (white) friend he could work through it with. I explained that I have my own close relationships where I am helping folks unpack things and that I just couldn’t give him the time, energy, and emotion I thought it really needed. A few days later, I ran into him at an event and he cornered me. He asked me again if I would listen to his thoughts about the book. I again told him explicitly that it wasn’t my responsibility to help him unpack his ties to white supremacy culture. He proceeded to sit down next to me and unload. I listened for as long as I could take it and then I interrupted him. I said “I’ve told you twice very explicitly that I do not want to do this work with you. It’s clear that you do not understand what you are asking me to do, that you do not value the concept of consent, and that you do not respect me”. And then I walked off. Honestly, I could tell you dozens of stories like this - folks who want me to do emotional labor that is not mine to do. Folks who think they have a right to my time and energy because they know I am passionate about particular topics and know I have spent some time unpacking my own ties to systems of oppression. Folks who want me to make them feel better by taking back what I said. Folks want a shortcut for the years I’ve spent doing this work and think I am somehow going to be a fast pass to understanding. The only way to get to where I am, still an imperfect work in progress but slightly farther along than many folks who carry a lot of privilege, is to just do the work.
If I helped every person that reached out to me asking to pick my brain. If I spent time with every person who has been disrupted by what I asked them to consider. If I helped every person who is obviously wrestling with their own shame and their own emotional baggage. If I did all of those things, I would be drained and exhausted and broke because it would be a more than full-time job that requires almost everything from me and pays me zero dollars. It is something I am willing to do with the people I love because I do feel like that’s my responsibility and privilege, but it’s not something I am willing to do with strangers or acquaintances or toxic people. What a privileged and audacious thing to ask someone you do not know to help you sort through your mess or help you to understand. And yet, we do it all the time without a second thought, particularly to people with marginalized identities.
In doing this work of unpacking our ties to systems of oppression, we have to both be mindful of who we ask to help us sort through things AND be careful who we commit to doing that work with. It is unfair to ask a person with a marginalized identity to do that work with you (unless you already have a close personal relationship with them and they are a consenting/enthusiastic participant who can bail at any time). Even then, I’d encourage you to seek alternative opportunities for self-reflection and unpacking before asking them to do that emotional labor. It is also unfair to ask a stranger or acquaintance to do that work with you. In doing so, you are asking that they give you their most precious commodities - time and mental/emotional energy. Those are not yours to demand or request or expect and personally, I am no longer freely giving my time and energy to people who have not earned the right to it.
Let me be clear - I am not saying that we should disengage from helping people unpack their ties to systems of oppression or sort through their emotional baggage. What I am saying is that we have to be careful who we do this work with. I am one person with a finite amount of time and energy. I can spend that energy fighting with a stranger on the internet who has no interest in learning OR I can spend it at a coffee shop with a close friend who is ready to unpack some stuff together. One of those is a more effective use of my time and energy than the other and that’s why I want to be more intentional.
It is okay to set boundaries. It is okay to ask people to find other more appropriate ways to do this work. It is okay to reserve your time and energy for the folks who deserve them most. If you needed permission to set those boundaries, consider this your permission.