Words: Soumia Serhani (She/Her)
Photograph: Amber Charlton (She/Her)
SJW. Social Justice Warrior. If I had a pound for every time I was called one, I would be rich enough to deign not to care about the social issues I spend so much time worrying about. There is a certain social stigma that comes with this label. ‘No fun at parties’. ‘Always bashing on about something’. ‘Over-sensitive’. It can be difficult to be the only person in the room who consistently gives a fuck but, alas, someone has to do it. But what happens when these labels become too much? What happens when the constant drizzle of negative news and nobody caring leads you to believe that being an SJW just drains you? This, my friends, is Activism Burnout.
I consider myself an activist. I care about social issues and regularly try to make my voice heard in any way that I can; whether it be an interview about my race or an argument with someone ignorant on a night out. I don’t believe that there is any one way to be an activist, so long as you are strong within your beliefs, and you have a true desire to help others. Usually, the passion you feel about these issues will inspire you and give you the kick that you need to go head to head with those with whom you disagree. In my younger years, I was constantly calling people out and making my voice heard. I enjoyed doing my part for a cause greater than myself, by trying to educate those around me on subjects like racism and classism. While at the time I felt powerful, I didn’t realise the negative impact these discussions were having on my mental health. There were a lot of occasions where people would tell me to be quiet, or to shut up. Hearing racist opinions disguised as debate was very harmful for me, and I began to struggle to argue against them without crying. In my case, activism burnout manifested itself in a few different ways. Where I was once keen to discuss at length the issues that I was angry or upset about, I began to feel drained and tired whenever they were brought up. I was only able to have conversations about these things with people that I knew and trusted, and I struggled to speak to others, even if I knew the conversation could be harmless. I would lie awake at night, scrolling endlessly through Twitter, with every refresh providing me with swarms of new cases of injustice from across the world. I felt like no matter what I did, I could not make an impact that would actually change any of the issues that I cared so much about. This is difficult for any activist; I find that our opinions on these things we are passionate about are such a huge part of who we are, and for me, burnout felt like a genuine loss of one of the most important parts of myself.
So, how did I overcome it? I reminded myself daily that every small action that I took was part of something bigger than myself. I thought back on times that I felt like I had won, and people who I had helped to educate on important issues by sharing my story. I surrounded myself with people who echoed my beliefs and I created a strong support system, so that when I did feel the burnout creeping back in, I always had a shoulder to cry on. I may not be making televised speeches, or changing the minds of any of the racists down at the pub, but knowing that I hold my beliefs firmly and that I have something important to care about is enough for me.
The beliefs that I have are carried with me throughout my day to day life, they cannot simply be cast aside and forgotten about. If I find out someone is a Tory, I cannot simply ignore it and get to know them despite the fact. These are people who actively seek to destroy communities that I care about and that I am part of. If someone spit on you, you would no longer wish to be their friend. So why should I give time to someone who spits on my people? People who are not marginalised have the privilege of deciding when they should care about social issues, and when they can’t be bothered with it. Marginalised community members have no such novelty. True burnout comes when you spend every minute trying to find and make space for yourself in a society that does not support you. Burnout comes as you lie in bed at night, tossing and turning; imagining what your life would be like if you didn’t have to fight for your right to exist against generational hatred that never seems to end.
As a young woman of colour in a predominantly white country, I wonder who it is that they want to be angry about these issues. It feels almost as if it’s my birth right, and if people want me to keep quiet about these problems; then who do they want to speak up? The answer that I keep circling back to is that they don’t want anyone to talk about these things, which is all the more reason for us to speak up. I have felt the pain of being lost within the same dreary news cycle of loss after loss, tragedy after tragedy and that perpetual feeling that nothing you can do will ever make a difference. It is vitally important that we keep powering through. Look back at the world twenty years ago and wonder where we would be now, if all the SJWs who felt lost within their dreams for a better world had given up. Every single one of us who imagines a brighter future are vitally important to the cause, whether we feel like it or not. So, correct your friends. Tell that guy you’ve been seeing that you don’t appreciate his opinions – and don’t care if he doesn’t want to see you again afterwards. Every small step you take will lead us all to a happier place. So, call us party poopers. Tell us we are unintelligent because we never want to hear the other side of the debate. Ask us if you can play devil’s advocate as we talk about real problems that impact real people. We don’t care. In my opinion, the best thing a person can be is an SJW – because if there are enough of us, the world can truly make a change for the better.