02/06/2013 05:38 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Oppressed (Wo)Man's Burden

As an advocate for a variety of social justice issues, I am consistently in conversation with those who are ignorant of their participation in the perpetuation of oppression. Very recently, I've noticed a pattern among many of these conversations: after being introduced to their role(s) in oppression, the oppressors charge me with the responsibility of continuously showing up in their spaces in order to delineate my concerns further. If/when I don't show up in those spaces, my absence is interpreted as apathy; and, I am accused of neglecting to seize the opportunity to voice my concern. When I welcome the oppressors to my space in order to self-educate, they imagine what takes place in my space, decide not to come, and accuse me and the minority group I'm representing of hypocrisy because they expect to feel excluded. They then recommend that my space be more inclusive of them; then, maybe they can be present. In the meantime, I am expected to show up in their spaces again and again if I ever want them to care.

Herein lies Oppressed (Wo)Man's Burden: Not only are we naturally accountable to the internal wellbeing of our respective communities, but we are also expected to continuously show up in the oppressor's space each and every time we'd like our communities' needs to be heard. To make things even more complex, efforts toward tending to our respective communities are often thwarted by the egotism of those whose privilege is maintained by our oppression. We are encouraged to claim a closet in the Master's house -- the very house we've helped to build -- whisper gently about our oppressions, and cross our fingers in the hopes that He will one day hear us and actually care; hence, leaving no time or energy for us to build houses of our own.

The knee-jerk reaction to these expectations by dedicated social justice activists is simple acquiescence -- we suck it up and do what we need to do for our respective communities. Even if it means not showing up fully in other areas of life, we try our best to manage each of our responsibilities. Furthermore, when we don't fulfill the expectation that we show up in the oppressor's space constantly, we tend to feel guilty. We internalize the very shame they impose upon us as they maintain irresponsibility with regard to understanding our oppressions. So, White people remain not responsible for having a deep knowledge of Black history; heterosexuals remain not responsible for attending gay-straight alliance meetings; and men remain not responsible for picking up a bell hooks book. Instead, the onus falls solely and completely on us -- the oppressed -- to educate them at every turn. But what are the ramifications of this responsibility? (Further oppression!) Isn't oppression perpetuated as I submit to the thought that the only way the oppressors will care about my oppression is if I show up in their spaces and beg them to care about it? (Yes!) When does it become partly their responsibility to educate themselves about my needs and to meet them accordingly? (Never -- at this rate!)

This essay is for my bruthas, sistaz, and bristas in the movement with swollen feet and aching hearts; it's for my fellow activists with sore throats and throbbing temples; it's for my partners in justice with tired eyes and upside down smiles. You are not Hercules -- and, you don't have to be! The responsibility you have to ending your oppression should be complimented by your oppressors' responsibility to learn about their role(s) in it. So, don't expend all of your energy trying to make someone a believer! Don't feel stressed about trying to impress the oppressor! Distribute copies of "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," tell your friends to watch "Tongues Untied," recommend a local museum, and utilize the energy that you've saved to care for yourself and your community so that you may be at your best to fight the good fight when the necessary occasions arise. And, when the apparent -- but fictive -- unproductive nature of self-care causes you to feel guilty for focusing on yourself or the internal uplift of your community, remember this Audre Lorde quote: "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation; and, that is an act of political warfare." Curate your space with only you in mind. This refusal to accept the egotistical wants of the oppressing party helps to eradicate oppression in important ways. The world becomes so much less oppressive as, after accepting the responsibility to consciously self-educate about our oppression, men, White people, heterosexuals, rich people, and all other oppressing parties realize that everything ain't always about them and it doesn't always have to be. So, in accordance with making this dream come true, stay well and be still because you're human.