Let’s Talk About Social Justice

I learned about social justice during my senior year at NYU.

Before then, I knew about racism, sexism, and homophobia. These things were bad and I was against them completely. I knew that white supremacy and white privilege existed, and white folks historically enjoyed benefits in nearly all aspects of their lives solely based on their skin color. This was unfair and infuriating at times. And I knew that because of white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia, other people got the shit-end of the stick because of their skin color or gender or sexual orientation or religious affiliation. Yes, I knew these things, but I did not understand them or how to contextualize them.

But during my senior year at NYU, I was able to connect all of those things together and name them as social justice issues. I took a class called Lyrics on Lockdown, where we discussed how the systems of power and oppression work in the U.S. as they relate to the prison industrial complex. We learned about how race, gender, and class often intersect, and that you really can’t address one without placing it within the context of the others. We had difficult conversations where we reflected on our own privilege, experiences, and identities. And then we designed arts-based workshops based on what we learned and discussed for the incarcerated youth at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility. We facilitated four workshops with about 30 young men at Riker’s Island. We made sure we our workshops upheld their whole identities and stories, without reducing them to the stigma of being “criminals.” To this day, Lyrics on Lockdown is one of the best, most rewarding, and most difficult experiences I’ve ever had. 

It was a catalyst.

Since then, I have held social justice close to my heart. Social justice has provided the principles for how to live my life in ways that make sense. Social justice asks the hard questions that I often don’t have the answers to, but it makes me mindful of my own thoughts, actions, and behaviors. It has taught me to be more patient. It has taught me to be more compassionate and open-minded. It has taught me to be deliberate with my language and intentions, as best as I can. It has taught me that we all come up short. It has taught me that the world is complex—and so are people who live in it—and everything is interconnected. It has taught me that learning and liberation are interdependent, life-long processes, and I’m an asshole if I ever believe any different. And more than anything, it has taught me that I have a lot to be grateful for… but I also have a lot to be angry about.

It is easy for us believers in social justice to never move beyond the point of our anger. We are content to talk, because open dialogue is important when it comes to addressing issues of oppression. We are content to call out people who are not being their social justice-y best, even though we know damn well we all perpetuate oppression in some way or another. And we are content to be mad and stay mad and let everyone else know we’re mad. Yes, I believe anger is natural and deserves to be expressed. I also believe anger is an important part of the healing process. (And so much of social justice is about healing and rectifying what has harmed us.) But also, anger is an emotion. Anger is not an action, and it is not a plan. Being angry is not a way to be of service to the world. 

These days, I have a hard time calling myself a “social justice activist,” because that seems disingenuous. For me to say that I am an activist would imply that I am in the regular practice of doing something concrete with this knowledge and anger I have. But most days, I am just angry… and comfortable. I am angry, because I know the world is an unfair place—made unfair by systems of power that only work if they dehumanize and make invisible real people and their experiences. But I am comfortable, because I know that I will never experience most forms of this dehumanization. I know this because I am an upper-middle class, educated, U.S.-born citizen who grew up in one of the wealthiest states. I do not encounter most forms of oppression in my day-to-day life. Because I am perceived as heterosexual, I am fine. Because I am assumed to be Christian, I am fine. Because I am cisgendered and able-bodied, I am fine. Yes, I am Black. Yes, I am Woman. Yes, I am fat. But the way my privilege is set up and intersects, it acts as a buffer to any real hostility or violence I would encounter otherwise. For me, oppression is experienced as a few moments of annoyance throughout my day. It is the white girl who crosses the street when she sees me walking behind her. It is the stares I get because my hair is big and curly and in its natural state. It is when strangers make assumptions about me, because my body is large and I take up a lot of space.

But I know my home is never going to be bombed and my entire family killed. I will never be persecuted for my religious beliefs. I will never have to keep my love locked away, hidden in shame. I will never have to worry about how I will keep my lights on or the water running or where my next meal will come from. I know my body may be an inconvenience to some, or an object to others—but it will never be seen as criminal, dangerous, worthy of eradication. This knowledge, this safety is something my privilege affords me. And so, I get to be comfortable. I get to be angry from a distance. I get to post my Facebook updates and make my witty remarks, and feel good about myself. 

That is not activism. That is not action. That is not social justice.

When I was leading youth development programs, it was easier to call myself an activist. For so many, education is a means to liberation. I know that my education is why I’m seen as one specific type of Black, and not another. So, when I was teaching youth about reproductive health through a social justice framework, it was easy to call myself an activist. It was easy to feel good about what I did, what contributions I was making to the world. Now that I am not currently working with youth, it is much harder to feel like I’m really doing something. 

But in not doing, I have a lot of time to observe. And what I’ve observed is, a lot of my friends ain’t really about that social justice life either. Do they care about the issues? Yes, of course. But many of them are content with sharing posts and commenting… and not much else. I don’t see solutions. I don’t even see deliberate articulation of why they are upset or what they want from the world. And it bothers me, because they are not being critical. They are perpetuating the violence. They are making it easy to see these images of dead Black men in the street, hear these stories of Black women being murdered, and continuing on with our day without doing anything to prevent the next death. And I wonder if they understand. 

To be fair, It is easy to not understand it. Our world really does have a sickness. It is easy these days to devalue human life, to believe that so-and-so over there does not deserve the same compassion, decency, or rights as you do because they are not like you. It is easy to accept violence as the norm, and to answer the violence with more violence. It is easy to be disconnected from our humanity, because technology has changed our definition of what it means to be “connected.” But at some point, we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to hold up the mirror and look harder, deeper. We have to accept that our anger has limits, and our anger does not move. We have to recognize that there is still more to this life and this world and our humanity.

At some point, we have to recognize that there is also still joy to be found in the world. There is love. There is progress. There are victories. We have to move beyond anger, because anger is not always the most productive state to act from. As a matter of fact, I think anger works in pretty destructive ways. 

And isn’t social justice all about building something better?

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What I’ve Learned From Unemployment Thus Far

I have been unemployed for two months now.

I would really, really, really like to be somebody’s full-time, decently-paid employee by October 1st. This shit is just bad for my mental health. Also, between working from home part-time and unemployment, I have abused my Netflix account. I need a purpose to leave my house everyday, that’s not grocery shopping on late weekday mornings, like a housewife.

I do not pretend to be good at this unemployment thing. As a matter of fact, I’m probably horrible at it. My room is not clean, nor is my closet organized. I haven’t taken advantage of all this extra time to go to the gym daily. As a matter of fact, I went to the gym more when I was holding down a full-time job. (I still pay for a monthly gym membership, though, mind you. I’ve used it once in the the past 18 months.) I haven’t reached nirvana or practiced gratitude. I do write more often, but who knows if it’s any good? 

However, I hope that I will be someone’s full-time employee one day. And more than that, I hope to be someone’s staff writer, with a decent following. And then maybe, these lessons learned will help someone else stuck in my shoes. You know, someone who is fairly impressive for their age, but is in-between “purposes” right now and doesn’t always feel the most confident in his/her/their abilities.

Anyways…

1. Whatever you do, DO NOT look for jobs when you’re feeling depressed or self-conscious. Now, granted, I usually feel some mixture of depressed/self-conscious… but it’s more prevalent at certain times/days. Also, being unemployed can be rather depressing all by itself. Still, if you’re just really down in the dumps about yourself or life or job prospects, do not apply for things. You will either (a) hate every posting you see; (b) talk yourself out of applying for postings that you’re a match for; and/or (c) let that negativity seep into your cover letter writing/job applying process. 

2. Force yourself to leave your house and do fun things. I have gotten into the habit of staying at home. My reasoning is that if I’m at home, I will actually be more productive. And also, I will prevent myself from spending money I don’t have. This is somewhat true. But also, being at home all the time isn’t all that enjoyable. After a while, I get bored. And then I surpass boredom and dive straight into melancholy. Losing your job doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself in the house all the time. Go outside. Take walks. Find free shit to do. Scrape pennies to buy coffee, so you can then go to a café and get work done. 

3. Ask for help when you need it. I’m really bad at this one. But as I move into my third month of being unemployed, I know I will indeed need to get the f*** over it. Hunting for a job can be really shitty, especially when you do not currently have one. After a while, it stops feeling like an opportunity; it feels like torture. And if you’re like me, you’re constantly reading articles like, “Your Resume Sucks! Here Are 8,562 Vague Ways to Get It Not to Suck!” These articles can do more harm than good. In those moments, you need to reach out to real people for help. Have friends, family members, mentors, and colleagues look over your resume and cover letter. Ask them if they know of any companies that are hiring that you would be a good fit for

4. Figure out other productive things to do with your time that also showcase your skills. I write. And I adore social media. Sometimes, it feels like a rather masturbatory practice. Sometimes, it seems like something worthy I do with my time. Either way, I am hoping to be employed as a writer or editor someday, hopefully for a digital media company. So in the meantime, I need to be honing my skills and getting my work out there. Figure out what your thing is and do it. You can also learn new skills. I keep telling myself I will sign up for one of those free skill-sharing classes and legitimately learn graphic or web design. But for now, I open up Abobe Illustrator once a month and practice drawing shapes.

5. Try a new technique. With technology and the Internet, it’s pretty easy to just send out your resume and cover letter by email, feel good about yourself, and then just twiddle your thumbs as you wait for the job offers to roll in. Or maybe it’s just me who does this. But I’m realizing, everyone else and their mom is also employing (no pun intended) this same tactic. So maybe, you need to go the extra mile, especially if those job offers do not roll in. The Internet is great and all and I love it so much, but it’s also made it a lot easier for people to remain anonymous. You are not a real person anymore, you are the 107th email that HR person has received today.

6. For the love of all things holy, stop doubting yourself! You may be unemployed, but you are not a worthless individual. You have skills and experience that people need. You are talented and smart. You can put together nice outfits and have perfected your firm handshake. Stay faithful, remain confident. Do not talk yourself out of applying for jobs, just because you’ve applied to 20 thus far… and no one has emailed you back. They’re dumb. They would be so lucky to have you drink their free coffee every morning. Someone else will realize this and beg you to come work for them. Just be patient. 

Stop Asking Me About My Dating Life, Damn It!

Yesterday, I called my aunt because I had a question about unemployment benefits.

Before, I tell this story, I feel that I should keep it 100 about where I was mentally/emotionally. Yesterday, I had no interest in dealing with people. I got into an argument about privilege with one of my closest friends, and then told her I didn’t want to talk with her. As a social justice “activist”, I know this is the incorrect response when someone is telling me to check my own privilege. But in all honesty, I just wasn’t in the mood to hear that shit. Especially when I’m talking about pushy white women with too much money and not enough respect for other people. Don’t make this about me! Anyways, I digress…

I just came back home from my road trip on Thursday afternoon, in which I spent over 17 days straight with one other human being. That never happens. I live at home with my mother, and I still don’t spend days with another person. I’m pretty sure yesterday was one of those days when I just really needed to “be by myself,” but my iPhone was acting a damn fool and my car was hella dirty and my mother doesn’t buy real food anymore. So I had beaucoup errands to run. And then California EDD through me a curve ball. And also, I’m a grown-up and a human being, and sometimes I just can’t get out of interacting with other human beings. 

So, yeah… I’m not in the proper emotional/mental space to have legitimate interactions with other people. But I had a question about why the EDD does whatever they do, and I knew my aunt was the only person who could answer it. Thus, I called her up.

As I never call her—or anyone, for that matter—she was both surprised and happy to hear from me. We chit-chatted about life. I told her a little bit about my road trip and looking for a job. She told me that she was going on vacation to Fiji in a few days. If I was a normal human being with well-developed social skills, I probably would’ve invested more time into the conversation. I should have. My aunt is fun. And she’s always been there for me. And I don’t see her or speak to her as often as I should. But did I mention that yesterday was not the day for me to be talking to people, especially people I actually care about?

After she had answered my question about unemployment benefits, she swiftly changed the subject: So, have you met anyone?

And this is where I got real defensive, real fast…

I hate when people ask me about my dating life. Like, I find it incredibly annoying and frustrating for a myriad of reasons. First, I really don’t think it’s anyone’s business who or when or if I’m dating. As a matter of fact, I typically don’t ask other people about their dating life. Because I don’t care. If I have friends who are in serious, long-term relationships, then I will ask them about their partner. But if you’re single, I don’t give a shit. I’m single too. I know what singledom is like. Can we talk about Beyoncé or cats or war or something?

Second, most people are not aware that at this point, I’m pretty sure I’m suffering from some kind of PTSD brought on by how my last (and only thus far) “relationship” ended, which also probably has a lot to do with my parents’ divorce. I get it. I’m 25. I should be over it right now. I need to do some emotional healing and eradicate all my baggage. Blah, blah, blah. We all have our shit and it all stinks. My shit is this and I’m dealing with it the best way I know how.

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get it by now. And also, I’m sure I sound like a bitter, old shrew. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the world tunes you out if they think you’re bitter. Suddenly, it’s not about my past experiences or the things I’m trying to heal from. I’m just bitter and angry, and no one wants to hear about that.

So, yes, I’m having this conversation with her. A conversation that I really do not want to be having. And in the awkward silences, I can almost hear her thoughts. I know she’s judging me, but trying her best not to. I know she’s thinking that I should probably “get back out there”. She suggests online dating. I tell her I’ve been there, done that. And this is especially why I hate having these conversations. Because then it becomes about the other person trying to “fix” me. My single-ness is a problem, and they are here to solve it. But I didn’t ask for it to be solved. I didn’t even bring up this topic. 

And in the rare occasion when I do bring it up, people stop hearing me. Or if I actually engage in the conversation and admit to being lonely, then everyone is telling me, “Oh, well, you shouldn’t care! Live your life! There’s more to do with yourself than date and obsess over guys!” Um, what? That’s what I’ve been saying. What do you want from me?!

I think she finally caught on that this wasn’t a topic I was willing to discuss and we moved onto something else briefly before hanging up. 

All of this to say, I never intended to be that weird girl who doesn’t date. In some ways, I am sure people find my will power to avoid dating situations to be somewhat incredible. It’s an anti-superpower. Instead of stopping time or flying, I can repel men and their advances really well! Yay, me! And in a way, I think it’s rather impressive as well. But I’m not stupid. I know it’s a sign that something is off-kilter, that I will need to address this off-kilter thing soon. Because I have been keeping people at a distance for so long, I don’t remember what it is like to be vulnerable with someone. 

But I am the only person who can decide when I will be ready to take on that process and have those conversations. In the meantime, I need people to leave me the hell alone and stop inquiring about my personal life. Besides, I post everything on Facebook anyways. If I had a man, you would know it. I would wear T-shirts and put out press releases, OK?

Let me be single in peace.

I Find It Hard to Say

This has been a crazy two weeks.

I have been trying to find the words to say what needs to be said, but nothing seems sufficient. All my words seem trite, clichéd, small in comparison to the stories they want to tell.

In these moments, I feel less like a writer than a angst-ridden teenaged girl with a neglected diary.

Last night, my homegirl and I completed our road trip. We left Los Angeles two weeks ago today, heading up to Oakland for the National Poetry Slam. In total, we traveled over 3,600 miles and to eight cities. We’ve settled in New Jersey, where she’ll be staying until she finds an apartment in the City.

I feel this strange sense of achievement. I, Michelle Denise Jackson, went on a cross-country road trip. Me, the girl who everyone knows as The Girl Who Can’t Drive. Me, who is bougie and spoiled, spent two weeks on the road. I ate Doritos and turkey jerky for dinner. I peed in more gas station restrooms than I ever thought I would. I have been inside one too many Wal-Mart Supercenters, all in celebration of The Open Road and the U.S. of A.

Yes, I may be unemployed. Yes, I may be eating through my savings. No, I have no idea what I’d like to do with my life. But none of that matters. You can’t tell me shit, because I drove across country! Across the Midwest. *Celebratory twerking*

It’s funny. When I tell people that I’ve been on a road trip, the first thing they say is, “Oh, I want to hear all about your wild adventures!” And then I just allow the awkward pause to come. We didn’t have any wild adventures. From TV, young twentysomething girls on road trips are expected to have “adventures”. But (a) driving all goddamn day is exhausting; and (b) we were two Black women driving through predominantly white Middle America. To have a “wild adventure” would’ve meant being reckless with our lives. No, thank you!

But in all seriousness, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri over a week ago. We were still in Oakland then. We have spent most of this trip feeling Black more than anything else, in the context of his execution and the protesting. And so, what a privilege it might have been to walk into local bars and flirt with the townie patrons. Or to take detours. But we spent most of our time wanting to get to the next hotel or family friend’s house. We spent most of our time hoping that the stares and awkward interactions at fast food restaurants and gas stations in small towns off the highway wouldn’t escalate into anything more hostile, “Othering”.

Last night, we made another Wal-Mart run after we got to our final destination here in New Jersey. (I never want to step foot into another Wal- Mart again.) And I felt strangely at home. I have only been to New Jersey once before in my life. But for the first time in Oakland, it was true Diversity! Melting pot type shit! White folks! Black folks! Latino folks that looked like Black folks! Middle Eastern folks! Indian folks! Not a sprinkling of brown skin, either. True diversity! I was so grateful.

So, yes, I’ve spent the last week of my life feeling so Black, it was disorienting. I was Black before anything else, it felt like. Even before human. And I can’t wait to go into New York today and feel more whole person. And I can’t wait to go back home to LA and just be myself again. Always Black, but a lot of other things too.

I remember writing that this road trip was necessary, that I knew it would open me up. And while it was much less Disney Magic transformation than I wrote it to be, it did give me a lot of perspective.

I have realized that my health really matters to me. I don’t want it to be some outside thing I write about for a month or so, and then I go back to eating my shitty comfort food. At some point, I’m going to have to be Very Serious about taking care of myself.

I have realized how much I want to be a writer, but also how much I would like to live comfortably. In Denver, I started reading this book of essays, Goodbye to All That. It’s a group of women writers writing about falling in and out of love with New York, and eventually leaving the City. I’ve been wanting to read it for a while now. My romanticized, idealized notion of being a writer in New York is slowly fading away to the truth of being a writer, one who may not live in New York anytime soon.

Being a writer means writing everyday. Not writing tweets and status updates, but actually working to complete projects. Exercising the muscle. But being a writer also means having a day job, so I can pay my bills. Being a writer means finding balance and being patient and growing up a little bit.

And so, I am anxious to go home. One, because as much as I kind of hate it sometimes, Los Angeles really is home. For the time being at least. I will always love New York more. And then the Bay Area after that. And then I will have romantic dreams about Paris, because it’s Paris. But I am a Southern California girl, a wildflower who kind of resembles a weed. And so, until there is something real pulling me away from LA… I have to be there.

I am anxious to start production on my web series. I am anxious to find a real job. A full-time job that I won’t hate, with benefits and accrued paid time off.

I have realized (again and again) that I keep waiting for something big to happen, for my life to start. My real life, where I’m all grown up and a writer. I want to go to graduate school, but I haven’t been able to figure out what programs to apply to. I want to move to the Bay Area or New York, but I have no real job prospects. I want to be a “full-time writer,” but I haven’t put in the work to get to that point. And many of the writers I love and admire aren’t even full-time writers themselves.

Instead, I should just find a way to do the things I love doing NOW. I should find a way to be happy NOW.

Duh.

On the Verge

I am a person ruled by my emotions. My family’s favorite pastime is to remind me how “sensitive” I am.

As I’ve grown (and continue to grow) into adulthood, I have had to figure out a way to exist that both honors my emotional intelligence and allows me to move beyond it. Within the past year or so, I have had to face the hard truth that I can’t just do or not do things because of my feeeeeelings. But I also learned that my emotional intuition is a gift. Thus, I need to listen to my emotions… because they provide me a certain type of wisdom and hold meaning.

Right now, it is quiet in my mother’s house. Almost too quiet—it was unnerving at first. But it rained last night—the first real summer rain in Southern California—and it’s overcast today, so there’s not many people out on the street. I’m the only person at home. I do not have music or TV on in the background, which never happens.

For the first time in over a month, I think I am able to really listen to and process what it is I’m feeling in this moment.

In 36 hours, I leave for a two-week road trip with my homegirl. We are heading to the Bay Area first, where I’ll get to see a bunch of people I love. And then we head towards our final destination: New Jersey/New York. (I write that with a slash, because we’ll be laying our heads in New Jersey… but I’m mostly excited to spend a day or two in my favorite city in the whole world.)

A cross-country road trip has been on my bucket list since college. When I was about to graduate, I had overly romantic notions of packing up a car and spending a year traveling by road. I would stay with different people and take their pictures and record their stories. I still might do it one day. But until then, a concentrated one-week version will do just fine. When my friend first asked me to join her, I was like, “Hell yeah!” And then I told my mother what was happening, and a lot of doubt and fear set in. My mother is good at doing that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing… but it’s not always what I need.

I resolved to do it, though. It’s something I have wanted to do for a very long time. But it’s also something I need to do. For myself. To assert my independence. To break out of the mundaneness that has been my life for the past few months. To affirm that I am an artist… and therefore, I am also a wanderer. And what better way to seek out inspiration by wandering with purpose through the crazy, vastness that are the United States of America?

But mostly, I am doing it because it truly scares me.

In October, I took a workshop with a poet/artist/woman I admire deeply, Natalie Patterson. I was feeling then pretty much all of the same things I have been feeling this summer: Impatient. Confused. Frustrated. Closed off. And she said to me, “You need to do things that truly scare you. You need to open yourself up.” I didn’t listen to her so much… but when I made the decision to go on this trip, her voice was so clear in my head.

So, yes, I am feeling scared right now, as I sit in my mother’s house with this quiet. My body is telling me, “This is a cliff and you’re about to jump!” This is a very particular kind of scared—one that propels, one that invigorates. It’s a “break-me-open” kind of fear, rather than my usual “closed-up-tight” fear. The last time I remember having THIS particular feeling was during my sophomore year in college. I had gone to my hometown for a night, to see a play and hang out with my high school friends. As I was getting ready to drive back into LA, something just told me, “You’re going to be leaving this place soon. And you won’t be the same when you come back.” Sure enough, I got into NYU a few weeks later… and I really haven’t been the same since coming back from New York.

This moment feels like that one over five years ago. This trip feels like the same kind of catalyst. Everyone keeps saying, “Yeah, a road trip will change you.” I believe them; it already has a little bit. The decision in itself was a small shift. I elected to spend a good chunk of my “Oh, shit! I’m unemployed!” savings to travel these big ol’ United States by car. I decided to spend two weeks living out of a suitcase, instead of trapping myself in the comfort/prison of my home. I have chosen to spend the next 18 days with another human being, even though I spend most of my time alone. I am suspending all of my usual worrying and stressing—about earning an income, finding a career, losing weight, proving that I’m a “real” adult, and so forth—until I come back. I have chosen to be on someone’s open road, under a sky that belongs to nobody. I have chosen to make a decision that belongs to me, to have an experience that will only ever be mine.

This is where I wanted to be last summer. It’s almost like a do-over. Last summer, I wanted to feel this free. I wanted to have this kind of open-ended question hanging before me, representing my life. But I wasn’t ready. And so I have spend the past year yearning for freedom, but feeling trapped within myself, within my own small definitions of what is right and acceptable. But I know this was necessary. Because as much as I’ve wanted to be “free,” I recognize that personal freedom comes with a cost. It comes with responsibility. The cost is a sense of security and external validation, the sense that you’re doing things the “right way” and are aligned with what is expected of you. You don’t get to necessarily have these things when you’re free, because you are not “free” because someone else tells you are. You are free because you make yourself so. Last summer, I don’t think I could afford the cost of freedom. I have spent the past year almost exclusively wanting other people to tell me what to do, to tell me that my decisions and actions are valid. It’s exhausting and paralyzing.

This trip is my small un-doing, my big becoming.