The Other Columbus: Getting off of your racist couch

Scott Woods
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When the Age of Quarantine fell upon the land back in March, I jumped on my creative bandwagon. I couldn’t work any of my proper jobs, so I launched a social distance tour service, a book review series, helped get a live concert campaign off the ground and ran a weekly poetry open mic online. Months later, I’m not doing most of those things. And while I have proven myself a natural-born slug given the right amount of Wi-Fi and General Tso’s, it’s not that I’m incapable of doing them. I just can’t drag myself to the starting gate most days. And since my day job called me back off of furlough, clocking in seems like enough of a win most days.

Again, some of this is owed to laziness being one of my super powers, but some of this is due to running out of surge capacity.

Surge capacity (coined by psychologist Ann Masten, PhD) is a series of coping mechanisms your body fires up when faced with a survival scenario. It’s why you were able to function at the beginning of the pandemic even though it felt like everything around you seemed to be made of bone and ash. The problem is that it’s a finite resource. You burn through it and then have to work your way back to, well, working again.

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Naturally, I just want to get to the part where I can edit the second draft of my novel or cook a decent healthy meal again. I want to run to that finish line. Just typing the words “edit” and “cook” excites me. Not enough to actually do them. But Iwant to.

All of this reminds me of how I deal with a certain sect of recovering racists: the corner cutters.

I am hard on people who want to rush to the solution phase of fixing racism: “What should I read?” or “What are the top five things I can do today to help?” sound like the right moves if the answer to defeating racism was a checklist. The desire to run a blitz on solutions is understandable (and very American), but not remotely holistic. It’s like going to therapy and asking for a prescription in the first three minutes, sans diagnosis. I’m a poet, so I can run analogies for this all day band-aid on a bullet wound, finger in a dam but you get the idea.

To be clear, I’m not saying this because I need to change what I’m doing. As someone targeted by racism, I get to judge the effort. When well-meaning people get anti-racism work wrong, they’re not the ones who will suffer.

What I am recommending is that those seeking to change understand just how much work it is, how intensely labyrinthine the questions are, how setbacks are ingrained in the process. People seem to understand these kinds of factors and hurdles when it comes to weight loss or trying to stop drinking. In a society swimming in structural racism, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’re not going to be able to think-piece your way to being less racist. It’s going to take more work and you’re going to nay, you’re supposed to chalk up some losses. Sometimes your cup of urgency is going to run out, and that despair will be buoyed by the golden parachute of living in a society always happy to reintegrate you back into doing nothing.

I won’t say be gentle with yourself because this isn’t that kind of work. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re untangling hundreds of years of socialization and benefit while the car is moving. It may be some of the hardest work you ever do, and (spoiler alert) there isn’t a finish line. But I will urge you to push through the emptiness and despair of the work, push through the painful recognition of how an innocuous behavior you have always done suddenly comes sharply into racist focus. Find a way to replenish this particular cup because you aren’t the only one who has to drink from it.