by Jordan Alam
There’s an email waiting in my inbox from a friend. It has a simple one word title and an exclamation point. It reads: they’ve gotten a fellowship/are going on a writer’s retreat/are heading to a conference for rad activist folk! They’re excited, and there’s already a trail of ‘reply all’ responses saying “congratulations, you deserve it!” I half-smile, maybe even fire an email back, then navigate away. I’ll click through Facebook and see others have similar news – some putting the #humblebrag tactic to use and others open-faced. I finally stop scrolling and close my laptop to pick up my notebook. I feel the little tick in my brain, just a little one. It makes it harder to focus on my sentences. By then, I know it’s already too late. I tap my foot and clench my pen. The monster’s caught up with me.
My jealousy has structured itself on the idea of scarcity. Even when I hear of someone getting an opportunity that wouldn’t fit me, I still hear the tick. One more narrow space filled. In activist and artist spaces alike, we often replicate this value system. Your worth is made up of how much work you do, how much stuff you know, and how critical you can be. Your achievements speak for you, like dollars and cents do in a capitalist society.
I was listening to a recent episode of This American Life that featured a segment on how other peoples’ thoughts can affect your actions. The (abridged) premise was: other people have perceptions of you, which changes the way they interact with you, and in turn you pick up on those signals and act differently because of them. I enjoy the show, it often feels like an hour of “let’s examine every quirky part of white society” – in this case, the hosts kept saying things like “isn’t that crazy?” but I thought “well, duh.” That’s all internalized oppression is, moving the external perceptions of others inward until you aren’t sure where your thoughts end and theirs begin.
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Because of internalized American capitalism, I accept that there is only so much love and appreciation to be handed out, and more of it will go to those who perform well. There are so few resources for people of color, period. Not to mention our vibrant intersectional identities and creative work. We either have to make spaces for ourselves – often unsustainable and without funding – or push past one another to get into positions of opportunity. And even our victories face outward. The acknowledgment serves to prove that we matter to people in power, even if we know that these are our stolen resources handed back to us. I’m not ignorant of the ways oppression sets us against our own, but how do we work against the impulse to covet and tear each other down?
This struggle was summed up very well in a quote by Toni Morrison that I first heard shared by Joyce Hatton:
“The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Internalized self-doubt is a many-headed beast, and seeking out the intellectual source of a feeling doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to sit with. I have to physically sit and practice identifying the sensations in my body. Where is that feeling located? Is it in my clenched fist and tightened neck? My shallow breathing? The unlearning process is slow. It’s labor-intensive. And I don’t have a ten-step process for making it work, though I am pretty sure it involves communication. We need to name the connection between jealousy and internalized capitalism. This is not only honest, it transforms relationships. If you – like me – sometimes bottle up and feel ashamed of your emotions, it becomes very difficult for others to know how to support you. At minimum, sharing should serve as a reminder of how necessary you are as a person; even better, it is a practical education for others on how to check in and provide care.
Needless to say, we’ve already been doing this work over kitchen tables and long distance phone calls, the back end emotional labor that allows us to even come into community spaces, physical or otherwise. We’re bound to fuck up sometimes as we undo this limiting belief that we need to do anything (really, many specific things) in order to be valued. The boundaries we contend with are still very real. A radical redistribution of wealth won’t just happen through believing in the philosophy of abundance. But in practicing generosity and gentleness, with feelings just as much as material goods, we begin to model a world we’d want to live in.
When I hear the tick the next time, I won’t ignore it. I will have other options in responding to it: I might ask the person about their experience, talk out what I’m feeling with others, and maybe, just maybe, take it easy.
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Jordan wishes she could have a simple byline about where she’s from. She’s a Bengali American activist, writer, & doula who keeps a blog called The Cowation (http://www.thecowation.com) and founded Project As[I]Am (http://www.project-as-i-am.com/), an online Asian American social justice publication. Say hi on Twitter @thecowation.