Last week I wrote a long letter to some close friends, people whom I’ve known and loved since college. My friends — maybe like yours — have only ever voted for Democrats and wanted Elizabeth Warren to win the nomination. But I wrote the letter because I was angry and disappointed. It seemed like this moment in Black-led organizing, anti-racist conversations, and abolitionist visioning was getting shrunken into another opportunity for personal enrichment; structural White supremacy-endorsed self-obsession was getting yet another life in fever-pitch clamoring to “learn to be an anti-racist.” As Lauren Michele Jackson has written, the term “‘anti-racist’ suggests something of a vanity project, where the goal is no longer to learn more about race, power, and capital, but to spring closer to the enlightened order of the antiracist.”
Because the insidious life of Whiteness is that the entire world is built to make White people think that they are the most important part of any story and that it is right that they are the most important — and that White feelings are the interesting and compelling feelings in every instance about everything, even, in this case, about racial injustice and structural racism. And so I’ll use the fact that we’ve been friends for two decades to say emphatically: yours are not the interesting and compelling or important feelings in this moment. Not nearly. Not at all. (Neither are mine.)
Every social media platform and instrument of biometric regimentation makes “personal improvement” plans seem like not only the exclusive arena but also the entire meaning of “growth.” Growth becomes something you can prove with “before” and “after” shots. And the problem in our moment is that these metrics, and the habits of mind they build, are not sufficient for either capturing or communicating the deep, subtle, almost-insufferable work of fully reckoning with the question of how you came to be someone who did not want to make it your business to notice, or simply, to care about the very obvious realities of the world you lived in: the discrepancies across zip codes between public services, from parks to public schools; who leads in and controls every industry of any size; who gets second chances and who goes to jail; and whose “sort of good enough” is good enough — all this has always been hiding in plain sight. Indeed, these pervading structures of inequality make your life possible in the form that it exists.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad recalls earlier moments in anti-racist reading, which, while always a central component of organizing, has always had its limits: “Most times after people read something, they’re enlightened for a bit and then move on to their daily lives […] In fact, James Baldwin thought that the obsession of white liberals with the pain and suffering of black people in the 1950s and ’60s was actually an impediment to change because he felt that when white liberals read such books, they thought the act of reading itself was the work that was required. And of course it wasn’t.” You might have seen parallel sentiments in ardent calls from organizers and activists for White and White-adjacent people to “do the work.”
In my letter I spoke of a difference, which another friend helped me name, between “personal improvement” and “growth.” It’s a subtle but wildly important distinction, and it’s not one that either predominant discourses or the rhythms of our media consumption have much space for. Or, as comedian Phoebe Robinson recently posted, “This is not a trend.” For one, there are no external metrics, spreadsheets, checklists, or reading lists for the part of growth that is, after all, the hardest-won: the wandering journeys into silence and the meeting place of mind, body, biology, acclimation, and psychology that other discourses called “the soul.” After all, sometimes, even therapy and analysis can become proxies for avoiding this quieter, often solitary aspect of “the work” by over-emphasizing narrative performances (i.e., “the talking cure”).
It is right and necessary to become historically situated in the “privileges” that define your life. It is of course right and necessary to listen, learn, take actions at home and at work and in your community to build toward more just relations and structures at every turn in every context. What I’m offering here is that, in addition, there is a part of “the work” that is more like deep, and often painful, spiritual and moral reckoning. And that “the work” will only exist on the surface — a metonym for showing up to a BLM protest just to post it to your Insta and then go home — if it does not also involve understanding those “privileges” as a consequence of something like moral or spiritual corruption, depending on your orientation, but without the absolute need for the dictating framework of any single god.
Here’s part of what I mean by spiritual work: contending with the fact that all the degrees, privilege, education, success, etc. that you live with don’t mean that you’ve understood or cared to find out about the world you were living in until this pressurized moment. In our lifetime, there have always been a million books, films, reading lists, organizations to support or get involved in. It’s also contending with the fact that people that those external forms of affirmation teach you know less or have read less or have less free time to think about Big Things like the structure of society simply because they have had less access to privilege and wealth — many of them have understood more about why your reality could be your reality than you. Mine too. The specialness (i.e., your specialness) that your life communicates to you is not true in any absolute sense. Mine either. All that “specialness” is the material manifestation and, in some cases, the generational accumulation of structural inequalities [and what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has called “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”].
What I think of as spiritual work is being able to unpack beliefs and habits and practices and ways of taking for granted who you are and what you deserve — and — this is critical — still not thinking that any of it is about, first and foremost, getting to some “better” version of you, or that your enlightenment is the important discovery, or even nearly the most important part. No. No no. No.
Black intellectuals of each generation have been trenchant in situating their critiques of America in moral and spiritual terms. In her preface to Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), Ida B. Wells writes: “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.” In Frances E. W. Harper’s novel Iola Leroy (1892), Mrs. Leroy remarks that the “disregard for human life is more the outgrowth of slavery than any actual hatred of the negro.” In The Fire Next Time (1963), James Baldwin addresses his nephew: “those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers — your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” In Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (2016), Eddie Glaude characterizes the stakes of reform in post-Ferguson American society in terms of eternal damnation: “A revolution of value and a radical democratic awakening may be this country’s only hope for salvation.” This is far from any kind of exhaustive list, but each of these instances (and many more) points to moral/spiritual work that is the responsibility of White and White-adjacent people. And yet, each of these instances presumes that work, in and of itself, is not the goal. The goal is freedom.
There are questions you could ask of your trainings at fancy colleges and graduate degrees and expensive yoga, of your families, of your partners, of your aspirations, values, assumptions. There are questions you could ask about your own curiosity, about its limits, about why you let yourself not be curious about the world in this specific way, when you are so decidedly, even doggedly, curious in other ways, why you can always find resources and answers for any kind of endeavor you have wanted to take on, why in this case you have felt at sea. I don’t know if that’s what you want to do, if those are questions you want to ask. It’s strenuous. It’s not obvious. It’s not immediate. There’s no timeline or checklist or reading list. You may not want to do it. And there’s really very little that’s pleasant about it or that is likely to feel good.
The more subtle, even spiritual, work is figuring out how to find and cultivate and become committed to a historically situated version of humility, without becoming mired in self-hatred or guilt or shame. That, to me, is why it’s beyond an intellectual task. Because there’s no map anyone can give you for making your very particular way through. The realm of the spirit, or of figuring out your sense of morality, is marked by surrender rather than by control or knowing. And the thing I can’t solve for you and shouldn’t solve for you (that’s the work of cults and organized religion alike) is surrender to what or of what and why. And part of “the work” is and only begins with a making-your-way-through that no one can show you because it has to be yours first if it’s going to be real.
The Democratic Party has been a veritable parade of failures in refusing to offer an actually progressive and truly anti-racist vision for as long as I’ve been alive and longer. At least one of their other failures has been the abandonment of all but the most hackneyed appeals to the realm of life Black intellectuals have long pointed to as beyond the material and empirical, though undeniably interconnected with the same: the moral. This has enabled the GOP to reign over beliefs that gesture beyond the empirical and toward gods, what they’ve cynically packaged as “values,” what takes effect more often as death — whether slowly, through poverty, or quickly, through lack of healthcare in a crisis — and suffering.
And yet this is what is beautiful about our moment: that so many Black, especially young, queer, and trans leaders are showing all of us what some other way can look like, what a broader political imagination can hold. The widespread appeal of Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley — “the Squad” — in addition to other progressives like Julián Castro and Stacey Abrams, can be partly explained by the fact that their political critiques are grounded in moral arguments inherited from Black political traditions rather than borrowed from the toxic songbook of the late-20th-century neoliberal Democratic fundraising machine. And the figures who have developed and amplified the Poor People’s Campaign’s calls for a sweeping national moral revival have also stepped into the moral vacuum left behind by traditional party politics to mount their multi-faceted critique of America while centering the leadership and lives of Black, Native, and Latinx (including Afro-Latinx) women. Outside the explicitly political, the work across genres and mediums of Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist Alexis Pauline Gumbs foregrounds ritual and ceremony. Astrologist and queer icon Chani Nicholas, Twitter sensation AstroPoets, and many other primarily queer, WOC-led internet tarot and astrology mavens and covens have embraced and combined realms of experience beyond the empirical with a dedication to earthly liberation for Black, queer, poor, disabled, Native, and the otherwise-marginalized and dispossessed peoples. The White and White-adjacent left should be taking copious notes from these folks and digging into their own moral/spiritual parts of “the work.”
So very many of the performances of “reckoning” or “recognizing” happening in private and public manage to feel hollow even when urgently expressed. It seems they could evaporate just as quickly as they arrived, in a fit of grief and trauma at another spectacle of Black death. Or. There could be a concerted effort on the part of White and White-adjacent people to understand and take on this deeper work, this fuller sense of growth — while also understanding that it is also not the story to center right now. Is your imagination wide enough for both? Reading, especially about history, is an important beginning for this part of “the work.” Taking leadership from Black organizers and activists and abolitionists who have long been building this moment, is another important part of “the work.” And yet what’s also needed is the space to dig into uncomfortable questions, building from the answers new and daily rituals, even new kinds of gatherings and languages, for living differently and on purpose towards more just relations in every sense, more equitable structures in every context. These have to be fumbled towards earnestly and with humility, if what we want, collectively, is to stop the momentum of racist and genocidal history from becoming, once again, the future.
Monica Huerta is an assistant professor in English and American Studies at Princeton University. Her book Magical Habits is forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2021. She is currently completing a manuscript about photography and the aesthetic life of Whiteness called The Unintended: Photography and Property in American Culture.