On Overwhelm: Why we cannot avoid it and why we cannot drown in it

May 26, 2022 1 Comment

Especially for my white colleagues, white family and white friends…and for me.

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Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, wrote: “I don’t know how many different ways I can express how it feels to know that this country will always offer up the violent destruction of our lives to young white men angry at their lack of purpose and power. We will never be safe until white manhood is defined by something other than the quest for domination over others.”

While we have varying political inclinations and levels of activism, we can probably agree that not speaking out or otherwise addressing “the quest for domination over” is not what white people ought to be doing in response to the murders in Buffalo and the racist violence that preceded it and will follow.

Many of us want to be a part of something larger such that our feelings, thoughts, statements and actions contribute to a movement of white people who are working collectively for a future of freedom and connection. This is a lifetime of work and, for many of us, our daily mission. 

One thing that gets in the way is being overwhelmed.

As I awoke last week with a heavy heart about so many personal, local, national, and global issues, one option was to fall into being overwhelmed and to stay there. For many, it is a habitual response. One of my habitual responses is related: to avoid overwhelm and to carry on or push through, ignoring the depth of the pain. Neither is useful if the task is to be a part of a movement for change.

The history of this country is, in fact, overwhelming. It is overwhelming to recognize that this country is formed in the “quest for domination.” White colonists killed indigenous people for land and enslaved, abused, and killed Africans as a means of creating wealth and maintaining power. It is overwhelming to know white people brought their children to view lynchings. And equally overwhelming to know millions watched the video and listened to the words of Payton S. Gendron, the white man who killed or wounded 13 people, most of them Black, in Buffalo.

As a white person I know I/we need to hold this history, without excusing or dismissing it. It is hard and also both problematic and hard not to wrestle with it. 

We need to build our emotional strength and integrity to name the violence and oppression and to confront it. It doesn’t mean that we wallow in it; it means we can’t ignore it or rely on silence or denial (“it wasn’t that bad;” “the US has good ideals;” “that’s so negative, can’t we just move on?”). And, partly as a result of the ways we have detoured from these heavy realities, the current-day level of racism and violence is incredibly overwhelming. That is why we need to act and create new ways of being

This week, as I continued to grapple with the mass murders in Buffalo, a white man gunning down our Black elders, and I learned of so many babies and teachers murdered in Uvalde, I am trying a new habit: I am creating space for grieving and also space to talk and strategize about steps I can take in response. Yesterday, I shed tears before a meeting.  I am in fact overwhelmed but not stopping at that way station. 

The number of issues and problems around us can indeed be overwhelming. But they are perhaps less overwhelming when we see that they are connected. The quest for domination, racism, and misogyny are the drivers of an array of issues: Payton and Kyle Rittenhouse and other white people who use guns to slaughter (often Black and brown people), police murders of Black people, policing in general, prisons as our form of punishment, anti-trans laws, occupation in Palestine, inequitable COVID deaths, and so much more. 

When I am able to see white power, racism, misogyny, and concentrations of wealth as interconnected problems, I am reminded that our actions for freedom are also connected. You can be working against anti-semitism, seeing the root of othering and racism, or holding organizations accountable to building pro-Black practices and cultures, while someone else works on prison abolition. Prisons hold disproportionate numbers of BIPoC, trans, and poor people, and are rooted in control and punishment; hence, these issues are connected. And on it goes. As a white Jewish person in a multi-racial family I feel particularly pulled to work against racism, prisons, and anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim issues. Others may choose to show up in other places. We need to see the interconnectedness of these many issues.  

And so, to white people who seek a better future for all, let us not be overwhelmed to a point of inaction or numbness, but instead speak out and take action. Silence is not an option. Inaction is not an option. As my mother, Ruth Messinger, a white anti-racist shero of mine, often says: “We cannot retreat to the convenience and the luxury of being overwhelmed.”  

1 Comment

  • Sandy Nyaguthi says:

    I think we are doing deep work but we cannot do this work if we are not completely honest. Kyle Rittenhouse did not kill any black or brown people. This was an all-white confrontation. It was ruled by a jury of his peers he was defending himself.

    This work is already hard enough without the complexities of falling into narratives people want.

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