You’ve heard the expression, “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” I think that it could also be true that how you avoid one thing is how you avoid everything.
The American Way of systemic racism and economic injustice have been exposed in ways I can no longer turn away from. I’ve committed to educating myself and taking action. Discomfort, excuses, and obstacles have popped up alongside my commitment. Are you feeling that too?
I’ve been coaching writers, artists, and entrepreneurs for two decades. I’ve heard all our excuses for not doing our creative work. Recently, I noticed that what we experience when we embark on our creative pursuits is the same as what happens when we step up to dismantle racial injustice.
I have observed parallels in creative work and racial justice work in myself and others. Here are a few things I am finding.
Helplessness and overwhelm
With our creative projects, it’s common that we don’t know where to start. We had so many exciting ideas, but when we commit to our creativity, a fog descends. Too many options paralyze us, and we go limp with indecision. Our abundant ideas turn against us. We decide it’s easier to keep the status quo than to take action.
I’ve heard the same thing when we’re confronted with antiracism work. We know something needs to be done. We exclaim, “But what can I do?”
Not knowing what to do is no longer a valid excuse. Aunty Google always has answers for us. There are countless lists of resources we can access. In case you are at a loss for what to do about racial injustice, here’s an extensive list of antiracism resources. Download and save a copy for easy access.
I know the list of resources is long and may send you into overwhelm. Take an intuitive approach and make a mark next to the things that resonate with you. Make a shortlist of actions you can take now that feel aligned with what you care about.
Blaming and othering
When things get uncomfortable, we often get defensive. We then deflect responsibility. This approach externalizes the problem and lets us off the hook for taking ownership. It can look like this:
With our creativity, it’s easy to blame our circumstances or the people around us for our inability to make space for creative work. My kids, my spouse, and my job take up too much of my bandwidth to make room for writing. Or, I had an insensitive teacher who made an unkind comment about my writing decades ago that has frozen my creative dreams in a time warp. It’s their fault I can’t do my writing. Yes, these things happen. What we do about it is our responsibility.
For the antiracism work, we struggle to accept our part in it. We might say: It’s not my fault I was raised in a racist country. I can’t help that I grew up in a community with little diversity. No one taught me how to think or do differently. I blame my past circumstances for my current inaction.
Blaming and avoiding responsibility is not benign. Making someone else responsible for our circumstances is disempowering to everyone. Positioning people as ‘other’ and asserting that it’s their fault we don’t have the life we want is a fascist tactic that has caused incalculable harm.
Let’s ask ourselves: what is the cost of deflecting our creative or racial justice work? What’s the cost of pretending that it’s someone else’s fault or problem and not our own?
Emotions are important. We need them to signal what is right and not right in our world. Yet we often let feelings stop us from taking action. I know I have. Here’s an example.
For the first 35 years of my life, I was financially illiterate. I had no idea how to be financially healthy. I was stuck in the notion that no one had taught me how to manage money. Other than the ‘save more than you spend’ advice from my parents, I didn’t have a clue how to thrive financially.
The systemic lack of basic financial education seemed designed to keep people impoverished and overworked so we don’t have the bandwidth to thrive and help others succeed. This pissed me off big time. I spent my young adult years infused with righteous anger about it. I was financially out of control, spending more than I made and racking up thousands of dollars in debt. I didn’t do anything until I sat myself down and said, so what you are mad. That’s not helping. Just get started.
I read books. I rallied a group of friends to gather monthly to discuss money. Over time, I made enormous changes. The emotions were still there, all along the way. But I learned how not to let them stop me. Educating myself and having regular conversations about finances allowed me to overcome my ignorance and my helplessness. Once I made these changes, I realized I could claim power in other areas of my life. I didn’t have to let emotions stop me.
We rarely avoid our creative work because of external obstacles. What’s under the surface in our emotional life is usually running the show. The conversations I have with my clients are 60% emotional labor, 40% practical.
If we don’t address the stuff churning under the surface, changes don’t stick. This looks like someone saying they want to write, committing to writing, giving it a few weeks, and then bailing out, usually with some of the excuses mentioned above.
Same for the racial justice work. I can sign endless petitions, donate money, and make posts on social media. But until I look at my privilege and how I have benefited from others’ disempowerment, real change isn’t going to happen.
Looking good and seeking approval
The primary fear I help people overcome with their writing is that they are not good enough. We fear that people will read our writing and will see not our greatness but our flaws. It’s easier to hold a writing dream aloft in a future, faraway state than to risk the messiness of our inadequacies.
For racial justice work, we desperately don’t want to get it wrong. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing and being shamed and shunned. That’s a real risk. But for those of us who have been privileged enough to opt out of this work, I invite an empathetic approach. Imagine you haven’t had the option. Imagine the risks a person of color or LGBTQI person is forced to take every single day.
The need for others’ approval is partly a primal safety measure. I get it. But it kiboshes creativity and leadership. Our desire for others to see us in a certain way wastes our energy and time. We can’t control how others see us; we control our actions.
But it’s so hard!
A lot of people want to be writers. Many of us want to be better people. The truth is, what’s required to write and be a contributing member of a better world often pushes us out of our ‘comfort zone’. We’re appalled at how much effort and time goes into writing something. (Six hours to write, revise, and publish this piece.) Or how many layers of crap we have to shovel through to play a role in making room for everyone at the table.
What’s helped me is to not focus on how hard it is. Instead, I focus on the sense of integrity and fulfillment that I experience when I do what I know is right for me and the world. When I show up to be responsible for honoring the gifts I’ve been given and the privilege that I was born into. As I mentioned in my financial empowerment story, when I stopped letting the emotions stop me from taking action, I claimed my power.
I am in the business of personal transformation. Yes, Original Impulse exists to help people write, make art, and grow businesses. For me, those activities serve as vehicles for transformation. The effort required to do all of those things is the work of changing ourselves and the world.
Both our creative work and the work of dismantling our inherent racism may have seemed optional until now. For my part, I am learning and unlearning. I am making space for racial justice work the way I’ve made space for my creative work.
What’s helped me again and again to transform is
1) reading to learn
2) listening to podcasts to get new perspectives
3) writing it out to understand what’s under the surface and
4) consistently having conversations.
What about you?
Get clear on why you must do your creative work now. Understand why you must do racial justice work now. Use these prompts:
I must write because…
I must play a part in racial justice because…
Ask yourself what values you are honoring when you meet the challenges of creative and racial justice work.
I have always been about empowering women and helping people express themselves, so that’s the first place I look. What can I do to contribute to women of color? What are the resources that teach me more about their experiences so I can offer something that’s genuine service and not my idea of what’s needed?
As a coach, I don’t tell people what to do. Instead, I help people find what’s right for them. Sometimes people ask me if they are copping out of doing their creative work. I can’t answer that. Only we know if we are shirking responsibility or copping out.
We have to show up in ways that allow us to live with ourselves every day. That’s why I’ve been able to do the creative work I’ve done – so I can live in integrity. And that’s why I am finally stepping up to take consistent action on my belief that we all deserve a world of equality and opportunity. I’m doing my part to live that value and not just hope others are doing the work.
What resonates with you? Is it true for you that how you avoid one thing is how you avoid everything?