I began activism when I was 14 with Anonymous for the Voiceless. This was my first experience of activism outside of a school setting. I was never very involved but it was nonetheless a formative experience for me. For those who don’t know, Anonymous for the Voiceless does a style of activism called the cube of truth where activists stand in a cube displaying footage of animal slaughter and conditions of the animal agriculture industry, while others talk to bystanders who stop to watch the footage and essentially try to convince them to become vegan. This form of activism is very problematic, however, I won’t be exploring that here.
I was mostly the youngest person there and the only person of colour so it was no surprise that I found it overwhelming. Other activists would often talk to me about my age and how it was great that youth were getting involved but my race was almost entirely ignored, this wasn’t inherently surprising to me it’s very rare to have conversations about race with white people that were unprompted by a person of colour. I was often called shy during this time, and as with all the other issues with this organisation and form of activism, I think people failed to realise that shyness was caused by external issues rather than being part of my personality.
As a black queer fem person I have experienced a lot of discrimination in my life and I have also prided myself in not letting things go and standing up for myself and others, this is one of my favourite parts about myself and in fact, it became a sort of survival tactic. It wasn’t as if being confrontational stopped me from feeling hurt or being damaged by discrimination but more so a way for me to cope. Thus, to be called shy felt and still does feel like an insult. A part of the reason why I think I appeared shy at times is that I also wanted to make myself more palatable, I was scared of falling into the stereotype of an aggressive black woman, being overly sensitive or causing conflict for no reason. I aspired to white animal activism and wanted to be like the activists I followed on social media. I have grown up surrounded by white people and I aspired to whiteness for a long time and I’m still working to unlearn that. I also became a vegan because of white veganism, this is the idea that speciesism is the worst system of oppression, fails to see any intersections with social justice and focuses on the individual rather than systemic level. I now know how detrimental that form of activism was to others and how rooted in white supremacy white veganism is and I feel a lot of guilt for my part in that.
I then joined XR Youth Bristol and went to a few actions and found it quite difficult to engage due to its cliquey nature. After some time, I started to go to meetings again as well as joining Bristol Youth Strikes, I found that I had a lot of the same issues as I did in Anonymous for the Voiceless. Despite the change in the culture of the group, I struggled with confidence, I felt like I just didn’t have anything to offer and I thought I didn’t know as much as everyone else. This caused me to feel overwhelming amounts of imposter syndrome that at times caused me to lose sight of why I wanted to do climate activism in the first place. I felt closed-off in meetings and didn’t feel part of a community. I felt frustrated by my difficulties in taking part and I also began calling myself shy and diminishing myself. I thought that my difficulty in speaking up in meetings was a personal failing rather than something bigger and was hard on myself for that. I also had an internal conflict between wanting to put myself forward for opportunities and roles so that I could prove myself to others while simultaneously not feeling like I was good enough and didn’t have enough knowledge and experience to take roles up.
The Climate Resilience Project has been a big part of my process of overcoming my imposter syndrome in activism. It allowed me to have conversations with other activists who felt similarly to how I did. Talking about shared experience is incredibly powerful and it was very validating to hear, especially when I felt so isolated by my feelings. I also gained a sense of community which was important in my growth, preventing burn out was a lot easier when I didn’t feel isolated. I also found myself going forward for a lot more opportunities, while also struggling to manage my time and allow for opportunities for breaks.
I felt validated as an activist by roles as if I had somehow earned my title of activist. I struggled with this feeling as I knew that it was problematic to view opportunities in activism as some kind of personal success, and invited a culture of comparison that just ended up making me feel worse and inadequate. Focusing on collective success is far more rewarding and adds to a sense of community. I feel conflicted about the sense of community I have as I know that if I hadn’t grown up in such a white setting I probably wouldn’t feel as comfortable as I do in the groups that I’m a part of.
The most important things I’ve learnt is that I bring a lot of value, that I should honour my capacity not based only on my schedule but my emotional and mental energy.
This is an ongoing process for me I still feel imposter syndrome and struggle to speak up at meetings sometimes and I don’t always know why that happens, I haven’t worked everything out yet.
Shyness isn’t a bad thing neither is being quiet and someones ability to speak at a meeting etc. has nothing to do with one’s ‘worth’ as an activist. My advice to anyone that has felt similarly to how I did/do feel is first that it’s never your fault if you don’t feel comfortable in a certain group or space, try and pinpoint a time that could have lead you to feel like this or maybe there doesn’t feel like there is a cause and that’s okay too. Be aware if you’ve internalised your oppression and know that the unlearning process is very difficult and takes a long time, but be gentle to yourself it’s unrealistic to expect immediate change when you’ve been told so many damaging things about yourself for your whole life.
My advice to those who have maybe never felt like this or never considered that others feel uncomfortable in spaces that they feel so comfortable in is to be aware of your role in making others uncomfortable and make an active effort to address that, don’t put the onus on marginalised people. Take a step back, decentre yourself and don’t let your ego get in the way. I’ve been asked several times if there’s anything that people could do to make me more comfortable in activist spaces, and while this comes with good intentions it fails to see that these issues are often to do with underlying cultures that can’t be fixed with small changes on an individual level, there isn’t a simple answer.