Anyone who’s invested in social justice work — as loose and vague as the term is — knows that it isn’t easy. On most days it feels defeating and depleting to the point where you may guiltily question what you are doing or why you’re the one who has to take this on.

It can push you to distrust the world, recoil into your couch and start a “Scandal” marathon when you should really be working on job applications or doing the statistics homework that was due yesterday.

But as much as it may bother some people, the vagueness lent to “social justice” can be useful in pushing us to rethink what anti-oppressive work looks like in different contexts.

Resisting oppression — or at least its normalization — comes in different forms, and sometimes in ways that we don’t highlight or value as much. While anti-oppressive work may evoke images of radical organizing or perhaps images of more reformist approaches that seek to fight “within the system,” maybe through negotiating with people in positions of influence, liberation work comes in many more shades.

Resistance can play out in the everyday small steps we take, in the seemingly mundane things we do, that, if intentionally proactive and subversive, can be powerful ways to disrupt the status quo.

Rethinking resistance starts by dropping any lofty fixed image in our mind of what anti-oppressive/liberation work looks like. Falling into what we think “social justice” or “activism” ought to look like or what it requires limits our imagination, and subsequently, the impact of our work. Truly challenging the status quo around us won’t happen by abiding by the script of the mainstream.

Instead, we need to think of ways to define resistance work on our own terms; to make it fit the shifting needs and nuances of our everyday realities.

If we want to survive in systems where our numbers are few or where there are many external restraints against us, we need to imagine resistance that can function in spaces that aren’t welcoming or conducive of traditional forms of activism. This requires us to be more proactive in what we want to invest our energy in, and to find ways to be subversive in situations where activism isn’t deemed appropriate. By doing so, we can form form ripples of resistance in spaces that require or incentivize us to hold back; if we do choose to engage in such spaces, we often become exhausted and exploited in the process.

In rethinking resistance, we can start by refusing reactionary activism. While it is important to hold others accountable and make our voices heard when problematic issues come up, we shouldn’t allow “call out culture” to take center of our activism. Doing so keeps us from ever coming up with the agenda. Instead, we passively play out someone else’s script — one largely dictated by mainstream sources that choose to highlight issues based on their marketable prospects. These sources expect and hope, then, that we will react to the news they put out.

We can resist reactionism, not only in relation to pop culture and media, but also in daily settings we’re part of. Oftentimes in class, at work or in meetings, I am expected to react to things because of my views and identity. There are moments when I can literally feel gazes shifting toward me, waiting for “that girl” to respond because she always seems to have something to critique in response to the reading, to someone’s comments and so on.

I’ve had to ask myself: what do I gain or benefit by engaging? Why am I constantly placed on the defense in this space? Why am I expected to always respond when I never signed up to play mock trial or be a show for someone to look forward to watching?

There’s power in refusing to be reactionary in such spaces — in being silent when reactionism is the only way your voice is welcomed. Instead, let’s slow down, do things at our own pace and set them on our own terms. Let’s learn through imagining and cultivating instead of responding and calling out. As one activist, Mauro Sifuentes,
put it , “If the dominant forces are providing us with the majority of our material to critique, they are essentially formulating our resistance for us.”

Of course, it is okay and often necessary to voice our disapproval for what’s in front of us. In some cases, it’s crucial to intervene and respond. While in other cases, refusing to respond may be just as important. But sometimes, a mix of the two is most effective: responding — just not in the ways expected of us.

In many spaces, it can be difficult to directly intervene — maybe because you can’t afford to do so (perhaps in certain professional settings) or maybe you just that you don’t feel like teaching today. Find ways to make resistance fit whatever situation you’re in. Sometimes that means walking out altogether and refusing to dialogue or entertain triggering and problematic conversations and settings.

If we can’t afford to remove ourselves entirely, sometimes resistance means disrupting the situation. It means making sure your discomfort and disapproval are felt and known even if you don’t want to explain why. Whether it’s through repeated heavy sighs, loud rummaging through your backpack, or completely derailing conversations — do what you need to do to literally disrupt, bend and destabilize oppressive frameworks.

While such subversive behavior may seem passive aggressive or something that doesn’t address the “root of the issue,” remember that resistance comes in many forms. Fortunately,sometimes in ways that allow us to preserve ourselves. It shouldn’t always be on us to react in the name of anti-oppressive work. Disruptive and subversive behavior in oppressive settings can be just as impactful and can save us energy on days where we need it for something else — or just don’t have it.

Zeinab Khalil can be reached at zkha@umich.edu.

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