“Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research

Once upon a time, as an undergrad, I accidentally opened up a Title IX investigation. (Yes, that is absolutely a ridiculous sentence, but it’s true.) I didn’t mean to, but no one had ever told me that “I can’t tell if they’re being sexist assholes or just assholes” was enough to accelerate an issue. So the contents of that conversation went up to Title IX, but the office never followed up. The effort I’d made to highlight the issues at hand completely evaporated, caught between higher admin who evidently decided it wasn’t a priority and faculty who never checked back to hear if anything came of it.

In the aftermath of those moments, though, I remember a comment from a faculty member that’s continually drilled itself into my brain: “You could lead the change.” It was said in earnest, with the feeling like this marked a door opening, a path forward through all the bullshit. And twenty-year-old me probably wanted to believe it was. Lord knows I spend entirely too much time contemplating where, or if, I fit within the greater Phoenix musical community. The thing is, even though I know all the way down to the bottom of my heart the idea was presented with wholly good intentions, it’s become a bit of an unwanted pest.

Let’s pause for a moment to unpack this. I can feel the question forming: “But Megan, you talk about this stuff all the time. You’re constantly pushing for better. Why would leading the change be a bad thing?” First, the big clarification: at this point in time, I’ve got several more years’ worth of reading and learning and understanding to further support myself in my activism. At the stage in my life this conversation happened, I was twenty (barely), new to the Phoenix jazz scene, and deathly afraid if I said the wrong thing to the wrong person I’d be ostracized or worse. I wasn’t going into that interaction with guns blazing. I wanted—needed—support and validation, not more responsibility.

Additionally, on a fundamental level, the difference between the work I do both online and in the community and “leading the change” as tasked by someone else is that this is all work I do voluntarily. It’s also largely education-based; in most cases, I focus on concepts and how they should change and evolve. On the blog, I highlight words and actions without naming names. Especially online, that keeps me (somewhat) safe. If I were to “lead the change,” though, that would look different—at least, if I held myself to my own standards rather than everyone else’s. It would mean naming names almost every time. (Many, if not most, of you reading this right now wouldn’t like that.) It would mean wading directly into the worst trenches whether I’d normally choose to do so or not. It would mean taking it upon myself to repeatedly engage with and convince people who have accepted and/or perpetuated this pervasive harm for years or decades.

Here’s why that doesn’t work for me: because I’m not the one who should be carrying all that responsibility, and because except in very rare situations, I don’t see men around me willing to stick out their necks and leverage their privilege. I see a lot of colleagues who will back me within private conversations, but when I’m taking the heat, none of y’all step up. No one speaks up, even to say, “Hey, I agree. That’s not cool, and we should be trying to do better.”

I remember, quite awhile back, a discussion with a casual friend in which I critiqued a behavior that was excluding women in a way he didn’t realize. The critique itself was taken pretty well, which is always a relief, but when I mentioned that there was plenty of writing out there on the concepts at hand, the response I got was “can you point me toward that?”

The thing you have to remember here is that this was immediately following an incredibly stressful conversation (even with close friends, critique is scary) and not a question that had ever come up in discussion with that friend before. This situation (it’s happened more than a couple times) always puts me in a position where I have to make moral compromises—either spend my time and energy digging up resources about my oppression and present them to someone actively perpetuating that harm in the hope that they’ll treat me marginally better, or protect my time and emotional labor but know that chances are good that person won’t do the work on their own.

This utter unwillingness to even Google things continually stymies me. Yes, I understand most of my friends know I’ve become a treasure trove of useful, well-researched information on gendered violence and systemic abuses of power. Yes, I understand that makes me look like a particularly useful search engine. But have you considered how many hundreds of articles I’ve consumed and TED talks I’ve watched that I can’t possibly remember enough to link you to? Have you considered that many feminist concepts require extensive reading spanning diverse voices to ensure you’re getting a truly intersectional view? Have you considered that my own education on these topics was framed by sources I had to verify were accurate all by myself, and if I could do that, maybe you could too? Have you considered that asking me for shortcuts to all the right answers as I’m asking you to change your harmful behavior is exploitative and asking me to do even more legwork defending my humanity and right to equal treatment?

Have you considered that maybe, when the resources I send to close friends often go unread, I’m not particularly inclined to extend that hand to folks causing harm?

Have you considered—ALL of you, from “lead the change” to “resources, please”—that the emotional labor inherent in these moments is one of the major components of gender-based oppression?

Have you considered I see most of you walking around saying we need to be more inclusive and egalitarian without taking the time to go learn what that even means in terms of real-world actions?

Have you considered it is not my goddamned job to fix all of you on top of maintaining my own career and personal life?

Have you considered I’m already doing everything I can while keeping myself alive and even marginally healthy?

Yes, this is harsher than usual. Yes, this is a rare moment when I stop pulling punches. But I need you all to understand that regardless of whether or not I want to lead this particular movement within our community, regardless of what I’d do if I had unlimited time and resources, I can’t do any of it if the people around me won’t take the initiative to educate themselves and won’t speak up and stand up as part of their daily life. Intersectional feminism isn’t a couple big, obvious moments of struggle a year; it’s a continuous, everyday effort that must engage our friends, families, and colleagues as well as those who might more actively stand against us. It’s not something we can turn on and off at will or put on the back burner until something major comes along. But that’s how I see a lot of y’all treating it.

And the differences are stark, because I know how it feels to have a teacher step between me and an aggressive peer. I know how it feels to have to report behavior to higher admin and have the faculty recommending that action offering to be there if it makes me more comfortable. I know how it feels to have engaging conversations with folks who bring new ideas to the table that I need to learn about. I know how it feels to be able to be something other than a figurehead. And yes, Phoenix isn’t LA, but if we all made a commitment to actively educating ourselves on the things we haven’t been taught in classrooms, we could get it moving in that direction.

But, to get some of the folks asking for resources off my back, I’m putting together a one-time, by-no-means-exhaustive list of articles, videos, and scholarly contributions on a variety of topics I frequently engage with. I’m limiting myself to ten hours of work on it, including rereading most of the content. It goes live next week.

See you then. ♦

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