America’s social justice movement for racial equality appears to be full steam ahead. However, being a changemaker is not for the faint of heart— and activist burnout can undercut a movement.
What causes activist burnout, and how can it be avoided? This question was the focus of a recent paper by Paul Gorski of George Mason University. He began by recruiting participants who met three criteria: (1) racial justice activism was the focus of their work; (2) they conducted their activism in the United States; and (3) they had experienced activist burnout.
Gorski then conducted semi-structured interviews in which participants were asked about their activism. He also explored their symptoms of and recovery from burnout. His analysis yielded four causes of burnout:
1. Emotional-dispositional causes. Participants grappled with feeling profound personal responsibility for eradicating racism, a deep relationship to racial justice, and isolation. One participant, Alejandro (Latino man, forties) said his burnout was due to “human isolation, having to be the one naming things ... carrying a lot of everybody’s stuff."
2. Backlash causes. Backlash involved putting one’s employment or body in harm’s way. Activists felt that they couldn’t talk about their activism at work, or they would be professionally and/or economically vulnerable. Participants also reported being physically vulnerable, citing “threats” and “warnings” to abandon their activism. Kevin (African-American and Native-American, thirties) explained: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re unarmed with your hands up. It doesn’t matter if your back’s turned. It doesn’t matter if you just plain didn’t hear somebody. It’s their policy to execute you. So there is always that pressure ... At this next rally, at this next protest, is someone going to kill you?”
3. Structural causes. This factor refers to the Sisyphean challenge of creating change in the face of unyielding white supremacy. In addition, and apart from their activism, participants’ everyday experiences of racism contributed to their burnout. In particular, the pervasive denial of racism was particularly exhausting. Consider the experience of Andrew (African-American, forties): “Those are ... the areas that ... provide the most fatigue. Having these conversations [about Black Lives Matter] over and over again where you’re justifying your perspective, and the knee-jerk resistance.”
4. In-movement causes. All participants said that their burnout had to do with how activists treat each other. Activists found infighting and “ego clashes” within activist communities exhausting. They expected to find likeminded people, but found that competition often overrode cooperation. Consider the perspective of Deborah (African American), who felt undermined by white activists who refused to accept direction from activists of color. She remarked, “Clearly there’s tons of freaking white people who don’t get it.”
Activist burnout can dampen — and even extinguish — movements. But it has less of an opportunity to do so when we know what the risk factors are. And while self-care is a helpful antidote to burnout, Gorski highlights research that urges a shift from self-care to community care. That is, instead of individuals attending to their own needs outside of their activism, a collective approach would respond to the activist community’s needs at large. Thus, burnout wouldn’t be an individual plight, but an issue dealt with collectively. This shift in culture, the thinking goes, would help ensure that a movement has both the strength and longevity to achieve change.
Paul C. Gorski (2019) Fighting racism, battling burnout: causes of activist burnout in US racial justice activists, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42:5, 667-687, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2018.1439981