I Hate Being an Activist

Stock photo of a woman crying

The dictionary defines an activist as “a person who campaigns for some kind of social change.” For me, being an activist means never being silent.  It means constantly filling a space with noise, always thinking, pushing, moving, and yelling. My activism takes the form of words. Words that tiptoe out of my mouth and gently push others on a path towards justice.  But increasingly I find myself not being able to speak. Why? Because being an activist is making me miserable.

I sit in a room of friends and one says, “That show gave me PTSD.” “No actually,” I say, “it didn’t give you PTSD.” My friend doesn’t respond. “That show traumatized me,” she says. I remain silent. I don’t need to correct her again.  A boy in my class strides up to me. Yesterday we got into a long argument about victim blaming. “I want to talk to you about sexual assault,” he says. “To be honest, I really don’t want to talk to you about that again,” I respond. And after sitting for an hour listening to two boys, one of whom I consider a friend, say things like “when I grow up I want to be a father, a husband and not a rapist,” I can’t fight anymore. I just laugh so that I won’t cry and leave.

I got all of these snapchats on International Women's Day saying things like “haha #smashingthepatriarchy” and “cooking to please my husband.” They were well intentioned; my friends thought they were funny. But I didn’t respond. What’s there to say? These are the friends who make casual jokes, every time I see them, about my feminism. One time one friend turned to the other and said, “you’re not a feminist are you?” “No don’t worry,” the other responded. I stood there, my mouth open, with nothing to say.

I get a Facebook message: “can I interview you for the newspaper about feminism?” On one hand, yes of course, you can. I want my school newspaper to talk about feminism.  I am glad I get to be the person to represent this radical, social, political movement which is changing the world and improving lives everywhere.  But also, I’m sad that all people see in me is my feminism. I’m sad that that’s all I get to talk about. No one asks me how I’m doing, or what I did this weekend, instead they ask me what I thought of that feminist thing in the news. To be clear- feminism is one of my passions. I love meeting other feminists, reading feminist books and discussing intersectionality. I care deeply about gender equality and that is a large part of my identity. But it’s not all that there is to me. “Feminism ate my personality,” I said to my friend recently with a laugh. But I wasn’t joking.   

So, a request to everyone reading this article. Those who know activists, those who are friends with activists, and those who are friends with me. Could you try, just once, to not bring up feminism in your conversation with me? Also it might be nice if you would stop telling jokes you know will make me angry. Let’s talk about what’s going on with you, books we’ve read recently, drama in your life, your psych class, anything! Sometimes I think you forget that beneath all these words and causes I’m a person who loves books and smiles.  I don’t think you realize how much words, even well-intentioned jokes, can hurt. I don’t think you know that when I leave some of our hangouts I go home and lay in bed and am too worn out to cry.

I am so tired of being “on” all the time. I’m tired of everyone looking at me when anyone says the word girls. I’m tired of being made uncomfortable by the sexist and homophobic undertones in your speech. I’m tired of correcting the pronouns you use for Caitlyn Jenner and asking you to check your privilege. I’m tired of being made fun of. I’m tired of being tired. But mostly I’m exhausted by the fact that when you talk like this you are racist, sexist, and homophobic. I’m scared that I might be the only person you know who calls you out when you joke about mental illness and bullying. I am resigned to the fact that I am going to have to keep doing this for a long time. Even though I hate it and you probably hate it too.

Because activism is about teachable moments. It’s about teaching you that when you make a joke about mental illness or racism you are shoving millions of three dimensional people into the margins of your notebook. You are trivializing their pain just so that you can get a few laughs. You have no idea what it is like to walk through life in their footsteps and you have no right to make light of their burdens, the same way they have no right to make light of yours. Activists just want to make the world a better place. Please don’t make this harder. You are our friends, please support us and don’t try and always make us talk about our “causes.” And maybe, just maybe, look at my face when we are all sitting in a group. After everyone glances at me to see if some joke made me angry, you should look at me again. See that after I smile, I look down, move my feet around, and sigh. And then listen. Because all you’ll hear is silence. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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I know the feeling. For so long I've written, spoken on child access and family law under the Brussels 11a and the Hague Convention. But if you believe in justice, its part of your belief you can't stop.

I sometimes would love to stop, I have done it again.

How to cite this page

Bickel, Rana. "I Hate Being an Activist." 15 April 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 23, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/i-hate-being-activist>.

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