On Agency, Nonviolence, Healing and Racial Justice

Agency is a term I learned in feminist circles, in my introduction to women studies class. But more memorably, it’s a concept my biblical studies professor reminded me of in the face of the racist mayhem I had experienced in my Peace department two semesters ago. My professor reminded me that I may have more agency to choose the way I respond to what happened to me than I thought I had.

So what is agency?

Agency is essentially the ability to act for yourself, or to act on your own terms.

Recognizing these things as me searching for my personal agency means recognizing the ways that I might choose to do something on my own terms. Agency is being able to do something because I want to. I feel like I am recognizing my own personal sense of agency when I choose to act in a way that feels meaningful to me, in a way that isn’t reactive.

In contrast, oppressive social and political structures might limit the agency of an individual.

In my own life, I have been put into places where a lot of what I do might be reactive and impulsive. There are ways that I might do a lot of things under compulsion and out of expectation to be “nice”, especially as a black woman who is often misjudged as being inherently aggressive.

During my time as a student of Peace and Conflict, I’ve noticed the way that many white men may not have to wrestle with agency and the role that agency plays in this field of study and practice. White peacebuilders often assume that non-violence is always practiced out of a desire or free choice to perform nonviolent acts. They might not recognize the ways that non-violence has been weaponized by the powers that be and that those who are marginalized, such as people of color (POC) and women, might use non-violent actions and speech in order to survive the wrath of white people and men. White people struggle to imagine that people of color who lose loved ones to state violence or at the hands of a white terrorist might forgive the perpetrator of violence in order to protect themselves. (This is not to say that some victims may truly have been ready to forgive the murderer). Instead, they might spin these stories to praise how “these black people were so benevolent”, as many Christian non-violence speakers like to do in the wake of such events. White Christians who are not put into places where they might have to react out of survival praise these families for “doing something they could never do” (and of course you wouldn’t have to do it, it is not your families who are being gunned down by the state!) Black people are robbed of their humanity through a limited understanding to why people may choose acts perceived as “non”-violent. Agency (and how agency is limited) must become a part of our discussions about nonviolence.

White practitioners of Peace and Nonviolence might not be able to imagine that the social expectation for black people to always be benevolent is violent in itself.  To be pressured into a lack of choice is violence.

In contrast, agency might look like my voluntary, free choice to be emotionally available to white people despite the expectation to be “nice”. In many ways, POC don’t have the freedom or safety to be emotionally available to white people often or at all. Often, emotional availability is forced unto POC by white people who feel entitled to POC’s emotional energies. The same can be true of women of color in their interactions with men of color. I deeply resonated with the work of The Selfish Activist in their choice of working with white people out of their own sense of personal agency. Some of my POC peers might not understand why I’m being “nice” or “friendly” to some white people or if I’m doing it with the intent to come off as respectable. However, there are times that I choose to do it voluntarily because I feel free to make that choice for my own purposes, despite how it is perceived by others. This is how I understand agency. Other times, I am forced to do so in order to protect myself. It is here that I lack a sense that I am able to make my own choice.

I think that agency becomes increasingly possible under certain conditions. Agency can be chosen when you are aware of what’s happening to you. Agency can be realized when you feel empowered and have experienced an abundance of healing in your life. And of course, those whom are privileged in some ways might experience more agency than those who are underprivileged.

I expect white people to do more to demonstrate that they are healers. I also advocate for white people to do emotional and spiritual work, because I can’t imagine people of color desiring to work with white people in massive droves until white people begin to demonstrate that they are trustworthy, just, and in control of their emotions, imaginations and internal lives.

There are many ways that I am still hurting and wounded. However, there are many ways that I am healing. There are many ways that others have contributed to that healing, including people who could have chosen to wound me more. There are ways that I have experienced and seen things that others haven’t yet and there are ways that others have healed that I have not yet. There are areas that others might feel agency, choice and creativity where I experience fear, self-defense, lack of awareness and compulsion. I state these things –this fear, self-defense, lack of awareness and compulsion– non-judgmentally, knowing that I have acted in ways that were hurtful to myself and others in order to emotionally, psychologically, and at times, physically survive.

I believe that Christians ought to be invested in learning about agency in relation to social, systematic oppression. I think that part of social justice work is to support others in their ability to make choices, free from compulsion and fear of punishment. Don’t we all want to be cheerful givers instead of giving care and love out of a sense of fear? (2 Corinthians 9:7). 

I want to heal so I can be free to choose to love and pursue justice without fear of punishment. There is no fear in love. I want to sense that I have control of my life and what happens to me. I want to recognize more of my personal agency. I want to live in a world where it becomes easier for me to make choices with joy, love and freedom.

What are your thoughts on agency? What are some ways that you exercise agency in this society, despite the ways that this society might limit your agency as a woman? a disabled person? a person of color? As a member of the LGBTQ community? A poor person? Or several of these combined?

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