Demonstrators protest police brutality and support Black Lives Matter in San Francisco on June 11, 2020. (Kevin Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Activism is not a contest

Stand up, show up, listen and learn

It’s been over a month since protests, sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, began independently springing up around the country. Not only have they yet to cease, they are hardly even diminishing. We’ve been keeping a running list, updated every day, on my website and just this week there are nearly 40 protests in the Bay Area alone.

This sustained civil disobedience seems to be working to a certain extent. Cities throughout the U.S. are pledging to divert money from their police departments to badly needed social services, and some places, like Minneapolis (where George Floyd was murdered), have begun the process of abolishing their police departments altogether. A number of officers involved in recent murders have even been arrested and will face trial. But that’s all too rare, as evidenced by the fact that the police who killed Breonna Taylor still have not been arrested.

That said, there is still a whole lot more that needs to be done. We’ve barely scratched the surface. If we could dismantle centuries of systemic racism with just a month of protesting, it would’ve been done ages ago. The work we are involved in now is only possible because of the sacrifices, struggles, and yes, protests, of all the many righteous activists who came before us.

So, it’s important to understand a few things about the nature of activism if we intend to ultimately change the world, especially if you’re just now getting involved.

Let me begin by saying that, despite being an activist to varying degrees since we first invaded Iraq in 2003, I am also still learning. Not only is that OK, it’s vital. The only way we can win against something as powerful as systemic racism is by building community and working collectively. And one of the best ways to do that is to listen to and learn from each other. Below is what I’ve gleaned from the past few decades of giving a shit, being involved, and listening to my allies and co-conspirators:

Activism is Not a Contest

This one is really important, especially for white people. The goal of this entire movement is equality, equity and liberation for people of color. It’s not a contest to prove you’re the white person who cares the most. Nobody is getting a “Wokest White Person Award.” So stop tearing each other down when people don’t get everything right.

One of our most important jobs as white allies and co-conspirators is talk to other white people and try to educate them. But we have to remember that learning is a process and that not everyone is on the same timeline as ourselves. Not everyone reads the same publications or spends the same amount of time on social media. People get awoken at different times. Before you publicly attack someone online for a misstep, call in with them instead of calling them out.

This means that you should reach out to them privately and compassionately try to educate them instead of using it as an excuse to show how much better of an activist you are. You’re far more likely to bring them over to your side and expand their thinking than if you publicly shame them.

That being said, if you’re dealing with someone whose racism isn’t a misstep, who repeatedly deals in racist tropes and language, who refuses to learn or accept that systemic oppression is real and a form of terrorism, and/or is endangering the lives of people of color by calling the police, they need to be held accountable. No call-in necessary. We need to make racists scared again.

Activism is Not a Sprint, it’s a Marathon

Protesting is exciting! There’s an exhilaration that goes along with being surround by like-minded people while fighting to make the world a better place. But, not only is it impossible to be involved in every demonstration, it’s a terrible idea. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Set yourself up for a sustained lifetime of activism by being part of the actions you think will have the most impact. You’re no good to anyone if you’re burned out. Which brings me to:

Self-Care is Very Important

I’m pretty sure I first heard the term “self-care” in 2016 while deep in the Black Lives Matter protests surrounding the police murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. We’d been in the streets for days, shutting down the freeway, marching up Market Street, and I was exhausted. But I felt it wouldn’t be doing my duty if I wasn’t at every single protest. Then someone shared an article about self-care with me and it changed my outlook. Just as activism can be thrilling, it can also be stressful, heartbreaking, and even demoralizing when the change you’re fighting for doesn’t seem to be coming. Taking a moment to unplug from the toxicity of the internet and spend time doing things you really love allow you to recharge your battery and give more to the struggle.

Wear a Mask and Social Distance from Others

The world is ever changing and so is the nature of activism. Another form of self-care is literally not getting sick and dying. It’s also not spreading a deadly sickness to others. Right now, COVID is spreading like wildfire throughout the nation. If you plan on protesting, take care of yourself and your allies. There is free testing in many places around the Bay Area and the country. Just google it.

Educate Yourself and Have Uncomfortable Conversations

There are a number of great lists out there full of books on antiracism. Buy some of those books and read them. Then get involved with groups like Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), where you can have tough conversations and also put that knowledge into action.

Follow Black Leadership

While it’s always important to learn from those with experience, in a social movement dedicated to Black liberation, it’s imperative that you follow Black leadership. If you’re white, you’ll never fully understand what it’s like to live in America as a person of color. That’s OK. Acknowledging that allows to you see that this movement isn’t about you. Your activism doesn’t need applause or congratulations, and the only prize is winning a better world for people who don’t currently have the same level of privilege as you. Stand up, show up, listen, and learn.

Stuart Schuffman is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at and join his mailing list at His column appears every other Thursday. He is a guest columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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