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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Forced to Repay // Psalm 69:4 #BlackGirlPsalms

Those who hate me without reason
    outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
    those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
    what I did not steal.

Psalm 69:4

When I was first introduced to this Psalm, I was blown away. I was introduced to this Psalm by a queer, white minister during an LGBTQ bible study. For her, this Psalm spoke so deeply of her experience as someone marginalized for her sexuality in the church. And it speaks to me, too as someone who is marginalized in many ways.

I often feel like I am hated for no reason. I am hated because I am a black woman. And many would say that they do not hate black women, but so much of the way that I am treated by people who proclaim to care about black women demonstrates the opposite.

I am hated for no reason. And I am often forced to return that which I did not steal. I, who already feel like I have little compared to some others, am expected to give more and more of myself constantly. I am forced to come up with whatever I can muster, to cover up someone’s stereotyped perception of me by intentionally seeking to portray the opposite of what they imagine a black woman to be.

I can give you many examples of how my body and actions are perceived by black woman. As a black woman, I am read as someone who is hostile or as someone who is always readily available to help others. I am seen as someone who white folks are entitled to access at all times.  Even men of color feel entitled to my body and my space. When I try to assert my boundaries as plainly as possible, I am accused of being an angry black woman. I am accused of sinning against my human siblings.

I am accused of stealing.

And them I am forced into positions where I am forced to return what I did not steal.

A white professor within my Peace Studies department (I am aware of the irony) asking me why I cannot seem to “separate the people from the problem” when asking him to stop pressuring me to have my trauma exploited for the “benefit of my peers”. I am not paid to teach at my institution, after all. Neither are my race-based traumas a spectacle for the academy. The institution is not entitled to consume my pain. Yet, I am told I am not committed to the studies and that I am anti-intellectual because I do not consent to this exploitation.

“WHY DO YOU TREAT ME THIS WAY? WHY ARE YOU PUNISHING ME?” my own father might yell, when I insist that he is not entitled to my time, my space, my body or my affections after years of emotional, psychological and physical abuse.

I am called selfish by my own mother for demanding space. And I am asked to respect her more, even though I have done my best to respect her, while also respecting my own boundaries.

As a black woman, I am hated for no reason other than the color of my skin. I am seen as exploitable and as an extension of others. I am not allowed to exert myself, lest I be punished. I am not given the benefit of the doubt. And no matter what I do, my efforts are often not enough to save me from ridicule and emotional degradation at the hands of white supremacy.

I am forced to restore what I did not steal.

I am expected to prove that I am kind in order to be spared judgement for exerting my boundaries.

I am expected to apologize to my abusers.

I am expected to comfort my gaslighters.

Hell, even white pacifists expect black women to hug neo-Nazis and to forgive Dylan Roof. If we are not ready to or cannot do so, we are deemed unChrist-like.

Straight allies expect me to be their friend and yell at me for not trusting them after I have endured being talked down to by them.

I am treated like I have committed wrongs for exerting my boundaries, my humanity as a black woman.

“I am being exploited by the state! I am being talked down to by my self-proclaimed allies! I am being stepped on by my co-workers! I am being underpaid by my boss. My sister was assaulted by her girlfriend. Here me: I am a child of God and my pain matters. I ask you to repent, my brother!”

But when I ask my brothers and sisters in Christ to change their ways, I am accused of stealing from them.

You, God, know my folly;

    my guilt is not hidden from you.

Yet you, God, you actually know what I HAVE done wrong. Yes, only you know that I bear a conscious, that I keep more tight knowledge of my own wrongs… perhaps more so than most white people. Perhaps more so than most men.

There are so many who never think about the ways that they have wronged me. People who I have called friends, white people who never have to confront their own sins against me. White people who accuse me of being the emotional terrorist in their lives for naming the ways that they have sinned against me.

But you, God, only you know my true folly. You know my true mistakes. Not them, because they hate me for no reason. They hate me so much, that they cannot see me rightly enough to discern my sins from their own hatred of my body and my voice.

God, you know that I am committed to doing what is right. I am committed to following you. I am committed to returning that which I have stolen from others. But, God, I am so sick of being asked to return what I did not steal to begin with.

Someday, I hope to be reconciled with some of the people who have hurt me. Someday, I hope they will change their ways and be just and kind and gentle with me. Someday, I hope that they will see me rightly.

Someday, I hope that my parents will see their wrongs. That I am not a disposable daughter because of my black body.

But I know that their hearts are hardened by white supremacy and I may not see the apologies and change of behavior that I crave any time soon.

God, I trust you because you see me rightly and you care for me.