The Immediate Need For Emotional Justice

16 Nov
The Immediate Need For Emotional Justice
Guest Post by Yolo Akili
“Emotional Justice” is a term widely recognized as coined by journalist and Radio Host Esther Armah.


Oppression is trauma. Every form of inequity has a traumatic impact on the psychology, emotionality and spirituality of the oppressed. The impact of oppressive trauma creates cultural and individual wounding. This wounding produces what many have called a  “pain body”, a psychic energy that is not tangible but can be sensed, that becomes an impediment to the individual and collective’s ability to transform and negotiate their conditions.

Emotional justice is about working with this wounding. It is about inviting us into our feelings and our bodies, and finding ways to transform our collective and individual pains into power. Emotional justice requires that we find the feeling behind the theories. It calls on us to not just speak to why something is problematic, but to speak to the emotional texture of how it impact us; how it hurts, or how it brings us joy or nourishment. Emotional Justice is very difficult for many activists, because historically most activist spaces have privileged the intellect and logic over feeling and intuition. This is directly connected to sexism and misogyny, because feeling and intuition are culturally and psychologically linked to the construct of “woman”, a construct that we have all been taught to invalidate and silence. So by extension we invalidate and silence the parts that we link to “woman” in ourselves: our feelings, our intuition, and our irrationality.

This disdain leads to many things: a dismissal or minimization of our own and other’s feelings, a fear of revealing oneself as “emotional” (instead of as sternly logical) and a culture of “just suck up your feelings” or shrug them off. All of these responses to our emotions have consequences that contribute to a range of emotional and spiritual stressors which impact our lives.  In this article I am going to focus exclusively on the reasons I believe activist communities struggle with emotional justice and why the integration of our emotional selves into our activist work can’t wait.

Reasons I believe activist communities struggle with emotional justice

1. Activist Organizations Are Often Over-capacity
Many grass roots organizations and non-profits operate with a small staff that is expected to complete herculean tasks. This expectation leads to fatigue, stress and emotional imbalance. Asking to add emotional justice discourse(s) to the workplace/organizing is seen as a waste of time when organizations are trying to survive and fulfill grant/monetary obligations with limited resources. Yet it is an emotional discourse that could offer many movements opportunities for self-evaluation, especially as it relates to perpetuating models of capitalist productivity that they are often seeking to end.  Regular guided dialogues and retreats must become a priority and should be led by outside consult. They can help build connections, clarify the mission(s) and re-invigorate the collective.

2. Emotional Justice Has No Succinct Time Line
There simply is no timeline that can be put on someone else’s healing. Within an emotional justice framework, someone is able to bring up their pain as they feel the need. Our patriarchal emotional discourses will push back against this, however, and  will instead encourage us to deny, dismiss, and move on as quickly as possible from difficult emotions. Engaging emotional justice requires us to check this attitude within ourselves and develop ongoing strategies that allow us to express our concerns and feelings.

3. Emotions are Used as a Tool for those with Privilege to Avoid, Minimize or Escape Accountability
In an experience working with a group of queers on a racism project, a white identified cis gendered woman in the group would constantly break into tears whenever someone challenged her on the choices she was making that perpetuated racist themes. Her crying, which happened in several sessions, led to the entire group, especially the women of color, to comfort and assure her that she wasn’t a “bad person.”
Yet in the midst of attending to her emotional expressions, she continued to evade accountability and perpetuated the same dynamics. When she was challenged on her use of crying, she was able to come to an understanding that as a child crying had been a tactic she had used within her family to avoid being held responsible. This awareness led to her participate in the space in a much more accountable manner.
Stories like these happen all the time. Unfortunately in most spaces there are not always individuals with the skills to compassionately address these kind of emotional dynamics. This lack of skill prevents many from engaging emotional justice for fear they will get lost in these issues. This another reason seeking the support of healing justice/emotional justice educators is necessary.

4. Very Little Knowledge of the Emotional Body or Emotional Language
What is a feeling? What are the lessons they offer us? How can they invite us into ourselves? These are the questions that emotional justice guides us toward. Emotional justice can help many begin to work with their feelings in constructive ways that can help the movement as a whole.
An example: If someone asks many activists, what do you feel? The response may be something like,
“I feel like we just need to hurry up and make this thing happen because they keep on trying. yaddda yadda.”
But that was not a feeling. That was a thought. A feeling is one word. The feeling for this statement could be: “I am anxious, or I am frustrated”. Aiming directly for the feeling, as opposed to the thought around it, can help save time and address deeper issues.  If feelings are continually confused as thoughts, then the intellectual debate process kicks in, and before you know it, we are battling for philosophical dominance instead of saying that we are hurt.

5. Lack of Self-Awareness into how our own unique Psychological Frameworks, Trauma and Social locations inform our Interpretation of Reality
Journeying into our own narratives and seeing how they inform our current understandings of others around us can be  invaluable in times of challenge.  There are many tools for this;  one in which I find very effective is Psychological Astrology; as it invites us to explore, whether we believe in Astrology or not, what our motivations are, what we need to feel emotionally satisfied, the root of our personality conflicts with others, and how we express our aggression. This exploration can help us recognize an area of difference that is predicated on the ways in which we psychologically experience the world around us, a recognition that can help us understand and hear each other better in conflict situations.

6. Ideological Violence
“We were often poised and ready for attack, and not always in the most effective places.  When we disagreed with one another, we were far more vicious to each other than the common originators of our problem. ” -Audre Lorde

It is apparent from Audre Lorde’s words that ideological violence was a big problem for her generation. Many years later it continues to be, as unproductive ego wars rage amidst our movement spaces.
These ego wars (or as many of my friends say, “intellectual dick fights”) are for many apart of the academic environmental training that encourages us to battle for philosophical dominance. While debate in itself is healthy and can be empowering, the challenge here is that this “training” is colored with patriarchy and a “power over others” construct. Tactics such as Interrupting, yelling, belittling each other, and personal attacks, are dynamics of patriarchal communication and must be seen as the acts of emotional violence that they are.* As this is acknowledged, steps must be taken to train and understand assertive communication and the myriad of cultural communication styles that allow us to express our hurt, rage and frustration in ways that minimize harm.

Emotional Justice is not anything new to our movements. It is already being enacted in many spaces and in organizations all across the country.  My hope in writing this is that this work is expanded, illuminated and raised to a level of importance on par with our intellectual critiques.  It is my hope that we realize that just as we must construct new systems and institutions, we must also develop new ways of relating with each other and to our emotional selves. These models of relating will call on us to develope skills and  to work with our feelings, our trauma and our pain. It calls on us to recognize that emotional justice is an immediate need, not only for our movements, but for the world at large.

Yolo Akili is an Emotions Educator, Performance Artist, Practicing Astrologer, Yoga Teacher and long time activist. He can be reached at

27 Responses to “The Immediate Need For Emotional Justice”

  1. Mel November 16, 2011 at 8:24 AM #

    Thank you very much for posting this.

  2. elpea November 16, 2011 at 9:09 AM #

    A comment on (3) Emotions are Used as a Tool for those with Privilege to Avoid, Minimize or Escape Accountability: while your example clearly shows how emotions may be used to manipulate situations, I believe the argument is flawed in that it moves away from your argument that we must acknowledge the import and value of our emotional landscape.

    Emotions are a somatic response to the world around us and we each have an emotional response built upon our own personal histories and the sociopolitical rewards and punishments of the cultures we live and work. As you note, it is important to find ways to uncover what we are feeling as honestly and truthfully as possible and not muddy the waters with thoughts/judgments about the emotions or even the actions that follow as reactions to our emotional responses.

    Emotional responses are largely involuntary–we try to control our emotional response most often by shaming ourselves but also by seeking the rewards of others–as in your example; the reward was both attention from the group and distraction from the difficulty of the challenge to her racism. It was not clear for me that the woman’s tears–a top-level somatic response to perhaps her hurt or sadness or embarrassment or anger (some potential responses, but I am just guessing) that is is the interior somatic response–were acknowledged before moving on to the discussion of both how crying woman might allow for the tears (importantly as a signal to look at her actual emotional response) but ALSO for those in the room to make sense of THEIR emotional response to seeing others have emotions.

    Emotions are interactional–there is no way around that as they are responsive. So everyone in the room has to do the work of mining their emotional landscape and understanding their unique emotional responses and how that plays out in our subsequent actions and interactions. Some of the folks in that room felt hurt, sadness, embarrassment and/or anger, too–and thought tending to and reassuring the crying woman would make THEIR feelings go away. In that way, we sometimes collude in the distraction. Perhaps one manipulates because one is aware of this–but the power is not in the person that manipulates but ALSO in the attendant emotional manipulation of those who collude in the distraction; this collusion might not feel voluntary, but that is where we need to do our own work and accept our agency in shifting the interaction–and that the resulting feelings of sadness, fear, discomfort, whatever–are worth getting to.

    When we interrupt the dynamics by taking care of our emotions it is surprising how that opens a space for others to do so as well. When we start by keeping our own emotions hidden, however, it rarely allows for honesty from others in the room. Sometimes we need to stop dealing with the content of the discussion and attend to the emotions in the room. When done with honesty-and that does take practice–I find that the process is quick and simple and refreshing. When it is hard and painful and bogged down I know that the truth is not yet in the room.

    The example you gave resonated for me; I have been on both sides of being teary and watching someone tear up. It’s been important to allow someone to have their feelings while also allowing myself to have mine. It is only then that I can begin to see what I bring to the dynamic in order to interrupt and impact it.

    As you mention later in your piece, most of us have not consciously learned about how to work and play and explore our emotions. To move towards emotional justice as individuals and in the collective struggles we are part of, we must do this work. But I deeply believe that we need to start with ourselves as the way to open the door to others. Building “skills” that seem to judge and name other’s emotional landscapes without adding our own emotional responses is the same old same old. I look forward to the time when we each bring 100 percent responsibility for what happens in emotional interactions.

  3. elpea November 16, 2011 at 9:10 AM #

    And thank you, Yolo Akili for your provocative and enlightening words; I am grateful to have a place to think through my own response and join the dialogue.

  4. Piper Anderson November 16, 2011 at 9:16 AM #

    Thank you very much for your post. It’s so important that we transform the ways that we’re in relationship with ourselves and each other if we ever hope to create social justice movements that envision and build a new world. I would add to point number 5 that another way to understand your own lens is through an excavation of our core beliefs some of which can be shaped by our experiences of interpersonal and systemic trauma.

  5. misskinx November 16, 2011 at 9:46 AM #


    “Emotional Justice is very difficult for many activists, because historically most activist spaces have privileged the intellect and logic over feeling and intuition. This is directly connected to sexism and misogyny, because feeling and intuition are culturally and psychologically linked to the construct of “woman”, a construct that we have all been taught to invalidate and silence. So by extension we invalidate and silence the parts that we link to “woman” in ourselves: our feelings, our intuition, and our irrationality.”

    We must also recognize how these power dynamics play out in our interpersonal and intimate relationships.

  6. Megan November 16, 2011 at 10:24 AM #

    #6: Yes. So much yes.

  7. crunktastic November 16, 2011 at 10:28 AM #

    Thank you, Yolo, for this powerful and timely piece. Just yesterday, at a forum on my campus, I became angry with a white man who asked whether folks could remain conservative and not be considered racist. At first he seemed to be asking an earnest question, but then he went on to suggest that the job of leftist academics is to make the arguments about the problems with right wing thinking palatable so those on the right can get it. I told him quite forcefully that in fact, to continue to vote for policies that disfranchise folk of color and the poor, even though one might not hold explicitly disdainful or racist attitudes towards these groups, is still to be implicated in systems that perpetuate white supremacy. Further, I explained the white privilege inherent the suggestion that we should make critiques of injustice palatable to those who are being unjust. To express what he felt about what he said, his disposition became as hard and unyielding as flint and he refused to give me the recognition of looking me in the eye. In that moment, I was exasperated, angry, and yes, hurt. But I was left also to ponder the cost of my choice to be emotionally expressive in a highly academic space. What your post confirms is that he and I were both being emotional. His closed disposition and disdainful attitude certainly came from a place of emotion, but also from a place of power and privilege. And that is, I think what I took from #3 and your anecdote about the classic white chick who cries as I’ve heard it referred to “white lady tears” upon being challenged about her racism. Emotions are as much a part of the landscape of power and privilege as our supposedly “logical” arguments. For me the challenge is that there is a cost to expressing one’s emotions in these spaces, particularly for those of us who are always already seen as being overly emotional. And there is an epistemological orientation towards seeing dark bodies and female bodies as emotional (double that if you are both dark and female) and to not see the ways in white folks deploy emotion, which is often done in an understated, passive aggressive way, that looks on its face like logic, as a way to reinforce their power and privielge. So on yesterday, although many colleagues expressed thanks after the fact for my honesty, the reality is that I came off as angry Black woman, while the offending dude got to retain his status as logical white guy, even among folks who knew he was saying something ridiculous. And I am left to deal not only with the pain of his racism and his refusal of recognition, but also the potential costs of my failure to conform to a more properly academic mode of engagement. Finding space for feelings under these circumstances is a legitimate and yet, very difficult undertaking.

  8. RVCBard November 16, 2011 at 10:59 AM #

    I’m glad to finally come across a source that legitimizes the psychological aspect of what it means to live in a white supremacist, patriarchal world when you’re a woman of color.

    The more things like this come out, the more I’m glad that I’ve decided to push forward with Tulpa, or Anne&Me* instead of just waiting around for a perfect time to try again. I’m realizing, more and more, that the perfect time is now. There are people in our communities who need to see it – not because there is any new information in it (at least, not for Black women), but because it recognizes and affirms what we go through, gives weight to what it costs us to do so, and offers a faint, glimmering hope that despite all that, we can still live, still love, and still be free.

    *Tulpa, or Anne&Me is a play I wrote that got its debut performance at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. Because of the success of that production and what I’ve been seeing and hearing from people whose lives it touched (or could touch), I’m going for another production in April 2012. It’s one of the rare stories on stage or on screen that is by, for, and about queer Black women. You can find out more and support the project at

  9. ajwiddershins November 16, 2011 at 12:11 PM #

    This is truly and out-standing resource. I can imagine how much work you put into writing something like this and can also imagine it might have felt Damn Great to have created it. Thank you for sharing this.

    The point you made about “ego wars (or as many of my friends say, “intellectual dick fights”)” is excellent — I am so glad you pointed this out so succinctly. That kind “more righter than thou” horseshit is So Corrosive to our activism, and yet so few pipe up to challenge folks who engage with it (usually as a tactic of dominance, and/or perhaps protecting their own egotistical insecurities).
    I wonder though, is labelling this as a “dick fight” your way of creating a kind of critical analysis about the ways in which tension between emotion and intellect is gendered? At first, it seemed like you were being contradictory to your previously made point (“This is directly connected to sexism and misogyny, because feeling and intuition are culturally and psychologically linked to the construct of “woman””). Upon a second reading, i considered you might have included what your friends say as a way to reinforce your words on the gendered natures of these tensions.

    Thanks again!

  10. Adele November 16, 2011 at 6:40 PM #

    Thanks for writing this. I appreciate that you both talk about the need to honor the emotions and that you also don’t evoke some enduring authority of the emotions or body that is not mediated by our structural and social positions. I have found somatics and other methods very helpful to my activism but have been very wary of the discourse surrounding their popularity because I have seen them used as a means of evoking a new authority in ‘self knowledge’ that then somehow does not need to be examined. Very nuanced and timely, thanks.

  11. T November 16, 2011 at 9:19 PM #

    Great piece. I would add somatic justice to the mix. The soma or the body I’n its wholeness is critical. Being centered, bringing self/collective healing/education and generativity are essential.

  12. Petroglyph November 17, 2011 at 3:00 AM #

    Please add this big hairy melanin-challenged man to your mailing list!

  13. yolo November 17, 2011 at 11:25 AM #

    Thank you everyone for taking the time to read, comment and share. I really appreciate your feedback and perspectives. It took a lot for me to get the courage to write this piece and it means a lot to me that others have found something useful in it. I did want to respond to a few comments.

    Crunktastic: I’m sorry to hear that happened. And you are absolutely right about who expresses emotions and the cost for those to express, especially as it relates to women and people of color. ( and that’s whether those spaces do or do not acknowledge an EJ framework, it is still a different dynamic) I’m working on a piece where I am writing about this specifically, as I think it’s really important to address EJ at the intersections of power and privilege. I think it’s also important for me, as a male, to recognize how I am heard when I share about these discourses in a way that the millions of women who have talked about this for years in a multitude of ways are not. Thank you for sharing your experience and challenging us all to remember that this is a key part of this work.

    @ajwiddershins: Actually i threw in the “intellectual dick fights” to share the way in which my friends conceptualize it, often jokingly. It was supposed to be funny ( i need to work on portraying that better lol.) and perhaps ironic.
    However I do believe there is much to be said in “intellectual dick fights” that speaks to gender, etc. That’s another post!

    @adele: I am with you 200% on being cautious of any one being the “authority” in self knowledge. If anything for me, EJ acknowledges that self knowledge, because there are so many “selves” and “self” itself may be unknowable, isn’t exactly a thing that one person can master and teach. I feel it’s more about sharing what we learn about ourselves with others, understanding that it’s not absolute, but it may offer insight into themselves.

    @Thank You elpea especially for the discourse on emotions/somatics. Great stuff. What I would add is that even emotional responses are colored with oppressive dynamics, especially as it relates to the white woman/woman of color nurturer piece. It was not my intent to ignore how the others were complicit in the dynamic, but instead to show how sometimes privilege, in an emotional aspect, often forces the oppressed into emotional dynamics. Again, a whole nother post. (or three) lol.

  14. hell yeh November 17, 2011 at 9:44 PM #

    I really liked the article and agreed with a lot that was said. I do want to add a few comments:
    1. emotional oppression is also connected to racism, not just sexism. Many cultures of color have a different way of expressing emotions, and these cultures are often times labelled as “crazy”, “laud”, “hysterical”, “illogical” or “colorful”. Exploring our emotions is a direct opposition to the supremacy of white culture over other cultures.

    2. Emotions are often times connected to privilege. People who are less privileged, for example poor people, people who live in war zones, female bodied people, etc. are more likely to encounter traumatic or hurtful situations because they do not have the privilege to avoid them. Trauma is, many times, a result of oppression

    • ajwiddershins November 18, 2011 at 6:43 AM #

      Well put on the second point above, though throughout the article, it felt like it was already a given (though perhaps that is my own privilege talking).

      Yolo, thanks for the response! I figured so much, but also liked to clarify just in case. This is pretty awesome. Thanks again 🙂

    • ZZZIpy December 4, 2011 at 12:51 PM #

      How can anyone determine someone else’s trauma? We all live in a brutalizing bullying dominated world. WE also live in a world where many people are creating such beauty – start with physical beauty — plant flowers and trees all over the neighborhoods! See how that creates a change.

      We all have the opportunity to change with our own behavior and not accept bullying, and destruction of any kind to anything. How we channel our energy and how we overcome obstacles is up to us.
      We are too overly identified with our ego bodies and things (stuff!) . We get in our own way- all of us. We forget to look deeply at the history of this planet- slavery was an economic institution accepted thousands of years ago– Feudal and territorial warring existed way before nation states. Does this make it ok ? No…

      This all is not new but is branded under colonialism? That is a victim stance. No one can imprison our souls and Nelson Mandela in his biography talks about that.
      we are all wearing clothes made in sweatshops which to me is wage slavery. We destroy the environment because we buy things and don’t care for them nor do we care to understand where they originated from and what cost to the environment.
      We support corporations that work against us. Want organic food? Every one spend $’s on that and prices will come down- dump lay’s potato chips, Pepsi and coke etc. Corner store sells that crap> Then start a food buying collective- families have been doing it around the country.
      No one will do the change for us – we are the ones that we have been waiting for. To keep the stories of victimhood going is not power.

      • Breeze Harper December 4, 2011 at 2:26 PM #

        @ZZZlPly, Does this mean you have interpreted the article to be that this person who wrote it is taking a ‘victimhood’ stance? Please elaborate a little more. I’m also wondering how useful it is is to write “we all live in a brutalizing bully world.” I’m just curious, as I’ve heard this said to women who have been victims or rape and the claim made to them that, “Well, we live in world in which all women will be eventually raped/sexually assaulted,” when they try to explain how that trauma has deeply wounded them and negatively affected their mental health and their capacity to heal and feel powerful again.

  15. Breeze Harper November 22, 2011 at 12:23 PM #

    @hell yeah. I agree with emotional oppression and its connections to racism… at least here in the USA. Most of what I have experienced, in terms of emotional oppression in the USA, is of being a black female in the western academy, and dealing with suppressing my emotions, when it comes to me experiencing structural and institutional racism and normative whiteness. As a black woman in a predominantly white male field (I am a geography PhD candidate), it is difficult to find a space to express the validity of these ‘racialized emotions’. Thank you so much for your post Yolo!

  16. Breeze Harper November 24, 2011 at 12:33 PM #

    Check out the abstract to professors Ronald Porter and Zeus Leonardo’s academic essay, “Pedagogy of fear: toward a Fanonian theory of ‘safety’ in
    race dialogue” :

    In education, it is common to put the condition of ‘safety’ around public race
    dialogue. The authors argue that this procedural rule maintains white comfort
    zones and becomes a symbolic form of violence experienced by people of color.
    In other words, they ask, ‘Safety for whom?’ A subtle but fundamental violence is
    enacted in safe discourses on race, which must be challenged through a pedagogy
    of disruption, itself a form of violence but a humanizing, rather than repressive,
    version. For this, the authors turn to Frantz Fanon’s theory of violence, most
    clearly outlined in The wretched of the earth. First, the article outlines the basic
    assumptions of Fanon’s theory of revolutionary, as opposed to repressive,
    violence. Second, we analyze the surrounding myths that an actual safe space
    exists for people of color when it concerns public race dialogue. Third, we critique
    the intellectualization of racism as part of the concrete violence lived by people of
    color in the academy, which whites continually reduce to an idea. We
    pedagogically reframe the racial predicament by promoting a ‘risk’ discourse
    about race, which does not assume safety but contradiction and tension. This does
    not suggest that people of color are somehow correct by virtue of their social
    location. In addition, it does not equate with creating a hostile situation but
    acknowledges that violence is already there. Finally, we consider the practical
    import of intellectual solidarity, where understanding racism becomes the higher
    good rather than whether or not one leaves the dialogue looking more or less racist
    than before.

    You can find the whole article here:

  17. k. December 1, 2011 at 5:55 PM #

    thanks so much for this! i have felt this way for a long time, i am glad you wrote about it.

  18. Anthem Salgado December 4, 2011 at 2:33 AM #

    Thank you for this thoughtful writing. And a resounding yes to #6. Opening with that fantastic – and timeless – quote really frames the words that follow. Ego and in-fighting (as in both interpersonal and inner/personal) are problems I see ultimately getting in the way of lots of great work.

  19. ZZZIpy December 4, 2011 at 12:32 PM #

    Eckhart Tolle talks about a great deal about this topic — how we carry the baggage from generation to generation. Understanding and Saying no to the egoic knee jerk reaction mind is key to creating a New Earth– it is taking time to look inward– not always lashing out-

    This is not at all about privilege- it is available to anyone through prayer, meditation visualization. To say this is for the privileged is erroneous and limiting everyones potential!

    Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hahn all great heroes speak to that– It does not mean we don’t take actions — it is about taking action with deep awareness and also understanding our pain bodies as Tolle terms it– being collective, national, familial or as individuals…
    Violence , revolution , fighting – no wonder we are exhausted. What will take its place after we are dome bloodshed? More blame ? More egoic pain body emotions?


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