Closing the Loop: adrienne maree brown on Harm and Accountability

PHOTO BY ANJALI PINTO The author and activist talks to YES! about how to take care of ourselves and our communities, and what that means for movement sustainability. Why you can trust us

ByYES! EDITORS  Feb 10, 2021

“Isee the world as a miraculous mess,” adrienne maree brown told YES! in 2018. Fast forward to 2021, and the world feels more mess than miraculous. In the U.S., we are still navigating a deadly pandemic, and although we have a new administration in the White House, we have much work to do as a country to rebuild our democracy and our relationships with each other.

On Jan. 29, the author and activist spoke with YES! executive editor Zenobia Jeffries Warfield about her new book, We Will Not Cancel Us, what it takes to repair harm, and how ripe this time is for transformation. 

Warfield and brown spoke on Instagram Live; what follows is a truncated transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full conversation here.  

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: When we last spoke, I asked you, “How do you see the world right now?” And your response was, “as a miraculous mess.” You talked about all the things we were going through, the economy, of course climate change, and none of that has gotten better. As a matter of fact it’s gotten worse.

adrienne maree brown: This whole period of history… it almost feels like, whatever assessment I had last year was naive. And whatever assessment I had the year before was naive, because the pace of things keeps picking up and I keep feeling like, “I can’t hold more,” but then I’m holding more and still moving.

I had a conversation last night with Valarie Kaur, who wrote the book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, and we were talking about, what time is it right now, or what Grace Lee Boggs used to ask us: “What time is it on the clock of the world?” And the thing I was thinking was, inside of the doula or midwifery metaphor, when you’re working with a birth parent, there’s this moment where they’re like, “You know what? I’m not doing this. I’m going to leave, and I’m going to go home and I’ll see y’all later,” because the pain becomes too much and they realize, “What I’m trying to do feels impossible to me.” 

I feel like we’re kind of in that moment: everything hurts, I’m tired, nothing I can take can actually numb the level of pain that I’m feeling. I know there’s something miraculous coming but I’ve been pushing a long time for it, and what I want to do is rest my body and my mind and my spirit. And it’s like, how do I take in breaths that give me rest, knowing that there are still several more pushes before this new world, this next phase, this next era that we are responsible for bringing into existence, actually comes into existence?

And as a doula, you have to be able to be honest. And quitting right now isn’t one of our options. And we may not survive this—not everyone survives the birthing process. It is a life or death precipice and we may not. But we are past the point of being able to go back. We are at the point now where we go forward, whatever may come. And we give our all, whatever may come. And it’s an exhilarating place to be as a changemaker because it feels like everything is in motion, and we can shape what is in motion, and we can see clearly what we don’t want to move towards, and we can see certain amorphous shapes of what we do want to move towards. But it’s also daunting, it’s tiring. I really wish everyone could just take a year to rest their bones and their bodies and their minds from the 45 administration… just the pace of crisis that was happening there. But we don’t get that time, so we have to stagger it for ourselves. We have to take care of ourselves.

Warfield: [At the start of the pandemic,] you were on sabbatical taking a break, right?

brown: I was, yes. It was supposed to be six months of resting down my system.

Warfield: Were you able to do that knowing what all was happening? I know when you wrote the piece that was the prelude to We Will Not Cancel Us, you had just come back [from sabbatical]. 

brown: In retrospect, I look at it and I’m like, I think I was able to do what everyone should have been allowed to do during that period. … I had given myself this period to reflect because the year before was a massive year for me… So I come back from sabbatical, and start checking all my socials and emails, and it’s like, oh, it’s a cancellation wave. Something is happening where it suddenly feels like the only way we know how to interact with each other is to call for the disposal of each other. This feels like something other than boundaries: it feels like the joyful destruction of each other. And I think because I had been away, it felt like my lens was clearer and maybe more tender. I was like, this hurts. It really hurts to see us moving this way when I hear what we also believe. And I think I believe us—that we believe another way is possible. 

Warfield: I could feel that vulnerability. It’s not even a vulnerability that you had—I felt fear. Which was something different for me to read from you because you always come with this, “I’m aware, I’m open, accepting,” and then it was like you felt fear, like “I’m afraid.” 

brown: We can’t let this knee-jerk reactivity that we’re swimming in—this is what we’ve just been swimming in for the last four years. We had a president where as soon as anyone frustrated him, you’re outta here. And we had a society that was structured that way: nothing is real, everything is a conspiracy. So I was like, “oh, that’s getting into us…” To me, cancellation and calling people out is such a brilliant, necessary strategy. It’s a historic strategy that our folks have been able to use as a nonviolent alternative for accountability. 

What scared me was that I was seeing it used really out of context and, what felt like, out of integrity. Especially for people who are newer in the movement, I think people are coming in and thinking this is how you do movement, this is what it means to be an activist. Who am I calling out, how many people have I called out, how quickly do I respond when it’s time to call people out? That’s actually not what I was trained in, and not what I see as working in a long-term way.

I feel like Indigenous communities are the experts at the long view, but I do try to at least think two or three generations [ahead], and I’m trying to continuously extend my vision. But if we keep doing this, even for 10 years, where every single person we look at, we’re keeping a log of harms and reasons to cancel and imperfections and flaws, and there’s never that closing the loop—like here’s what the accountability looks like and here’s how we’re able to return from that worst moment. I also learned about the different levels—there’s a lot of different things getting clumped together into bad behavior and harm. We have to pull it out, we have to do the work to keep it nuanced. I have to do the work to keep it nuanced. And I want to bring that into the conversation more and more. 

Warfield: And you talk about doing that work in the book, but when you wrote the essay, that second wave of feedback that you talked about came at you a little bit, and so I love that you turned it into a book. 

I don’t remember where I read it in the blog: “it doesn’t make sense to say believe all survivors if we don’t also remember that most of us survivors include most people who cause harm.” Can you talk about that? Because people forget. 

brown: I understand that we don’t want to be known for our worst behavior, and we don’t want to be associated with those who are like, “that person over there, that behavior over there, that’s far from me”… And what I find when I get up under there is there’s so much pain that is going unchecked, there’s so many therapy sessions that have not been attended, there’s so much somatic support that people need to release harm and painful patterns. And when they’re not touched, when that healing doesn’t happen, then it calcifies inside of us and becomes this hard shape that shows up in the things we do and can really cause a lot of harm to people. 

So that piece around “believe all survivors,” so often, when you do actually talk to survivors, when you get up under it, there’s this [moment] like, this is when the harm was planted into this person, this is when their boundaries were crossed, this is when that person was abused, this is when that person experienced trauma. And you know we say, “hurt people hurt people,” but then it’s like, OK, then what do we do with those hurt people? … What I realized in my early 20s, I was like, “oh I am a hurt person, like I need to go do a decade of intensive work around this and then that’s going to lead to another decade of different work.” I’ve really just spent a bunch of time [asking:] what does it mean to heal myself, and learning that I have to be in community to heal. There’s never been a moment in my life where I was like “you know what, I’m really wrong about this. Self in the mirror, that thing you think is right is actually wrong.” It doesn’t happen like that. For me, I need people to call me up and be like, “girl, I just saw the thing you did or the thing you said or I heard about this, and like, you’re wrong.” And then I have to go through a long period of like, why am I wrong, how did I get to that place? Oh, because this happened when I was 13 and I forgot how to trust people, so I thought I could never have a direct conflict and it wasn’t safe because of this dynamic. I can unpack it all. 

So it’s like OK, how do we unpack it all? And does everyone deserve that unpacking? And I think the particular piece that felt so clear to me… it felt so clear to me when I was writing the essay, but when it was time to move it to the book, I was like, I’m not necessarily talking to everybody. … I’m really talking to people who talk about being abolitionists. I’m really talking about, like, if we’re talking about abolition and we’re calling for, in this moment, defunding the police. We can’t out of the same mouth say defund the police, but we still want to figure out ways to put these people into a container that they cannot leave. And we wanna say that they are not free to make mistakes and recover from those. We do not believe they can recover, we believe that that’s it. We’ve set them into some kind of container in our minds. And I don’t want to sssa, like we are not the carceral [state], we are not the ones who have the power of the state, and we are not powerless. We have to sit by the complexity of that. There’s something we are wielding here, and how do we wield it with accountability ourselves with responsibility to ourselves, in a way that doesn’t dispose of people? 

Because also we don’t have the numbers. I say this all the time: it’s not like everyone’s on our side where we can be like, fuck you. We need all the humans, and especially the hurt humans. We need the people who have been through it and understand both our power and our powerlessness, and understand that we can all cause harm and understand that we can heal. I’m much more interested in people who are like, “yeah, I really caused some serious harm, and here’s how I changed so that I no longer cause that harm.” Those to me are the most valuable people alive right now. Those are the most valuable teachers we can have right now. How do we learn to hear those people and how do we create more room for those people to exist. 

Warfield: And for those of us who’ve been harmed, to not continue to hold on to that harm when that person is trying to repair it.

brown: Actually I might push back on that, because this is also one of those things that gets muddled. I think that those of us who have been harmed—like I’m a survivor of abuse, and it’s not my job to hold a ton of space for the person who caused harm to me. That may be part of my spiritual work, that may become part of my spiritual practice, in fact it has. Now I can honestly say that I only wish joy for the people who caused me harm. But in the time that it happened, and until I did years of healing work, that was not my responsibility. 

But I want a world in which, after I’m able to name [that] this is what happened, that I get held, and that that person also gets held. And that both of us get held in our humanity. …Because I [have] to sit and be like, “how did I end up in that situation?” I have such a story of myself, the strong, Black, powerful woman and I would never. And all of a sudden, there I was allowing fear and hurt to limit my life and my choices. So I wanted that other person to sit and be like, “how did this happen? How I end up in a situation where I’m harming someone? How did I end up in a situation where I’m harming someone [who] I say I love, and what pattern is in my history that created that condition?” And to me, it’s OK that those are held separately, that those are two places. What I think I see happening right now is that we’re like, OK, circle around the survivor. And, and then on behalf of the survivor, cut off the other person’s path, potentially to healing. Right? And I’m like, I don’t want us to do that. … Especially not in the name of transformative justice. 

Warfield: In some cases we bring that harmed child into these spaces, into the work that we do. And some of that has never healed. And so the reason I said what I said is because I’m a survivor of domestic violence as a child, not to me but my parents.

brown: And that impacted you.

Warfield: For many, many, many, many, many years. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until like, a year or so ago that my father and I actually had a moment that just came out of nowhere. I was living next door to my parents at the time in Detroit. And I had gone over to do something really quickly, and he was the only one home. He just started talking to me. And I was like, “I’m not in the mood today.” Some days, that would be fine, some days not. But this particular day, I was working. And he started talking. And adrienne, we ended up talking for about three hours, and he kind of unearthed all these things from his childhood, through his younger teenage years, and young adulthood. And if I hadn’t been in the space to—I didn’t hold it—but just hear it. Because for years I had held onto this thing and I think it was at that moment that I had to let go, because that was impacting some of my other relationships as well.  

brown: I mean, it absolutely does. And, you say it came out of nowhere, but I would reckon that there was a lot of spiritual work that happened along that coming out of nowhere, for both of you. I think that when people are abusive, or when people are causing harm, there’s something inside of them that has awareness that it’s happening. And with time that something can come to the forefront of their consciousness and receive attention. And sometimes, they can’t imagine giving it attention, and they need community to be like, “you’re gonna have to pay attention to this.”

But what I think you just said is so important, which is, you had to let it go for your liberation, for your freedom. And I think each survivor has a different path with how we get there. But I also felt that way. Like, if I’m angry, and I live with my anger at this person, as a centerpiece of my table, this table will never be my table, right? This will never be the table that I set for myself, this will never be my healed home, my healed place, my temple. And so I also felt like I had to do that letting go. But it also took years. And no one could tell me that. No one could be like, “Oh, girl, just let it go.” I’m like, “Fuck you. I’m gonna hold on to this until I’m done with it!”

I also had to rebuild trust with myself, which I also think people who have caused harm have to rebuild trust with themselves. Right? It’s like, “how can I trust myself not to end up in that circumstance again? How can I trust myself to be transparent about patterns that led me to my part of that circumstance, which was the first time that the instance of abuse happened that I didn’t walk away. What led me to stay in that moment?” So that took me all the way back to my childhood. That took me spelunking through my own caves. And that’s the thing I’m interested in.

There’s also very shallow instances of harm and very, very egregious instances of harm. What fascinates me is how they land on people is somewhat about the egregiousness of the harm and somewhat about how much has already happened [to that person]. Like, do you have a landmine field within you already? Because I think that’s part of what’s happening in our movements.

So much harm is happening to us at a collective level constantly. There’s no room to grieve. There’s no room to rest. There’s no room to recover. We’re losing people right now. Every single day, there’s death, there’s new people getting sick, and there’s new crises. There’s this quote going around on the internet: “Everyone needs more than anyone has to give right now.” And I think particularly for movement people where, you know, we come into movement because our orientation is like, “I’m here to give, and I want to offer up to the world. I want to save the world, I want to give,” but actually, there’s too much. I can’t do it all. So many people in movement right now are in that very fragile place. It feels like an overstretched place, and then more harm is coming.

So now my first thing out the gate is just, “fuck y’all.” And “fuck y’all” is fine. It’s a legit response. But then I’m like, what does transformative justice have to say about this? What does it mean to not involve the state, which to me also means not putting people on the radar of the state? Like, how do we not involve the state? When you’re doing a call out, you are putting people on the radar of the state, among other things. So it’s like, “how do I not?” For me, personally, that’s my choice. I don’t want to engage in anything that puts Black people on that radar. How are we going to deal with this in community? And then how do we figure out who’s right to deal with this in the community?

When people do call outs of White folks, I’m just like, “I see you. I agree with you. But that’s not my ministry.” I’ve done a lot of interventions with White people. And that’s just no longer something that spiritually I’m just not interested in, and I just don’t have the time for it. There are people whose specialty is helping White people address the trauma of being White, because that shit is heavy. I can’t understand it. My focus is on Black people in movement who love each other and who love Black people. How do we figure out how to address our traumas with each other, hold each other for the long haul, for the sake of something greater than ourselves? Something beyond the prison system, beyond policing.

Warfield: [At YES!] a large part of our readership and original readership is mostly White folks. And they’re always like, “how do I be an ally?” And one of the things that I found is like, you don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to be perfect. Like, we’re not experts, we’re not perfect. A majority of what it is that we do is like your lived experience.

brown: That’s right. My sister Autumn, you know, we kind of laugh because I’m working with Black folks, and she’s really got some expertise working with White folks. She went to a very, very White institution and a lot of her work has been there. And one of the things we talk about is that this perpetual ignorance feels inauthentic. And I think that happens with a lot of harm-doers in various communities, like, “I just didn’t know, and please tell me how can I do better.” And I’m like, “but we told you last year and the year before that, and there was 20 books written about it, there was a workshop, there’s a workbook, there’s a lot of things.”

And the main thing is turn inward. Ask yourself, why do you feel supreme to anyone, ever? And that supreme behavior is what leads to abuse. It’s like supremacy and shame. Because I think the shame is sitting right under there, like, “I know I’m not actually better than any one of them, and I might not even be as good as [them].” So then it blusters up into, “no, no, Whiteness, I’m better.” But you need to go examine all that. I can’t examine it for you. And I don’t have any more books to write about what you need to do there.

I do think there’s something around being able to look at yourself historically and say: It’s not just what am I doing in this moment, or what harm did I just cause in this moment, or who called me in at this moment, but historically, what wave am I a part of changing? And I see more and more White people now understand, whether it’s allying or accomplice-ment, that [their] job is to stand right next to me and sometimes right in front of me when shit hits the fan. We just have to be human together in it. You’re not going to rescue me, I’m not going to rescue you.

And I think that with most abusers, you have to be willing to bear the consequences of things that you have put into action. So the White folks, the capitalists, the men—I expect that kind of behavior. I don’t really care how many books you read, I don’t care if you can, like read the news, and then write a fancy social media post about “Look at that racism! I, as a White person, see that racism!” And I also acknowledge land. I want actual reparations of your attention and reparations of your finances, reparations of your leadership positions. And I want to see you actually stand side by side when they come for us and be like, “you won’t take anyone without taking me.” It’s very tangible now. This is a tangible time for action.

Warfield: And then those moments where we’re not even present, to still stand.

brown: That’s what I’m talking about. This is one of the things I feel very confident about with the White people that are a part of my life. Because I have a White mother, I have White family members, I have several White friends. But I had to talk with other Black feminists, particularly about the White people we allow to be in our lives. And I never have to wonder what they do in my absence. I never have to wonder if they stand up in my absence.

My mom is a nice White lady. But if someone says something racist in my mom’s presence, this whole other side comes out. She’s very direct and she has been since I was little. She was the person who would go into classrooms where I was being mistreated as a Black kid. And she’s the one who would confront them and be like, “you are not going to mistreat my child. You’re not sitting her in the back. She can’t see from there.” She saw stuff that I didn’t understand until later, what was even happening to me. And I don’t know where that came from. She never had an anti-racism training. But because she didn’t, and because she still knew how to do those actions, it shows me that any White person who wanted to could figure out how to do this. And now you have a shit-ton of resources, so are you just delaying? Stop delaying! Like now is the time to get it together.

My partner says this all the time: There’s a real difference between niceness and kindness. That niceness is that desire to please and be polite and to accommodate even the harmful things. And then kindness is like that deeper, like I’m connected to the Earth, and from the Earth I can be compassionate to you. And I really love that, because now I’m like, don’t be polite in the face of racism, fascism, racialized capitalism, don’t be polite in the face of oppression. We can be kind, I’m always going to be kind. There will always be room if you want to move towards the future, but I’m never going to be nice about them pulling me back into the past. No thank you. 

Listen to the whole conversation here.