Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Last summer, I traveled to a neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest abundant with “Black Lives Matter” signs peering out of street-facing windows and perched in front yards. Rather than feeling a comforting resonance of shared values, though, they left me troubled with a sense of haunting that has lingered for months.
I’ve since come to understand this haunting as the specter of Black lives mattering: a presence not yet fully formed. There is a palpable vacantness behind the signs that points to how, as a society, we’re not quite sure what it means to say “Black lives matter” given the historical and present contexts of the United States.
The contrasts are stark: The BLM signs in front yards of single-family homes in a heavily segregated town where cops still target Black-bodied people, where there is a noticeable absence of accessible queer-led spaces, and where science is weaponized against people who think differently. And all of this happens on unceded Native land.
The underlying and pervasive conditions of racialized and colonial capitalism haven’t changed, despite the number of yard signs that claim otherwise.
Beyond haunting, the modern definition of specter also includes a sense of dread, a pervasive sentiment in dominant U.S. society. If you find it easier to imagine a bad future than a good one, where “the future” is a zero-sum game, then racial justice surely poses threats to Whiteness and the middle class. In this worldview, where ignoring difficult parts of the past is easier than reckoning with them, reparations mean loss; reconciliation means grief. If you find yourself among those who feel stuck, not knowing what to do, seeing limited possibilities and a lack of leadership, do not turn away from this dread. By doing so, we narrow our chances of healing, for the dread holds within it the very roots of these injustices. Bypassing, sidestepping, or avoiding these fears can only keep us stuck in these old ways.
The older and broader definition of the word specter comes from the Latin spectrum—a vision, apparition, appearance. It is an echo of possibilities from other worlds, not (yet) fully realized. So a specter isn’t only a dread-filled emptiness; it is paradoxically also a presence. It’s a call from and toward other worlds that could come into being. At once, dread and emptiness coexist with longing for these worlds to materialize—worlds in which Black lives can truly matter, where land is returned to Indigenous sovereignty and stewardship, where love of all kinds can be fully expressed, and where certain ways of knowing are embraced instead of erased.
Thus, these well-intentioned yard signs point toward emergent possibilities: generations of dreams fulfilled, liberation actualized, decolonization and reparations underway.
But for now, they’re just that: signs, not the destination. So how do we cultivate our abilities to see into these other worlds and imagine alternative futures? How do we move beyond the signs?
The Promise of Shadow Work
Before we can inhabit other possibilities, other worlds, we must become acquainted with the space between what we claim and what is real. Our nationalized and willful avoidance of the harsh truths in the U.S. not only limits our understandings of the past and present, but also prevents us from being able to sense the full spectrum of future possibilities.
Slowing down may feel like the exact opposite of what we need to do, but if we continue to act out of urgency without making time and space for something else—if we act without repairing our collective imagination and remembering our inherent interconnectedness—we won’t be able to achieve anything much different than what we’ve already done. And that, we know, is not nearly enough. (Evidence of how we as a society haven’t done enough for Black lives to matter can be found in statistics like public health, access to education, people serving time in prison, and representation of BIPOC in media, to name a few. But the inadequacy is much deeper than that.)
We must do something that feels paradoxical to get free from the ways of being we wish to leave behind. If we’re looking for transformation—that is, something radically different—we need to reckon with the ways of thinking and being that got us here. For this, I suggest a centuries-old practice called “shadow work.” At its most basic, this practice entails a postural shift from avoiding to facing: bringing to light that from which we try to hide. It has alternatively been called “chöd,” “having tea with your demons,” and “parts work.”
Generally, these practices are used at the individual level, but at this point in human history, I think they can and should be useful at the societal level. While we can understand trauma at the personal level (events one person has experienced), we can also understand trauma collectively (events that we have experienced together). White supremacy, though experienced very differently, is bad for people of all races. The same is true for colonialism, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy. In this way, there is potential for healing together from collective harms.
Shadow work teaches us that facing an emotion like dread holds the seeds for a re-envisioned relationship to the future, and with it, the unknown.
Turn Toward: What Does Dread Feel Like?
In turning toward dread, we must first reckon with the difference between where we are (for example: police brutality, the prison industrial complex, inhumane immigration policies) and where we want to be (for example: Black utopias, pleasure activism, Land Back). This is the point of potential transformation: Staying with the fear rapidly returns us to the basic assumptions that undergird injustice.
We encounter the ways dominating cultures and hierarchical systems have taught us to think: in terms of scarcity, separating people into categories of good and bad and uprooting people from their homelands. We come into contact with some of the premises behind our fear and dread, such as a subconscious belief that more rights for certain people means fewer rights for others (i.e., if land is given back to Indigenous people, where will settlers go?). By bringing these ideas from the shadow up to the conscious level, they can lose their control over us and therefore become less likely to accompany us into the future.
Sometimes, our relationship to the uncertain is one that provokes anxiety. In this way of relating, we will do anything to pacify that feeling of panic. By running from and avoiding, we get stuck in a fraught relationship to that which we really wish to move away from. In a healthier relationship with the unknown, we can cultivate space between our feelings, our interpretations of them, and our actions. We can pause in and expand that space.
From here, we can see other options, becoming more able to choose which actions to take rather than feeling like there’s only one all-or-nothing path. Instead of being fueled by anxiety, urgency, and fear, we can take a moment to look around and notice what is sprouting up among late-stage capitalism’s decay: those other ways of being that want to materialize.
Cultivate Curiosity: What Can Dread Teach Us?
In shadow work, all emotions have purpose. One of the purposes of dread could be to support us in not repeating past harms or, in other words, to live into the future in a way that is different from the past. After doing the work that includes noticing assumptions we’ve been taught, grieving loss, and reckoning with it, we can start to see what else is available.
If we’re not governed by subconscious beliefs and dread, what becomes possible? When we stop running from these emotions, we become able to integrate them into who we are, which happens through cultivating a deeper understanding of them. Then, we become more able to respond, to be accountable to them, and to make decisions about them: Do I want to act from a scarcity mindset? Does how we understand “justice” shift (like in the deep and ongoing work of transformative justice)? Might we be able to see leadership in new places?
Instead of scarcity, we could instead choose (over and over) to ground ourselves in real abundance: in our pleasure, in our relationships, and in our communities. We can begin to let go of inherited and imposed ideas of scarcity, competition, and false binaries that are fundamental to late-stage capitalism.
I hope that if we stop choosing these old ideas, we can start to move closer to being able to realize a world where Black lives would, in fact, matter.
Transcend: What Is the New Relationship?
Engaging in shadow work can help us shift our relationship to dread through nurturing our humility and curiosity. By creating this spaciousness for ourselves, we can also come into a different relationship with the unknown. As such, it is no longer “us versus dread,” but dread transforms into a companion and a portal.
The space that is created by turning toward the shadow, rather than running from it, is the space of possibility. Instead of an uncertainty that feels dark and small, the idea of possibility is open and maybe even refreshing. We can start to feel into possibilities with two simple words: “What if … ?” What if the “justice system” didn’t mean prisons? What if the U.S. government acknowledged and apologized for slavery as a starting point for reparations?
Rather than being in fear of a future that is reminiscent of the past in ways we don’t want, we can open to the richness of possibilities for other ways. Here we start to see the past, present, and future as spectra—not just as a singular story, but as multiple, ripe with potential, and maybe even exciting.
By not confusing dread with the unknown, we can collectively move from zombie apocalypse narratives, prepper fantasies, and individualistic plans to save ourselves, to creating generative spaces together where we can face the uncertainty. This post-capitalist, decolonial, and anti-racist unknown might not be as scary as we might assume: It could also be easeful, communal, and reparative.
What becomes available if it isn’t hard in the ways we’ve been thinking it would be?
Opening to the ‘Unknown’
Capitalism has only felt like a hopeful beginning for a small minority of people on the planet: a necessary piece of happiness, the way to success in life, the path to freedom. For most people, and the planet itself, capitalism has been a series of violent endings: the end of relationships with the land, of ancestral ways of being and knowing, of healthy communities. In this pro-capitalist minority (to be specific: the American upper and middle classes), some of us are finally able to sense the apocalypse that is fundamental to capitalism: that at its core, it is based on death.
Many people, though, have known this for a while—thousands of years, in some cases—and have been living outside (or on the margins) of racialized capitalism and colonialism for generations. Like Lisjan Ohlone people who still grind acorns in their homelands of so-called Oakland. Like people throughout Abya Yala (“Latin” “America”) who adapt capitalist technologies for community-led collaborative projects. Like enslaved people forced to live in unfamiliar territories who mapped out the path to freedom in each other’s hair. These snapshots of deep, ancestral work are not only about resisting; they are the threads of sovereignty that have never been cut.
These examples offer a glimpse into other worlds. In these worlds, what makes sense is different. Here, building a transcontinental pipeline that leaks oil into fresh water makes no sense, putting a river in a tube to go under a city is absurd, and creating technologies that are intentionally addictive could not be viable. In these worlds, maybe no one would have to say “Black lives matter,” because that would never have been in doubt.
I sense that this “we” who have been inhabiting these old ways of being are becoming ripe for something else. The top-heavy systems of domination can no longer be sustained and are in the process of collapse. As we’re being forced to the end of civilization as we know it, uncertainty and feeling lost are natural responses. In the face of this, it is OK to feel disoriented, and we must not get stuck there. In fact, this stuck-ness could be what is binding us to late-stage capitalism instead of collectively moving toward something else. Other realities already exist, but if we stay stuck in dread, we can’t fully see or access them.
We must not stop at the superficial work, merely signing toward emerging worlds. Pitching lawn signs in good intention is forgivable if it is a beginning, but not if it is another ending.
I hope that by engaging in this work—turning toward dread, getting to know it, and transcending it—we can collectively get a better sense of the post- and non-capitalist alternative worlds that exist now. Further, I hope we can see these practices as collective and shared, rather than pathologizing the problem as an individual psychosis that must be faced alone.
May we befriend the dread of the unknown as the gateway to becoming more able to sense what is already happening all around us and humbly supporting those who have been doing so for generations.
Ari Sahagún is a recovering member of the middle class looking for paths between here and post-capitalism. She is working on a book to cultivate a sense of togetherness in moving past capitalism, through healing ourselves at the individual, group, and social level. Ari is a queer, chronically ill, white-passing chicana who has helped organize people with wealth to move money toward Black- and Indigenous-led next economy projects. Their current work focuses on building and coaching networks for justice. They/she can be reached at https://arisahagun.org