I’ve been wrestling with this idea for a while now. Mostly because I know how ridiculous it can sound to those of us who are forever in the trenches fighting against real, lived bigotry and indifference that stares back at you without a break. How on earth are bubble baths and brunches with your girlfriends after mani-pedis supposed to solve the issues of systemic racism in this country? A bigot doesn’t care how much I love myself when she weaponizes her prejudice against me. A rogue cop doesn’t care or respect how intentional I am about being the master of my own safe space when he decides to go on a power trip the next time I appear less than enthused about the racially motivated infringement on right to exist like everyone else. But I’m not talking about that kind of self-care. And I’m not talking about those elements of social justice.
If you do this work long enough, you’ll find yourself navigating interesting waters between those opposed to change, those passive about it, and those who call themselves allies in the fight for it. Those opposed to change find any way to shut down conversation the minute you bring up racism and bigotry. Those passive about it will place “fifty-‘leven” (my southern folks know what that means) conditions on what you can say, how you should say it, and when you’re allowed to say it. Lastly, those who call themselves allies eventually get to a place where they become judge of the authenticity of your level of fight based on your level of anger.
In the world of social justice efforts, what I just mentioned is what we like to call “tone-policing.” Tone-policing in this work is on a spectrum and a virtual guarantee for anyone who actually lives the experience of a marginalized identity. No matter where someone is on that spectrum, their expectations of me, my movement in this work, and how it reflects upon them will always lead to them suggesting or imploring how I can do things differently. Either by saying so directly, or by amplify voices that say the same thing as me, but in the tone they agree with more, tone-policing is like a third wheel in our relationships that is always around. On one end, the conversations never start because I’m too angry. In the middle, no matter how tactful, I tend to be too direct and hurt white people’s feelings. On the other end, I’m often not angry enough. I expected the first two reactions when I started this work. That last group really caught me off my guard, though.
I can’t tell you how many times I haven’t been angry enough for a white ally when doing this work. How many times my words weren’t good enough. How many times I didn’t tell off a misinformed white person hard enough. It’s almost like they needed to be close to black woman rage in order to feel like they were a part of the movement. Like they could only relate to things being said from a place of pain. Like it was some sort of self-gratifying entertainment to witness someone fighting for their humanity from a place of intense brokenness. A romanticized brokenness even.
I began to notice that when I did not change my approach, they would just go searching for an angrier voice. One that spoke with the intensity they thought I should have, less my frustration with injustice not be taking seriously enough. If they couldn’t find one, they’d take that as a free pass to recruit an angry white ally to co-opt the rage they thought I was supposed to have. I felt a weird pressure to write and speak from that place in order to be heard by them. The desire to be heard made that pressure pretty effective. That pressure led to burnout and almost to my desire to leave this work altogether.
How was it that even when I was surrounded by people who “got it,” I still felt limited and restricted in my ability to be the advocate I knew I could be for my community? How was it that I couldn’t even define the emotional parameters of my work without risking being drowned out and unheard? That’s when it hit me. People who need me to live broken down and in anger in order for them to believe my pain and amplify my story were just as much a barrier to social justice as the bigot who denies that the pain even exists. A limitation on my ability to be me is a limitation on my ability to be me.
That’s when I realized that needed to center myself way more than I had in this work. Why? Because everything about anti-racism work centers white people. How they think. Why they think it. What will make them think differently. What actions they are taking. Why they are taking them. This list goes on.
It makes perfect sense, right? After all, we live in a world where systemic racism privileges white people and will continue to for the foreseeable future. Not because the average white person goes around intentionally cashing in privilege chips, but because long ago, racism was very much allowed to be codified into every way we run our society. Those issues can’t be resolved by the work of the underprivileged and underrepresented alone. And doing so will take time and hard labor to accomplish it. That just means any conversation about racism, anti-racism and social justice will forever prioritize white people. Not people of color. Not black people. Not me.
Social justice is so much more than just equality under the law. If that were enough, our fight would be over in so many areas right now. It is about more than just shaming bigots and racists into hiding. It is about my ability to live freely. My ability to exercise full choice in my pursuit of happiness. It is about ending every facet of systemic expectations, limitations, and oppressions on my ability to bloom as a beautifully and as bright as I want to be. It is about equal access to social privileges – including, but not limited to, the privilege of choosing to live in a place of peacefulness even though the world gives me every reason not to.
That is why I turned to self-care.
Self-care allows me to be the center of my own efforts. It doesn’t care about what white people are thinking and doing to advance the cause. It doesn’t care about whether white people approve of my celebrational or educational efforts. I do what I do because it feels good for meto do it. I say what I say because it feels good for meto say it. Self-care allows me to be heard by the most important person who needs to hear me. That person is me.
Self-care also allows me to elevate the truth of who I am with validation and encouragement. By centering myself, I don’t spend my time countering the lies of white supremacy. Instead of responding to the lie that I am not capable or that I don’t belong, I begin my day by affirming the truth, which is that I absolutely AM capable and I absolutely DO belong. That means I’m no longer spending my day rewriting someone else’s narrative. I’m drafting my own.
It all just boils down to the fact that I don’t believe that I have to wait until this fight is over before I can feel peace inside of me. Engaging with pain and the woes of society on my own terms isn’t only for the privileged.
Waiting for the fight to be over gives power to the very people who hold all of the privilege society has to offer.
Centering myself gives me the power to take some of that privilege for me. And that's some radical sh**.
I deserve that kind of peace. You do too. And that is why self-care is social justice.
P.S. - Don't forget to grab your copy of Every Day, Bloom. :)