Lotsa talk about Black woman as heroes these days. They’ve really been bringing the fight, and for that I am grateful.*
*(really they’ve been doing it for a while, but it’s just lately they’ve been all over the news. So I just wanna take a moment to say Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Coretta Scott King, Alicia Garza, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Shirley Chisholm, Ella Baker, Lena Horne, Angela Davis, Eartha Kitt, and so many others–I see you)
They’re bravely pushing the conversations in ways that we really need to go.
I have no doubt that they’re acting from a place of urgency more primordial than any of ours, that’s what’s giving them the courage. But let’s be clear: they’re not here to save us. Nobody saves anybody. We all save ourselves, together. In fact, the brave work that they’re doing may actually be killing them.
That’s what I want to talk about with you.
White sisters, c’mere. Come sit with me. I made us some tea. Let’s pause and chat about something really important.
See, when we talk about self-care we have to acknowledge one stark fact and that is:
While I worry as a white woman about burning out, my sisters of color worry that their lives are on the line.
I can count on one hand the number of white activists that I think have died in the line of battle. A lot of them are also economic justice activists, and their lives were worn down by poverty as well as stress.
On the other hand, the number of activists of color for whom we can trace their deaths back to their activist careers are so many that the list would fill a page at least. Women of color who speak out receive death threats. Black activists have been killed many, many times for taking a stand, some of them in some really grim ways. They’ve got every right to take those threats very seriously.
In addition to that, the constant grind of racism itself causes elevated stress hormones over a lifetime and is linked to depression. In fact, there’s an actual, honest-to-God syndrome called the Soujorner syndrome or Superwoman Schema (SWS) which is used to explain the fact that Black women die sooner than other groups in response to persistent chronic stress and coping methods related to overload. Here we are praising Black women for giving their everything, and it’s literally killing them.
So when we talk about self-care we have to acknowledge that for some of us self-care is more of a question of survival than longevity.
Ok. So right here, right now, I need you to check your guilt-levels.
Did that statement just make you feel all heavy? It’s a truth, but did it just make you feel like you maybe shouldn’t have what you have in life? Or that you need to stop talking about your own struggles?
Before we go any further we need to talk about the white guilt that many of us carry that says I cannot stop and rest because other people do not have the same advantages that I do.
That shit has to stop, y’all.
There is nothing wrong about having your basic needs met. We do not need to sacrifice ourselves as martyrs to the cause until everybody gets theirs.
Instead of beating ourselves up for having what we need, we need to get outraged that some people don’t.
We need to link arms with those that don’t have what they need and say: “Your needs will be the priority until we are all on the same playing field.”
Then it means that we need to actually do what we say, and make their needs a priority even if it means putting our own on the back burner for a moment.
It means that sometimes their voices lead the challenge–all the time acknowledging that they will need more breaks and more rest than we do because the world is beating up on them and their families harder than on ours.
Please stop beating yourself up for the truly awful things our nation–and in some cases our family members–did in the past. Guilt serves no one. It drags you down, it saps your strength. It makes you question your self-worth. You have value. You are important to this movement. Your hands, your efforts are needed.
We are not guilty of the sins of our forefathers, but we ARE responsible for their after-shocks.
When I first moved into the place where I live right now there was tons of trash in the yard. We cleaned it up because that is the world that I want for my family and for my daughter. The same thing is true of our political world.
Maybe we did not create the mess that we live in. Anyone with any sort of childhood trauma knows that we are not responsible for the actions of our parents, but if I see a piece of trash on the ground I am going to pick it up. It is not my fault that is on the ground; I did not throw it out there, but if I leave it there, if I do not pick it up… Well then, that’s on me.
Drop that white guilt.
Put that white guilt down. Right there on the ground where you’re standing. Walk away from it and don’t look back.
I don’t believe in motivating people out of guilt. I know some Black organizers that have built up quite the following on white guilt. I’m not going to name names because they’re doing good work. But I’m not here for the white guilt. I think the guilt as an emotion is incredibly damaging to our psyches. And in terms of the movement it is actually counterproductive.
Why? Guilt is a negative emotion. With negative emotions we will only create change long enough to remove the pain. In terms of guilt, that means that we will only be motivated to make social change in so far as we are removing our feelings of guilt. This leads us to do stupid things like giving to charities that create poverty porn and giving money just to immediate crises rather also building long-term progressive change.
Your white guilt is also making the problem worse.
Feeling bad all the time is exhausting. It’s gonna make you tired and resentful. You’re gonna end up turning on the very Black people you’re supposed to be allied with because their mere presence makes you feel so crappy all the time.
Moveover, white guilt feeds into the same process that is killing Black women. We (white people) say, “We’re sinners. We’re not worthy,” and the next step that follows is to hold up POC as saviors and paragons. The same process that knocks white people down a peg, puts Black folks up on a pedestal. Nope. No superheroes. We’re all just people trying to do the best with what we’ve got.
Drop that white guilt. It’s hurting you. It’s hurting others. Now that you’ve put down your white guilt as an outdated tool that’s not helping anyone, what next?
Listen to Black women and build a sense of solidarity instead.
If we work from positive emotions–solidarity, friendship, alliances based on positive self-esteem and valuing others, then we have the grounds for a sustainable movement. We have an unshakable foundation that enables us to build for the long term. No one will run back to their safe bubbles when their friends are on the line.
We need to build a sense of common interest and shared outrage at the problems. This is a positive force for change, not guilt. This starts with listening to Black women’s assessment of the problems.
While Black women are not here to save us, they are the ones who see the solutions the clearest. While you and I may need to stare at a problem for a few minutes and digest the layers happening in front of us, Black women often can see right through it all in a glance. They know layers of oppression because they lived them. There’s no need to remember all the things that need factoring in, because life keeps reminding them of it on a daily basis. So listen when they speak.
And lemme tell you something, there’s no more powerful thing than being listened to. Really listened to and respected. Especially if all day long you feel like you’re shouting to be heard. So who knows? You might just make some friends while you’re listening. Not saying it’s a guarantee, but the odds are in your favor. Win-win.
Check in with your Black friends.
While you’re really, really listening, pay attention to the points of stress in their lives.
Do they get a lot of crap at work? Is navigating a medical system extra stressful for them because they have to worry about whether or not their doctor is ignoring their symptoms? Do they have a young son and the latest police shooting (or the anniversary of a previous one) has them white-knuckling life?
Check in with your POC friends in times of struggle. This doesn’t mean getting your white-savior hat and running around to all the Black activists whenever something bad comes out in the media. But it does mean keeping an eagle-eye out for the signs that your friends are going through a hard time, and recognizing that they’ve probably got a few other layers of things going on top of that making things even worse. For example, they might be having a hard day because of what’s happening in the news and then someone at the store said something royally stupid to them to top it off. Or if they release some of the stress in public, they are more likely to be judged negatively.
See how they’re holding up, and just send out a message of support. If you’re closer, see if you can help them make space in their lives for some self care. Invite them for a walk or a cup of coffee, offer some child-care, make an extra-large dinner and invite them over to share. They may not take you up on it. Maybe you’re not close enough for any of that, and all you can do is send them a Facebook hug. That’s all Ok. Just make sure that they know you see their struggle, you recognize that it’s extra hard for them today, and that you love them. That means a lot, in and of itself.
While you’re at it, honor and defend POC-only spaces
Some POC folks aren’t going to turn to you for support. They’re going to turn to people that have been through similar things as themselves. That’s only natural. As an ally, your job is then to defend these spaces as if they were yours.
Support (and fund!) programs that work to expand self-care to disadvantaged groups, even if you’ll never use the service yourself. There are programs trying to bring yoga to black and latino communities and ballet to little black girls, others that help inner-city graffiti muralists be recognized as mainstream artists. Send money to fund these sorts of projects. Work to defend these programs against people who say they need to be integrated, or somehow “less urbanized” or any other code-word for less Black. Give money to mentorship programs helping POC to run for office and to foundations funding POC-led organizations.
Folks of color need these safe spaces to breathe. And the organizations are always struggling to keep their heads above water because the people running the programs have all the same weights pulling them down as the people they’re trying to help. Do you part and help shore them up however and wherever you can.
Start by combating the Superhero Syndrome
The first thing you can do is start questioning every time our society asks Black women to save us.
Disrupt the conversations that suggest that Oprah or Michelle Obama need to run for president in 2020–did they ever show signs of wanting that? Why aren’t we supporting women of color who actually want the job?
Look to the women of color around you and ask yourself if they’re getting enough space to breathe? Ask them that. Ask your organizations that. Do what you can to change the dynamics so that they can.
Fight for a world where no one has to be a superhero, just human.