For New (White) Activists: Self-Care and Privilege

A painful irony of modern life – the people that need self-care the most are the people who have the least amount of time for it.

I had my heart set on a graduate program in Social Work when I was younger. The very first thing we were taught in the Intro class was that without prioritizing our own care, we would never be successful in the field. Burn-out rates in social work are astronomical. Most only make it a few years before they need to find a new career path.

We may see that narrative play out on a huge scale in the near future. The horrifying murder of George Floyd made it so even those most apathetic to social justice causes couldn’t look away. Suddenly, everyone on the right side of history is an activist, or trying to be one. This can be either a great move toward a better future or another short-lived social media campaign.

To keep up with the vital (yet exhausting) work of fighting racism at every level, self-care is needed. This is true for everyone in the movement, but especially so for the BIPOC women who are, as always in this fight, taking the lead – organizing and running protests, churning out educational content on every social media platform, all while having to bear the realities of racial injustice in everyday life. I cannot understand, I will never feel that pain, but I will do everything I can to stand as an ally in that fight.

This part is for my fellow white people that are looking to become an ally or continue in allyship:

Runners approach a 100m sprint different than they approach a marathon. In a sprint, you’re expending all your energy as quickly as you can, knowing that the end is near and you’ll have time to rest when it comes. 

You approach a marathon differently. It’s going to take hours, and if you want to finish (many do not), you need to take a more measured approach. A slower approach.

The anti-racist movement will be a marathon. The white social media arm of the movement is approaching it as a sprint. The end is not in close range – this will be a lifetime of work for many of us. Spamming your instagram feed with reposts of black people’s work is good, but it’s not all. Running out of steam too early means we’re going to go back to “business as usual,” letting our privilege and the comfort that comes with it get in the way of doing the hard work – voting with our ballots, our dollars, and our time; changing how we approach our businesses; how we speak to our friends when no one else is listening, and how we react to our neighbors when they say things that we know to be racist and wrong. 

Slow down. 

We are able to best fight for others when we are fully charged. But taking time for ourselves can bring up a lot of guilt – do we deserve to prioritize ourselves while so many others are suffering?

Yes. You can take care of yourself without bringing others down. And you can take that guilt that comes along with privilege and self-awareness and use it to benefit those who were not afforded it.

Concepts to consider:

Recognize that being able to practice self-care in the traditional, Instagrammable way is privilege. Bubble baths are cool if you’ve got the time and the space. Few do. 

Recognize that even the concept of rest confers privilege. White people are encouraged to take rest when they’re overworked and burnt out. Black people who dare do the same are called “lazy” and “welfare queens.” 

Remember that privilege is to be acknowledged, but not something to beat yourself up over. That would just be centering yourself. Instead, consider how can you use that privilege to benefit others? In this case, if your self-care is bubble baths and skincare (mine sometimes is), use it actively as a way to recharge yourself for this fight.

Use your time wisely. You may have more free time than many BIPOC women. I do. And lately I’ve found myself wasting that free time letting my emotions overrun my ability to actually DO SOMETHING. Part of that is because I’ve let myself fall out of the routines that keep my anxiety at bay –  a key aspect of my own self-care. A woman paralyzed by overthinking is not one who is capable of making change in the world. 

Make space and take up the mantle for BIPOC women where you can, so they can take care of themselves and take what rest they can. We are here to support. Know that part of the privilege of being white is that other white people are more likely to listen to us. Use that privilege by reiterating the messages of BIPOC people to your white family, friends, and neighbors. Amplify their voices in a way only you can.

Take breaks from social media. If for no other reason than to remember that anti-racism is not about projecting the right image. It’s about doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading and listening. It took awhile to gather my thoughts for this post. Here are some of the resources I’m using (and will be sharing) to rethink my concept of self-care, examine my privilege, and conceive of new ways forward. Please share the resources you’ve been using in the comments (or message me).

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