Writer and activist Fiona Y. Teng moved to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 10 years old. Now 32, she describes learning to adapt to American culture as assimilation. “The result was a subconscious process of absorbing white America to replace my heritage, language, and values of being Chinese,” Teng says. That’s why part of her activism, she says, is “taking back” her Chinese identity and working to support others to claim their own identities.
Most women of color in the United States, particularly African American women, are familiar with the struggle to reclaim identity after years of living in a predominantly white culture that expects them to assimilate. But what these women may have overlooked is the importance of caring for their own physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
It’s called self-care, which has become part of the movement to resist white supremacy.
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“[U]ltimately, to take care of ourselves is to treasure ourselves and ensure that we’ll have the longevity to continue our activist work against racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other -isms that attempt to circumscribe and control bodies in this world,” writes Dr. Shanesha R.F. Brooks-Tatum in a 2012 article about the critical need for self-care. An educator, scholar, and activist, Brooks-Tatum founded the Annual National Black Women’s Life Balance and Wellness Conference in 2010 to “open dialogue about the challenges” of self-care for Black women. She says self-care needs to happen between occurrences of injustice and becomes even more necessary when organizing for change.
And it can look different for each woman.
Afro-Indigenous Dominican American writer and community organizer Mechi Annaís Estévez Cruz organizes marches for immigrants, disseminates civil rights information, and writes to raise awareness about systems of oppression and the work being done to dismantle them. For her, self-care could simply be admitting she’s overwhelmed. Not in a defeated way, but as an acknowledgement that she should not take on more than she can handle. It also involves reaching out for support.
“[One] thing I do is publicly admit that the work has become too much for me by letting other people know I’m struggling,” Estévez Cruz says. It’s often reciprocated, which gives her the shared strength she needs to keep going.
“It’s like I can feel the hands and arms and shoulders of my friends, the people who walk at my side with me, those who have come before me. It’s like I can feel them propping me up so I have the strength to get back out there and go another round with the world.”
When she’s in the Dominican Republic, Estévez Cruz says she spends as much time as she can outdoors — often in the ocean because it calms her. And when she’s in the United States, she goes to the gym four to five times a week because it makes her feel healthy and fit. “It makes me feel like if the revolution hits tomorrow, I’ll be ready.”
For journalist Keah Brown, her unique activism and self-care practices are related. “Because I am physically disabled, and I know that my body cannot take actual protests, my resistance and my activism takes place in essays and articles, and interviews. I make sure as well to also share other voices inside and outside of my community,” Brown explains. This involves writing features on the intersection of body image, disability, and race, as well as advocating for space to discuss the consequences of not having that room for productive conversations. The work lies in carving out that space despite relentless yet invisible campaigns to erase it.
When the work becomes too much for her, Brown says, she watches romantic comedies and indulges in junk food to find solace. “If I’m not doing either of those things, I hang out with my friends.” Spending time away from the work is the best way for her to re-energize, she says.
The specific ways Estévez Cruz and Brown practice self-care are not unusual. Unwinding in the ocean or binging on rom-coms and ice cream may sound somewhat familiar to everyone. What’s unusual is that women of color are doing these things. For these women, self-care is a radical concept, Brooks-Tatum asserts.
“It’s subversive to take care of ourselves because for centuries Black women worldwide have been taking care of others, from the children of slave masters to those of business executives, and often serving today as primary caregivers for the elderly as home health workers and nursing home employees,” she explains.
The importance of self-care is the message: “[T]o take care of ourselves means that we disrupt societal and political paradigms that say Black women are disposable, unvalued.”
Still, this new territory for many Black and brown women isn’t easy. Women of color do not move through the world unencumbered by their identities. Taking a nature walk, attending a yoga class, or checking into a spa always carries with it the possibility of being policed by others. A de-stressing event can take an unexpected stressful turn.
Dr. Brooks-Tatum offers strategies to deal with this conflict.
Setting boundaries and priorities, getting new role models, and creating a wellness manifesto — a plan of action to how we take care of ourselves, and community are key. “Self-care is critical for Black women because we are the only ones who can truly know when and how we need rest and rejuvenation. And sometimes, we don’t even know this ourselves until we take the intentional time to recalibrate and tune into who we truly are and what we need on a regular basis,” Brooks-Tatum expounded in an email.
What self-care looks like depends on a number of factors that aren’t necessarily predictable. “What we need to care for ourselves will be different for each person and will vary by life season and the types and degree of challenges that we face,” she said. Self-care can mean anything from exercise to meditation to artistic endeavors or quality time with loved ones. Fellow women supporting and maintaining that space for self-care is important.
She gives an example of this in her article, where she writes, “When sisters unite in self-care, regularly indulging in what they love such as dancing, painting, laughing — soul and sanity food — we’re engaged in a soulful insurrection that disrupts the very forces that seek to sacrifice our beings.”
Self-care is almost never easy, but neither is activism. Both are ongoing struggles for survival and preservation of identity and self-worth. Brooks-Tatum said, “It is a constant battle to take care of oneself in a world that devalues you at worst, and undervalues you at best.” However, she says, the battle does not have to be exhausting.
“And, quite matter-of-factly, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?”