Radical Self-Care as Resistance by Fatimah Jackson-Best
In the last several months I’ve seen a number of articles and think-pieces about self-care from mainstream websites aimed at women, and sites that focus on Black women specifically. Many highlight self-care engaged in by the individual, which is sometimes made up of doing things for oneself like having a spa day, taking time off work, or buying something as a reward. While combing through those resources I found a beautiful quote from former Black Panther and Prison Abolitionist, Angela Davis on the topic of self-care. She said, “Self-care and healing and attention to the body and the spiritual dimension—all of this is now a part of radical social justice struggles.” (Angela Davis, 2016). I appreciated that she uses the word ‘now’. Maybe she is reflecting on how self-care was or wasn’t prioritized when she was a younger activist. In this quote Professor Davis is speaking about changes she’s seen to what is considered radical, the spiritual work that she’s engaged in now, and how this is reflected in her social justice work around prison abolition. She speaks of bridging our personal and social worlds so that we can become better activists, and I’ll add- better people. To her this kind of work is radical, and worthy of our personal and collective investment. And when someone like Angela Davis is impressing upon us the importance of integrating this into our lives and work then I know we have to listen.
Lately I have been speaking and thinking a lot about self-care beyond practices of buying or purchasing things (which I am not vilifying at all- I have and do engage in these kinds of practices myself). I started thinking about self-care and more recently radical methods of self-care at the end of my PhD when I was working hard to finish my dissertation, and having constant fears that I would be a failure. I had an idea that self-care was important, but I didn’t know of a clear way to pursue it or even the concrete reasons for why it was so critical. With some time and distance between that experience and now, and inspired by Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, I want to share methods of radical self-care that I hope each of can pursue where ever we are and with what ever means we have.
- The Work of Grounding One’s Self
Grounding One’s Self is the act of acknowledging where you are right now, honouring what you are engaged in doing, and being present in your life as it is happening. Grounding one’s self is based on the belief that our actions should be framed by an awareness of where we are in this moment and what has led us to the space we are inhabiting, and the work we are doing.
We all know that person who is doing a lot and from the outside we don’t know how they are accomplishing it all. They are able to write amazing think pieces, have successful relationships, and fight the power all at the same time. And now think about if that this description, more or less, is of you? And it’s possible that even you don’t know how you are managing to do everything. Yet on most days you wake up to do a little more and push a little further.
If this kind of behaviour sounds familiar, that’s because it’s part of the ways that many of us seek legitimacy and acceptance by being exceptional. But we forget that exceptionalism has a process and a price. Sometimes that process and price looks like having to choose between being with your loved ones to attend a conference, or staying up all night to make sure your writing is done only to head to work to make sure your bills can be paid.
Grounding yourself requires you to be still and acknowledge where you are right now, in this current moment, and realize that your progress was not by accident or luck: it is the outcome of tremendous work and effort. Grounding yourself is the acknowledgement of where you are and giving it respect. In doing this work we become mindful and present so that we can truly experience everything that is going on around us and for us. Without doing this work we risk becoming numb and walking through life and our biggest accomplishments not knowing how they really felt.
Grounding one’s self will look different for each of us. But for me it looks like finding stillness and sitting with it. It looks like deep breathing to release my fears of failure and appreciate that every single one of my falls has allowed me to rise and try again. It is being mindful and intentional about everything I do. The everydayness of grounding oneself allows us to constantly work towards self-care, and by doing that work we endlessly invest and reinvest in ourselves.
- The Work of “Undoing”
The Work of Undoing was inspired by a friend who left the Caribbean at 18 years old to attend University in North America. In conversation we shared our experiences being Black women in Universities that had small populations of Black people, and how this forced us to learn to cope and manage with that reality which becomes work in itself. My friend called it the Work of Undoing and she said, “I wish someone had told me that my simple presence would be a contested space and helped me to understand what that meant”. For my friend, being a Black, non-American, queer woman made her the target of daily assaults and micro-aggressions that she wasn’t prepared for. She was constantly feeling like she didn’t belong in the places she had earned the right to be in, and every time she turned a corner or faced a difficult task another would crop up and this kept her feeling like everything in the world was conspiring against her to push her out.
Most of these the issues are systemic and deeply engrained in our Universities, institutions, and communities which is precisely why they are so successful in keeping us from feeling like we can really belong. But the Work of Undoing is about doing exactly what my friend and I did while talking about our similar experiences in academia: it’s about finding people who can identify with your experiences and frustrations, getting together because of this commonality, and unpacking and challenging it together. The Work of Undoing requires that when you get together you name and confront these things using whatever means available to you. This may look like talking to each other in open and honest ways about what is going on, journaling, or organizing formal or informal spaces for women of colour, people of colour, and LGBTQ people. It may be sharing stories and strategies for survival. It may look like developing a listserve, whatsapp, or Facebook groups to share resources and check in with one another. And it may look like finding that one person where ever you are and supporting each other throughout. The Work of Undoing is collective work, but the collective does not necessarily mean a mass of people- it can be just 2 of you, but it should not and cannot just be you.
- The Actual Work of Care
The Actual Work of Care is totally dependent on what you envision it to be. But I want to be careful about falling into those narrow consumerist-driven techniques for caring for one’s self. I am cognizant and critical of the fact that telling women who may have constricted financial circumstances that the Work of Caring for themselves only looks like a spa-day, or buying something nice, or taking the day off work. We know that these kinds self-care techniques do not pay attention to class, access, and the privilege of being able to seek out care in these ways and that excludes many women.
That’s not say that The Actual Work of Care cannot involve those kinds of things, but I want to expand our understandings of what is underlying the Actual Work of Care, and that is the fundamental practice of putting yourself first and being unapologetic about it. To me that is what Audre Lorde meant when she said “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (Lorde, 1988). She is speaking of investing passionately and radically into ourselves and our holistic wellness as much as we invest in our degrees, social justice causes, and advocacy. Doing this kind of radical self-care work is sometimes perceived as being selfish only because we have constructed our personal wellness as being somehow outside of the pursuit for justice. That false distinction is probably the biggest lie we can tell ourselves. We have to know that being well is a right, and not a privilege. And each of us has the right to what we need in order to feel our best and perform our best. This means that simple things like eating well, sleeping well, loving well, speaking well, thinking well, and living as well are all techniques for engaging in the Work of self-care, and it’s our right and responsibility to pursue them radically and unapologetically.