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There is No Self-Care without Community Care

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November 10, 2020

Illustration: Dani Pendergast

You know that weird thing that happens when you say a word too many times repeatedly, and it starts to feel funny on your tongue when you pronounce it, and sound funny when you hear it? After a while, you don’t even know if the word you’re saying is real? That’s what the term “self-care” has become for me.

Your favorite instagram therapist has a bulleted list of ideas on how to care for self. Cosmetic brands are selling 98% petroleum jelly, 2% lavender essential oil eye creams under the guise of self care. At the end of every hour-long zoom meeting (which let’s be real, could have easily been an email, but I digress,) there’s some kind of self-care lecture and plug. At this point, I don’t know if self-care is really about care or if it has just served as a corporate marketing ploy and a hollow message for non-profit organizations to Salt Bae-sprinkle on the end of week emails to their overworked staff, hoping it absolves themselves from any kind of guilt they may feel (y’all know who you are 👀).

In actuality, the self-care movement has deep, radical roots as well as race, gender, and class dynamics behind the concept, that many are not aware of. The true intention of self-care is unfortunately drowned out by misaligned, co-opts to profit from. Nonetheless, the history of self-care was and continues to be vital to the movement towards freedom and deserves to be honored in its fullness.

The emergence of self-care began in the healthcare setting back in the 1950s, originally used to characterize actions, like personal grooming and exercise, that institutionalized patients could take to practice their autonomy and foster a sense of self-worth.

However, I think all the credit of our contemporary interpretation of self-care is due to the Black Panther Party. In the 1970s, the BPP began to promote a message to Black folks that prioritized looking after their health and well-being, noting that our own wellness was essential in order to remain resilient in the face of relentless systemic and medical racism.

The Black Panthers revolutionary fight for liberation in the United States was not limited to organizing around racial injustice, but it included and uplifted community care. Since the government would not provide aid, out of necessity, the BPP established “survival programs” such as health facilities, education programs, and distributed food throughout their communities. This is a Black Panther Party concept known as “revolutionary intercommunalism”. In the 70s and still today, Black communities and communities of color lack access to basic social services because of systemic barriers. The Black Panthers understood that in order to survive in this world, they had to take care of themselves and, inherently, one another.

The late activist Audre Lorde, adopted these philosophies in her own writing and expanded on self-care in her essays. Most notably in her 1988 book, A Burst of Light, Lorde writes “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. This quote has acted as a famous declaration for self-care, particularly for Black women, who are often pillars of their community and tasked with taking care of everyone around them, leaving little care for themselves

Self-care is also especially needed in activist spaces. “(Practicing radical self-care) means we’re able to bring our entire selves into the movement,” says Angela Davis, “It means we incorporate into our work as activists ways of acknowledging and hopefully moving beyond trauma. It means a holistic approach.”.

The problem with what I’ll call “new age self-care” is that it can become too capitalistically driven and centered on luxurious pampering that has very little to do with sustainable nurturing and all to do with spending money, which for the communities that actually need the most care, they cannot access!

The reality is that we cannot escape the exhaustion and violence that is systemic oppression and white supremacy. It is the culture that we live in. Although self-care has never ensured an escape, this does not mean that all acts of self-care should be so short-sighted and diluted to a point of frivolousness. The realities of racism cannot be outrun, out-bought, or pampered away, only lived with, yet simultaneously resisted. This brings us back to recognizing the true intent of self-care, as modeled for us by the Black Panthers, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis, and in doing so, “it can inform our own self-care practices.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.

Audre Lorde

Self-care doesn’t have to cost a thing. It can look like pursuing connection and community, mutual aid, supportive and reciprocal relationships, self-reflection journaling, validating feelings in a vulnerable conversation, setting boundaries, listening to your body, meditation, resting without justification or reason, feeding your friends, reading for pleasure, spending time in nature, quiet moments, crying, cultivating joy, practicing peace etc. Self-care is anything that gives you a way to reconnect with yourself and your community in meaningful, long-term ways that nurture our individual welfare and gives us the power to survive and continue to do the collective work.


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