Is White Women’s fixation With Self-Care related to white guilt and white fragility?
Is Social Justice Work in the process of being hijacked for White Women’s Wellness Spaces?
Ok. Let’s pick apart this sacred cow.
Why do some (did I really need to say “not all white people”?) white people with their ever pervasive advice and default ‘go-to’, always quote the 13th commandment which seems to be about self-care, and these days, self-care that ironically always seem to be involved with culturally appropriated goods and services?
What is it in this mandate for self-care that seems to carry the trojan horse of privilege, even though I am not diametrically opposed to the concept of self care, and yet — it makes me recoil whenever anyone advises me of such, or else proudly proclaims in their latest status update about their trip to their culturally appropriated yoga class, ritual or self-care technique. I can’t help but wonder when I see those status updates: Is this a class status update and/or a proclamation move to get status points in the collective psyche of white well-being? Is this to shore up and perpetuate the modern myth of self-care as a fixation as the salvation to our problems?
Recently I had a white member in my community give her consistent suggestions of self-care in an email to our mixed-race group social justice group, and the advice seemed to underscore an odd equation. It was something about paying attention to when the labor (in doing social justice work) begins to feel that it stops benefitting of our ‘personal’ process; to remember to pause, and self-care.
Shaking my head after reading, I thought to myself: this is what social justice looks like for white women.
Are white people so far removed from social oppression (unless they specifically struggle with other intersectional issues that place them outside the dominant paradigms of mainstream normal in such a way that significantly impacts them), that they they could not hear the irony in that statement? No one else in my social justice group seemed to have a problem with that statement.
I know we are living worlds apart when the above advice, instead of being welcomed by me, feels more like one of the those never-ending paper cuts, way under the level of calling it a micro-aggression yet none-the-less, it lands on me like a white-centered, white-privileged paper cut yet again.
You can be sure that white women will make the priority of social justice work come second to their self-care. Is there something wrong about that, or is that not really a bad thing? I mean, I know I could use to have a better practice of self-care. This is tricky to talk about without creating a dichotomy of either/or. How to peel back to the underbelly of this.
To me it just underscores the difference of the lived reality of social/racial justice between a white woman and a woman of color. To a white woman, she has the privilege to walk away, (though she may not be to the decumbent point of relating to social justice work as a hobby) there is a vast difference when one is being impaled by racial injustice, in which one does not get to walk away from it, from someone who is all about the pause, all about taking long breaks to self-care.
It just irks me. Because there is never really a pause in the lived experience of social/racial injustice for people of color. #pauseforsocialjustice —is this a new millennial hybrid of social justice work that needs to not be given a verbatim free pass of unexamined critical thinking? Not to say true/not true, but this dynamic has my nose sniffing around as there is some fragility I sense in it.
I’m starting to feel like a bi-racial Carrie Bradshaw in a kiss and tell version of my social justice activist groups. This will not end well. My self-care is not to pause, but to write. To be able to name the thing that makes me wanna go grrrr, to sort out the subtle mixed messages frequently delivered by white women is a bitch and ongoing labor…I’m just imagining Carrie Bradshaw in a racial justice group, which seems laughable, but who knows? The Oscars was all a buzz with social justice sound bites last night. The next thing, imagine Carrie’s white fragility in 4.1" Manolo Blank stilettos, with her lilting voice saying: “I really am not comfortable with you calling out my culture of self-care. What does that have to do with racial justice?”
Here’s what I think that it has to do with it. The sentence above that asks one to consider the labor output vs. the personal benefits in one’s process in social justice work. Is it just me, that the equation seems so white-centered, I need to wear sunglasses to look at it? Social justice work is about others, not about personal benefit. This is not to say self-care is not important because it is.
But what that statement is highlighting for me, is the unassumed entitlement that white people are used to receiving benefits with everything and their priority for self-care because they are used to the wall to wall privilege of not having to live with much racial stress. It’s like trying to turn social justice work into another white woman’s process in the Self-Help Industrial Complex. This is where I think taking a pause would be really appropriate to examine.
Quite honestly, it seems to point out the slippery slope of white people working for social justice when they are perhaps still trying to differentiate anti-racism work from the realm of white-saviorship, or if not that, that they are trying to make social justice work fit into their known world which is white women’s wellness spaces. And there are some obvious issues with that.
Does anyone not really not get how blatantly white-centered that statement is:
labor = benefit, that is so saturated in privilege and that for some of us, we do not do this for personal benefit but because we have to do it? Because our grandson ends up with a police knee on his neck? Because black people are pulled over by police because they are driving while black, and the possible outcome of death because of that?
Because we do this in response to living, breathing, seeing or feeling racism every day of our lives and we never get a pause on it? The pause, though technically not wrong, and meant to support, can’t help but sound like attending a cacao ceremony led by a white woman to me. It just rubs me the wrong way…I don’t know. Maybe it’s just time for me to call it quits with mixed-race social justice groups for awhile.
Try to imagine saying this statement to Rosa Parks or Malcolm X. Or to all the nameless uncelebrated people for Black Lives Matter. Or all the people that were in the streets in Ferguson. I know the statement is meant to support, but all it does is feel like a bit of a hijacking of social justice work to insert it in white women’s wellness spaces. Is this how white fragility will shape mixed-race social justice groups? What if Rosa Parks said to herself: “hmmm, I don’t like sitting on the back of the bus today, maybe I should go take a bath in rose petals instead to heal my heart”.
I’m just here in my instinctual grrr because I’m trying to self-care in mixed-race social justice groups and it seems that the first order of self-care for me in those groups is in the constant naming of what feels funky to me. And that is not exactly self-care for me, but trying to not get gas-lit by the layers of the onion of white-centered activism. It’s a hella labor.
For a woman of color, there is personal self-care, and there is also the kind of self-care that is connected to larger systems. In a larger system, my self-care is about not letting social justice work get hijacked into the unseen corners of white-centered women’s spaces.
Is this where white guilt and white fragility can use the guise of self-care in order to white-wash social justice work? Would tone-policing get more subtle under the guise of somatic work: regulating our nervous systems? In my mixed-race social justice group, I bump up against this. It makes me really uneasy.
When I start hearing in my groups: “I am feeling too stressed, this is not good for ‘my’ body”, I start to see that white fragility is marrying the self-care genre and that combination is starting to hijack social justice work. What about the black and brown bodies that white supremacy is definitely not good for? Can social justice not always be about you? When white women start to center their wellness in social justice work, it starts to become an extension of their centering and privilege, and a continuation of the white supremacist conditioning that we are seeking to dismantle. This is tricky.
I am thinking about what James Baldwin would have to say on the subject, and yes, thank the google gods that I can pull up something he speaks to, exactly about white guilt and white fragility:
“This is utterly futile, of course, since they [white people] do see what they see. And what they see is an appallingly oppressive and bloody history known all over the world. What they see is a disastrous, continuing, present condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility. But since in the main they seem to lack the energy to change this condition they would rather not be reminded of it. Does this mean that in their conversation with one another, they merely make reassuring sounds? It scarcely seems possible, and yet, on the other hand, it seems all too likely. In any case, whatever they bring to one another, it is certainly not freedom from guilt. The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of fears.
And to have to deal with such people can be unutterably exhausting for they, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one, disagreeable mirror though one may be, has not really, for the moment, made. 0ne does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that — Americans — white Americans — would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives.”
I know I have that guilt by the privilege of living in a first world country that is at the top of the world hegemony. I can only imagine how it lives in the psyche of those with increasing privilege, white people heading that hegemony. And thus, what I am seeing is the all pervasive response of white women to get fixated on self-care. The 13th commandment of the white privileged.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-self care. And the women in my social justice groups are far far away from Carrie Bradshaw. They are amazing women whom I love, and yet I have to straddle the political/racial divides and glaring blind spots of white-centered privilege in all its layers. I cringe when that sacred cow of self-care is trotted into the room all the time, as if that is the priority in our group. For me it is not. However — it is for some of the white women. And I wonder if this comes from the ever shape-shifting form, ‘the tireless agility’ of white guilt and fragility.
Is this going to be the place where social justice gets appropriated like yoga or cacao ceremonies and become just another place where white women can do the current feel good trend and duck out of true accountability? Judging by the Oscars last night, I would say, we are well on our way to Social Justice being hijacked by the privileged to appropriate and use for their guilty consciences. Just like recycling. As if we are doing our part for the planet by separating plastic from paper, never mind it just gets carted off to China and burned for the most part (the dirty little secret of recycling) or that China doesn’t want to deal with our trash any longer.
So, yes, I am poking at the 21st century sacred cow of self-care. Go ahead and shoot me. But please don’t hijack social justice work and sugar coat and dilute it for white wellness women’s groups. However — if you do, just don’t hold a cacao ceremony before you start your group, or I will direct my friend Pilar Mejia on you and that would ruin your social justice party for sure.
Addendum: Since I wrote this, I realized how fucking burnt out I am, and how much my nervous system is like a train wreck with social justice ptsd of sorts. I did step back from one of my social justice groups. I am doing some EMDR therapy. I started to do this really great self-compassion meditation. I am getting coaching from a wonderful Skills For Change coach named Nancy Shanteau who is supporting me to work and recognize when I am triggered and how to do somatic intervention with it. This is not to say that what I wrote is now invalid. This is to point out that there are so many layers to the onion of white conditioning that we just need to keep peeling back. And that it is never either/or. I mean James Baldwin escaped to France to self-care. Not to disappear in a bubble of self-care, but to better take care of his amazing soul that continued to pour out his penetrating eloquence even 50 years later, living beyond his death. We do need to self-care, AND we need to question the incessant fixation that women, especially white women have with it. Self-care will never assuage guilt, nor should it.
The point is not to self-care or to self-care, but to dismantle the ‘tireless agility’ of the tendency of white people to keep re-inventing myths in order to distract themselves from facing the real work at hand which is in dismantling white supremacy and its twin of unbridled toxic capitalism.
“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” — James Baldwin.