community

Black women loving and holding each other fiercely

The text was two sentences and in that moment those two sentences were everything.

 “Look, you’re not on this journey alone. I’ll be your person.”

Tears immediately sprang to my eyes. Recent experiences had rocked me to the core and lately it felt like my world was crumbling around me. I desperately needed support. I needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t judge me. And even though I had known her for less than two months, here she was offering me advice, compassion and unconditional friendship.

Though I wanted to be surprised, I was not. And I gratefully accepted and received the help.

This is what Black women do for each other-- especially in times of crisis. Somehow, even though we have a world of burden and hurt that we are carrying for ourselves, we rally and create loving community for each other and those around us.

 It is one of our greatest gifts.

 It can also be one of our biggest downfalls.

 In carrying the weight of the world, we often forget about taking care of ourselves. Self-care appears to be a luxury, not a necessity or a right. And because of it, we suffer. We have high rates of heart disease, obesity, mental, emotional and physical stress that goes unspoken and undiagnosed. Between racism, misogynoir, being superwomen who get shit done and holding space for everyone, we experience a combination of trauma and physical illness that is, quite literally, killing us.

 Of course, what I’m sharing is not a new phenomenon. Black women have been writing and talking about this topic for years, especially in the wake of some of the more recent incidents police and structural violence directed at Black people. However, it’s been on my mind a lot recently as I move through the world, talk with and read the words of other Black women. During a phone call this week, a sister-friend and colleague shared the following with me:

“A brother said to me ‘Black women don’t take care of themselves. White women are always in the gym taking care of themselves.’ My response to him: ‘We are busy taking care of you, your children and the community. We are raising the community. We are saving the community. We don’t have extra time to go to the gym, too.’” – DJ

 I reject this brother’s observation for a whole host of reasons. As someone who prides herself on nuanced, critical thinking and high level analysis, I have no desire to entertain intellectually lazy and simplified arguments.  Clearly, it goes without saying that not all White women take care of themselves and that all Black women don’t. I know plenty of White women who are also stressed out by the pressures of daily life and struggle with self-care. I also know a number of sisters who are making self-care a priority and are always in the gym, at the yoga studio, eating right etc. And I’m definitely not here for ANY kind of shaming of Black women, particularly with comparisons about how White women take care of themselves in a way that results in a more physically attractive appearance than Black women. To me that comment is reflective of nothing more than internalized racism and oppression, patriarchy and ignorance that I don’t have time or interest in refuting or expounding on.

What I do wonder about is why we are characterized so negatively and judged so harshly considering that we literally give our bodies in the service of caring for other people?

Black women’s bodies (just like our hair) have always been and continue to be political. We gave birth to the labor that built this country and also built this country through our own labor. We’ve never fully been in control of our own bodies since literally anyone and everyone has been able to tell us what to do with it since we arrived in this part of the world. We’ve been enslaved and given birth to enslaved peoples. We’ve been the mistresses of enslavers and victims of their sexual assault. We’ve clothed and fed White bodies. We’ve nursed White children from our own breasts. We’ve cared for the elderly and dying relatives of White people. If you add up that labor from 1619 to 2016, we’ve been doing that work for 397 years. 

Yet, outside of the conversations that we have with each other, there is no understanding of the physical, emotional and mental challenges that face Black women in this society and why it might be difficult to prioritize our self-care. It’s assumed that we are overweight and out of shape (and subsequently unhappy) because we are lazy. And if one of us is “in shape” (meaning a physique that is deemed acceptable by Western European standards), she is held up as a model to the rest of us to let us know that we are deficient in some way and need to do better.

 The above idea is demonstrated by Kanye West’s music video for the song “Fade” which premiered this past weekend at the MTV Video Music Awards. To be honest, I’m not a fan of Ye’s (I gave up on him sometime between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his relationship with Kim Kardashian) or the VMA’s. But the resulting conversations about the model in the video, Teyana Taylor, and Black women’s fitness have provoked much to reflect on. While I haven’t seen the whole video, I have been inundated daily with GIFs, memes and photos of Teyana’s physique. Generally, the impressions that I get from these images are that I am super lazy for not looking like Teyana.

 They scream: “Teyana has a newborn but she’s in great shape!” “Teyana is a Black woman just like you and she can do it all, why can’t you?” “Teyana proves that Black women actually do go to the gym and work out!”

 There is little to dispute. Teyana has a phenomenal body and has likely put a lot of time and effort into shaping it. I commend her, support her and cheer her on as she makes her way in the world as a Black woman who is fly as fuck.

I also know that I am not Teyana. The women I know are not Teyana. She is 25. We are in our late 20s, 30s and 40s. Without getting into a comparison of our lived experiences, I will say that at 25, I most certainly had a different set of experiences and priorities than I do at 38. I was not married, I wasn’t even working full time (I was still in grad school) and I hadn’t fully experienced all those racial and sexist microagressions that let me know that despite my best efforts, the world would often let me know that it does everything it can to make sure that Black women do not thrive.  At 25, I had much more time and energy to go to the gym and obsess over my figure than I do now- although I spent nearly every moment on my studies to make the $50,000 student debt worth it. And I certainly hadn’t made the connection to the fact that every ounce of mental and emotional energy I would put into fighting racism and sexism in my later years would leave me physically drained. But that aside, even if I had 8 hours a day to work out incessantly, my body type is different than hers. I will never look like Teyana. I’m ok with that. That’s actually the beauty of Black women; we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, textures and personalities. We do not have to look like Teyana to be worthy of love, attention and humanity.

While I know these things with absolute certainty, it would be nice for the rest of the world to understand that when we aren’t prioritizing our self-care, its not because we are lazy. In fact, very often its because we are prioritizing your health, happiness and well-being. We are also helping each other on our individual journey toward health, happiness and well-being.

 Stop judging us. Be thankful for all we do.

 While I know that my own self-care is not a luxury, I know need to pay better attention to it. Perhaps in some way my writing this down is my way of putting that intention out into the universe. However, I also know that, for me, self-care doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym or eliminating carbs from my diet.  While those are certainly forms of self-care, I’m certain that the physical is empty without the spiritual and emotional work I need to do to lift myself up. When I reflect on my self-care, what’s really teaching me the most about loving myself is what I learn through with other Black women. Through their words, actions and deeds, Black women show me that, no matter how terrible things get, we can always give much needed attention, support and healing to each other. It encourages me to reach beyond myself and to give back to other women. My interaction with other Black women is my self-care. In community, we make space for each other to be heard. To be seen. To be human. To be each other’s “person.” If that’s not self-care, I don’t know what is.

 Recently, I was required to write a response to the question “Which woman inspires you and why?” This is how I responded:

 “How do you name an amalgamation of every Black woman you know? The sister at my favorite lunch spot who always gives me a knowing smile and hooks me up with extras; the professor at university who insisted I had a right to be there like everyone else and wouldn’t accept less from me; the yoga instructor who asserted that, despite thick thighs and back rolls, yoga was for me too; the new friend who barely knew me but sensed trouble and told me she’d be my “person.” Black women are always inspiring me by loving and living with fearlessness that only we possess. We make magic and claim our humanity in a world that doesn’t want us to survive."

We may not always do self-care the way others do. Maybe it’s by going to the gym or running 20 miles. Maybe it’s by nurturing the community. Maybe it’s by eating our favorite cupcake from Crumbs bakery. Maybe it’s by spending time together. Whatever it is, the way we hold and love each other fiercely is nothing less than God like.

 And for that, I am forever grateful.

 

 

 

Dear White People

A poster from the 2014 Justin Simien movie, "Dear White People."

A poster from the 2014 Justin Simien movie, "Dear White People."

Dear White People,

This is not addressed to any one individual in particular but after an incident I experienced last Friday night, it needs to be said. And so I’m going to try to express it to my white friends and family with all the understanding that I can.

My experience with whiteness tells me that overwhelmingly white people are not used to thinking of themselves as part of a collective group. You have the luxury of seeing yourselves as individuals so it’s a natural thing for you to feel angry, defensive or scared when things are directed at "white people" as a whole. It is true that as individuals many of you are good people. That you may have individual relationships with people of color, that you try to treat everyone equally and that you want to get what is happening with race and racism in this country.

Respectfully, this is not about YOU.

While all of the above is true, it is also true that for all your goodness as an individual, racism at individual, interpersonal, systemic and structural levels is very real. It is a terrible reality that people of color deal with everyday. As nice as we may be to each other as individuals (and let's face it, even though this is the default stance we tell ourselves, not all of us are great people), that will not stop what is happening in this country around state violence directed at people of color, nor will it stop the incredible disparities between people of color and whites when it comes to education, housing, job opportunities, general health and well-being etc. Being nice to each other is NOT the problem. This is a complex, systemic issue that requires complex, critical thinking and analysis. It makes sense that you don’t know where to start. To be honest, neither do I. But staying at the place of “I’m a good person, I’m colorblind and I love everybody” isn’t it.

Over the past few months, a number of you have reached out to say that reading my posts or essays or talking to me has been helpful in increasing your awareness and thoughtfulness around race. And I’m glad for it—truly. If there is one theme that threads together my life’s work, it is community. Whether it’s been giving back to my own community or creating a welcoming community for others, I have undertaken the idea of moving forward together as human beings with the utmost seriousness and sincerity.

And yet…

While I remain firm in my commitment to create community with others, I am unabashedly, unapologetically firm in my commitment to being in community with other people of color. We need that. I need that- now more than ever. Last Friday night, in a slight incident with some white people in my neighborhood, some tensions arose. I do not wish to explain the details (and trust me, the story is not worth going into) but what I’m left with is how when I said I wanted to just drink my beer and sit with my husband and dog that a white man told me that I was "part of the problem." That my need to be in my own space was problematic, that he wanted to friends with us and that my request was divisive.

If you know me well, you already know that I was not having it! I lit into him in a bilingual tirade with the fury of Angela, Malcolm, W.E.B. Dubois, Audre and all the ancestors on whose shoulders I stand. And then I calmed down and with all the strength I could muster, I calmly explained to his friend, why demanding for us to be in community with him (a total stranger by the way!) in this moment was a very violent, supremacist and thoughtless thing to suggest.

So I’m just taking this time to share with you all that while we cannot do the work of undoing racism in siloed communities, you all must also give us the space and time to grieve as people of color, if that’s what we need to do. We cannot center you right now. We should not center you right now. It isn’t always about educating you, or being in community with you, or helping you understand race and racism. This is said with love. Trust me, I see your good intent. I understand why you are asking. I love that you are reaching out and challenging yourself to learn and grow and be an advocate. I am receiving messages from far and wide from people I know very well and some I don’t and from people I have known for a long time. I see it, I feel it and I am encouraged by it.

And, it’s not about YOU.

In this moment, while we are all reeling from the events of the last few days (the killings of Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, the five police officers in Dallas and the four Latino/a people who were killed by the police since July 4th), people of color specifically are carrying around the gravity of what its like to be non-white in this country. Having been around white people for most of my life, I have always known what it meant to be something "other" than white. But over the last year, in the rise of what has become an America that feels almost unrecognizable, I have physically, mentally and emotionally carried around the sobering reality that I am not safe anywhere I go. From work to school to home to socializing, I am a black body that is always at risk for passive and active racism and violence. On a cellular level, I feel scared for my well-being and that of my loved ones. Because of this, there are many days that I don’t want to get out of bed.  I want to hide under the covers where the world is infinitely less scary. But then I am reminded of the work I do and why it’s important. I am reminded that this hateful, awful system isn’t entitled to steal my joy and I persist. But it doesn’t mean that I’m any less scared or angry or hurt or anxious.

Forming community with other people of color is one of the rare things I can do for myself in this moment to find comfort and joy. To find resilience, to heal, to breathe, to feel safe. And I need for you and other white people to respect that sacred space. It doesn’t mean don’t reach out. But the emotional burden of carrying you all in this moment is overwhelming. When I or we tell you that this is our time, our space, our healing circle-- no matter your feelings, please remember it is not about YOU.

If you are looking for something to do, as I always say, talk to other white people about race and racism. If you need help with that, ask. There are many white accomplices out there doing the work of dismantling racism. I have been trying to redirect white people I know who are curious and learning to other white people I know who are actively doing their own anti-racist work. It is critical that you all support each other in your own learning, growth and journey.

As for me, I will be doing the important work of self-care, feeding my soul and supporting other people of color. Right now, that’s the most important thing I can do.

It doesn’t mean we cannot remain in community. In fact, we cannot succeed if we don’t work together. But our work across race will only be made stronger if we allow ourselves to also do the work intra-racially as well. People of color need that. And I’m pretty sure you all need it too.

Remember, its not all about YOU.

With gratitude,

KLM