Why Self-Care Is a Critical Component to Racial Justice For Black People

Published on: 01 Jul 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
Black self care

Updated 2/22/2022

Civil rights activist, writer, and feminist Audre Lorde coined the term “self-care,” when she proclaimed, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Although self-care has become a trend in the wellness industry and promoted by influencers on all platforms often as a form of overindulgence (think: all-inclusive retreats to Costa Rica, realigning your chakras in Sedona, or an overpriced bubble bath from your favorite editor’s must-have list), for many, self care means survival, not overindulgence. 

It’s imperative that Black people and people from marginalized communities return to the roots of self-care — both as a form of resistance and integral to the continuation of Black-led resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. 

What Is Self-Care?

“I see self-care very simply as intentionally doing things to take care of yourself,” Mikah Maly-Karros, LMFT, said. 

“Self-care can be very easily misconstrued as something that is superficial, but as a therapist, I see that the most important part of self-care is really doing that internal work. Because that’s really the only way you can know what your needs are and then find ways to provide for those needs.”

Mikah Maly-Karros, LMFT

Examples of internal work can be developing better self-awareness, self-compassion, self-forgiveness, understanding your own identity, and learning what is good for you and what’s not,” Maly-Karros said. Self-care is necessary to live our fullest lives and it’s more important than ever.

Witnessing or experiencing brutal acts of racism, whether first or secondhand, is a leading form of trauma. When we hear traumatic stories, see disturbing images, or watch videos of people being murdered and harassed because of their race, we can experience vicarious trauma, which might lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be challenging to process these devastating occurrences, especially for Black Americans who have such a complicated relationship with the mental health care system.

 “I think in this specific climate, there are more pressing needs for self-care in the Black community because of the traumatizing images we’re seeing on TV and in social media and pretty much everywhere we look. I don’t think a lot of people fully understand the psychological impact of that,” Maly-Karros said.

How to Practice Self-Care

To ensure that Black people stay healthy both physically and mentally, it is important to make self-care a top priority.

“For some, in the past, self-care has been seen as a ‘luxury.’ However, it’s imperative to practice healthy self-care strategies, now more than ever, and to be intentional about integrating these practices into daily routines”

Dakota King-White, Ph.D., LPC

There’s still a stigma in the Black community around taking care of our mental health, but Dr. King-White said more people are beginning to place an emphasis on taking care of themselves. “It’s great to be able to help take care of our family and our friends, but if we’re not well physically, mentally, and emotionally, we’re not going to be well for other people and we’re not going to be at our best,” she said. 

A few self-care strategies Dr. King-White recommends include:

Maly-Karros also recommends taking occasional breaks from triggers such as the news and social media “because we need that space to restore ourselves.” The media can sometimes overwhelm us and it can be hard to separate our lives from the ones on our screens. 

She also stressed the importance of setting boundaries. If you’ve felt emotionally exhausted and often misunderstood, you’re not alone, which is why Maly-Karros stresses implementing boundaries for your non-black associates, friends, and family. She encourages you to ask yourself what your responsibility is in situations (for example, explaining anti-racism to someone) and what is not.

Additionally, understanding when you’re beginning to run low on energy is another way to practice self-care. Low energy looks different for everyone and tends to reveal itself as irritability. Physical manifestations include things such as the inability to sleep, a loss of appetite, nausea, and headaches, Maly-Karros explained. “Generally, taking care of yourself on a baseline level is really, really important. Making sure that you’re sleeping enough, eating healthy, and exercising on a daily basis because stress and extremely stressful situations are very much connected to our physical body as well,” she said.

“Boundaries are one of the most essential ways of practicing self care — particularly for black and brown people. Knowing, setting, and holding space for your own needs is critical.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

Reimagining Self-Care For the Future

Self-care should be an everyday act of nurturing and loving yourself. It can look like relaxing in a bath or spending time with loved ones — whatever you need to pour into yourself to nurture your body and mind. When the demonstrations begin to die down and the news cycle shifts, it’s imperative that the Black community continues to practice self-care.

“I think if people are intentional about self-care now, hopefully, those practices will carry over – not just for ourselves, but for generations that are coming after us,” King-White said. Her hope is that people begin to talk about self-care and mental health and pass down these techniques by teaching the children in their lives these self-care strategies. “Hopefully in the future, we can have these conversations and we can break the stigma around taking care of yourself being a luxury. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” she said.

Maly-Karros envisions self-care as being about community. “I think it’s going to be a lot about us creating spaces where we can come together and either just laugh and have fun and dance and enjoy life the way that we do, and have a space to escape and forget and feel loved,” she said. She also envisions the Black community creating safe, healing spaces for one another where we’re able to process pain simply by sharing and relating with one another. “I think that the healing part — and it’s sort of always been this way — comes from us coming together as a community,” Maly-Karros said.

“Self-care looks like protecting your time and your sanity. It can be walking away from conversations that don’t serve you. It is about prioritizing your mental health and peace.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

Be sure to give yourself all the self-care you need and remember it’s important to live as your healthiest, happiest self. Look after your mental health and consider taking advantage of mental health resources made for and by people of color. Don’t feel guilty for putting yourself first during hard times.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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