We produced the following article as part of our annual Therapy for Black Girls campaign in honor of Minority Mental Health Month. This year Therapy for Black Girls focuses on “Hanging Up Our Capes.” Join us as we release ourselves from the externally and internally imposed pressures of showing up as “superwoman” in order to prioritize our well-being and foster healthier, more authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love.
Activism is defined as “taking action to effect social change; this can occur in a variety of forms. Often it is concerned with ‘how to change the world’ through social, political, economic or environmental change.” This can be led by individuals but is often done collectively through social movements. Activism can take place on a macro level through activism activities, like protests, or micro-level activism activities, like sharing stories or boycotting products or businesses. Micro-level activism can inspire macro activism (1). Embracing and celebrating all levels of activism is strong.
When I think about redefining strong in the context of activism, I think of Audre Lorde. Audre Lorde was a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde’s life experiences inspired her use of her creative talent to confront racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia (2). The way that Lorde leveraged her personal life and platform as a poet is an example of blending of micro and macro-level activism.
In her 1988 collection of essays entitled “A Burst of Light,” Lorde shares her perspectives on intersectionality, lesbian sexuality, African American identity, and reflections on her battle with liver cancer. In this collection, we find Lorde’s infamous quote about self-care: “I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Self-preservation in a world that expects Black women to work harder for less is activism. Black women are underpaid compared to white women. According to Forbes, Black women are paid 21% less than White Women (3). We are underpaid and work harder to demonstrate our worth in the face of both racism and sexism. This is a recipe for overextending ourselves. As Lorde points out, it is not always easy to differentiate between overextending ourselves and stretching ourselves. Listening to your body can help you make that distinction. After completing an extra task or activity, do you feel energized or drained? Was working on and completing the task or activity rewarding or arduous? These questions can help you determine if you are stretching yourself in a healthy way or over-extending yourself in a potentially harmful way.
Reclaiming self-care is also a form of activism. Lorde first coined the concept of self-care in “A Burst of Light.” Since 1988 the term has been appropriated to refer to expensive beauty products and other wellness trends that are often inaccessible to the masses and only represent one aspect of self-care. While it is important to care for our minds and bodies with nourishing food, products, and exercise, it is also important to set boundaries, as Lorde so aptly reminds us.
Being vulnerable is also a form of activism. Sharing our feelings is strong. The strong Black woman narrative pressures us to hide or suppress our feelings. Black women are expected to continue to show up for others no matter how much pain we are in physically, spiritually, or emotionally. This expectation of self-betrayal is rooted in racism. The idea that Black people, particularly Black women, are more resilient to pain than white people continues to be used as a means to justify acts of cruelty. Thomas Hamilton and Marion Sims perpetuated the myth that Black people were more resilient to pain by performing medical procedures on enslaved Africans without anesthesia, even after it was invented. This bias continues in healthcare today as is evidenced by the fact that Black patients are 21% less likely to receive pain medications than white patients(4). African Americans are also more likely to be misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed in regard to depression due to the assumption that Black people are more resilient (5). Being vulnerable is a form of activism by rejecting this racist myth and prioritizing our humanity, health, well-being, comfort, and peace.
You never know who you are inspiring by sharing your feelings. Someone else around you may also be grieving, being mistreated, or being discriminated against. Sharing our stories helps us find our community. When we find our community so we can come together to heal and to take any necessary action, this is activism. This is strong.
Finally, setting an example is strong. By practicing radical self-care, we are setting an example for our friends, family and generations to come. This is a form of activism that allows us to enact positive change by encouraging those around us to reject the self-betrayal that comes with overextending ourselves and hiding or denying our feelings.
Protecting Your Mental Health as an Activist:
- Balance your time.
It is easy to overcommit ourselves to work we are passionate about. It is important to make sure that you have time and energy to meet your own needs. Seek to balance your time between rest, exercise, relationships, the work that pays you and your form of activism. Scheduling time to engage in your form of activism can help you distribute your time and energy to your activism and other important activities.
- Set emotional boundaries.
Fighting for social change can become part of our identity and value system, making it easy to take social issues personal. Taking it personal fuels our fire, passion and commitment to our activism work. This can also lead to deeply empathizing with the persons negatively impacted by the cause. When this happens, their pain can become our pain. Be intentional about defusing from the emotions associated with activism. Indulge yourself in activities that bring you joy. Practice mindfulness when you find yourself ruminating about a social issue or feeling down depressed our hopeless.
- Honor and affirm your efforts.
Sometimes social issues can feel vast and insurmountable. It is easy to feel like we are not doing enough or thar we should be doing more. Savor the journey to your destination of social change – remember to have fun and find joy in the work. Affirm yourself for being conscious of social issues and willing to participate in making a change. Celebrate the big and the small wins.