Commentary Race

A True Ally Rejects Racial Hierarchy, and Other Tips From Feminists of Color

Regina Mahone

Feminism needs to center the experiences of all women of color in the movement. As a starting point, here are some suggestions from several smart women.

Last month at a NOW-NYC event—which has since been criticized for its attempt at reframing Mikki Kendall’s #SolidarityIsforWhiteWomen hashtag and subsequent discussion—I sat in a room with dozens of feminist women of color to discuss how women with more privilege, including mainstream white feminists, can become better allies to women with less privilege. (A video recording of the first hour of the event can be found here.)

As Kendall explains in a Guardian article on the creation of the hashtag:

When I launched the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, I thought it would largely be a discussion between people impacted by the latest bout of problematic behavior from mainstream white feminists. It was intended to be Twitter shorthand for how often feminists of color are told that the racism they experience “isn’t a feminist issue”. The first few tweets reflect the deeply personal impact of such a long-running structural issue.

As the hashtag spread across Twitter, people from all walks of life started joining in – to vent their own personal frustrations, as well as to address larger political issues. Feminism as a global movement meant to unite all women has global responsibilities, and – as illustrated by hundreds of tweets – has failed at one of the most basic: it has not been welcoming to all women, or even their communities.

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Interestingly enough, the event’s organizers at NOW-NYC were criticized for doing exactly what the hashtag had sought to address: “dismissing women of color … in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white [in this case, privileged but not white] women.” And it wasn’t the first time something like this has happened since the hashtag caught on in August.

At the event, a number of suggestions were made to increase truly allyship among feminists of all backgrounds. I considered not sharing what I heard, in light of the public criticism. But then I remembered something panelist Tiloma Jayasinghe, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, said at the event. She was discussing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and how the act is flawed because it forces people of color to engage in systems in which there is “embedded racism.” She said, “I have women [VAWA should protect] that will not call 9-1-1; they will not seek help because they don’t want their partner to get deported, or they don’t want him to be judged because he happens to be a Muslim man. … These are systems that do not work for us.”

We are all surrounded by systems that just do not work. For those of us in this movement for the long haul, it would be careless not to take the time to acknowledge and do what we can to help change the inherently flawed systems affecting each of our feminist sisters (and brothers).

Women and girls of color arrive at feminism in their own way and approach it a bit differently than white women, as they try to figure out where they belong in this movement. As another panelist, Nicole Moore of The Hotness, put it, “My experience as a woman of color, as a Black woman in the feminist movement, has been completely shaped by my race. I cannot be empowered as a woman unless I’m empowered as a Black woman.”

And panelist Patricia Valoy, feminist blogger at Womanisms and Everyday Feminism, said she explains to her family in Spanish that she’s a “women’s rights advocate,” because feminista “doesn’t really have the connotation that feminism in English has.”

For Jayasinghe, “feminist” doesn’t resonate for her and her South Asian peers in the social justice field as much as “gender justice” does, because the latter represents the movement as a piece of a much larger social justice narrative.

It is these variations on feminism, and their accompanying movements, that are often dropped not just from the mainstream feminist movement, but from laws like VAWA that mainstream women’s groups fought for. As Women’s eNews noted in its coverage of the event, “While mainstream women’s groups dedicated time and effort to ensure VAWA’s renewal this year, immigrant women were rarely at the meetings to speak for themselves. Jayasinghe said the big lesson from this recent funding negotiation was that immigrant women’s advocates had to join at an earlier point in the process.”

And, of course, not just these variations on feminism. The panelists and participants in the crowd, myself included, represent a very small (mostly privileged) set of people in a much bigger, much more diverse narrative.

In an article for NPR, Kendall wrote:

As a movement feminism is theoretically geared toward the equality of all women, regardless of race. But the way that equality is defined by the women in the forefront can be incredibly problematic, particularly if those leaders lack a connection to ethnically and racially diverse communities. For women of color — particularly those who are from lower-income brackets — even if there are leaders in the movement who look like them, the absence of someone who lives like them can make feminism seem like it exists to serve a select few. The question then becomes one of reach and of responsibility. Who can reach those who feel like outsiders? Who can connect those “outsiders” with insiders so that a broader range of concerns can be addressed? Are you only responsible to your own community or do you have a responsibility to others?

As panelist Lori Adelman, executive director of Feministing, explained at the event, the global feminist movement needs to “center the experiences of women of color in the movement” because “it has tangible effects.” And not just social benefits, but also economic and financial ones. For example, one of the issues Mikki Kendall addressed in the hashtag’s wake that resonated with many women of color was that of valuing our true worth. At the NOW-NYC event, Jayasinghe echoed Kendall’s remarks about how underprivileged women of color need to stop feeling like we don’t need to be paid for our time or that it’s a privilege when we’re presented with an opportunity and that experience is “good enough.”

Feminism needs to center the experiences of all women of color in the movement—no easy feat. But as a starting point, here are some suggestions shared by the smart women on the panel:

Lean On, Not In. People who are less privileged cannot afford the luxury of “leaning in,” said Moore. “We need to lean on each other.” Since the institution is not working for all of us, it is in our best interest to work together. We can do that by not only inviting women of color to the table, but also putting their issues on the agenda.

Know Your Boundaries. As Olivia Canlas, NYC chapter coordinator of the Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Re-feudalization, and Marginalization (AF3IRM),  explained, women of color want to be in control of the issues that are important to them—the issues that have been silenced—so they can shape the conversation, rather than having to be reactive.

Understand That Their Issues Are Just as Important as Your Issues. Not only acknowledging difference but also embracing it better positions feminists of all backgrounds to build alliances and affect change. In fact, it’s feminism’s loss when the needs of all women aren’t brought to the table.

When You’re Wrong, Admit It. Instead of being defensive when you’ve dismissed the needs of a particular group of women, simply say, “You’re right. My bad.” Pointing fingers and deliberately misplacing blame only escalates the problem and distracts many of us from the work we should be doing to smash the patriarchy.

Don’t Assume Privilege. It’s important to remember we’re all complex human beings with more than one identity and our own stories to share. Approach everyone involved in this work with openness and compassion.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.

News Race

At ‘Pro-Life’ Conference, Silence on Police Violence

Amy Littlefield

Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice and state violence was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All Lives Matter In & Out of the Womb.”

As one of the nation’s largest anti-choice groups launched its three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, Thursday, a very different conversation was underway on the national stage.

Across the country, peaceful protests erupted over the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

As Rewire’s Imani Gandy has documented, the anti-choice movement has long attempted to appropriate the language of racial justice and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as part of a wider effort to shame Black women and cast abortion as “Black genocide.”

But at the National Right to Life Convention, the overriding response to last week’s police killings was silence. Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All lives matter In & Out of the womb.”

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Rewire asked convention director Jacki Ragan whether she thought the issue should have been raised explicitly at the conference.

“We are very single issue,” Ragan said. “We are here because of a threat to human life. We believe the unborn child is a human being from the moment of fertilization. We believe the disabled should have the same rights, [the] elderly should have the same rights, so we’re very single issue. So, no, I don’t really think it would be appropriate to address what had happened other than through prayer at the conference.”

At a prayer breakfast on Friday morning, after conference-goers awoke to the news five police officers had been killed by a gunman in Dallas, Rev. Dennis Kleinmann of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, prayed for guidance “to make this a better world, a world free of war and violence of every kind, including attacks on those who protect us.”

Ernest Ohlhoff, National Right to Life Committee outreach director, addressed the violence more directly.

“I don’t know if any of you heard the news this morning, but unfortunately we had another catastrophe in our country,” he said. “Five police officers in Dallas were killed in a shooting and [at least] six wounded, and I would ask you to pray for them and their families.”

No prayers were offered for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or their families.