Self-care is fighting racism

I wrote my first piece on race in the fall of 2003. My mother was dying but she did live long enough to read a few of my pieces in both the Portland Press Herald and the Portland Phoenix. At the time, I had no idea that writing about racism would fundamentally change my life.

In 2008, when I started this site, my main goal was to write the type of pieces that editors typically squashed at that time for fear of upsetting their readership. It was also a way for me to connect with other Black people and also non-Black people of color living in predominantly white spaces. Again, I had no idea how much this site and my work would eventually change my life.

As I have shared many times, I would later go on to become the executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston-based anti-racism organization that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

Given the fact that I run an anti-racism organization and write and speak about racism, I spend a lot of time thinking about racism—more so than the average Black person, and the average Black person has to deal with and think about racism a lot. So, as a Black woman in America—thinking about racism almost 24/7 is not always a good thing.

Unlike my white colleagues and peers in anti-racism work (and outside it) taking a break from my work is harder than one might think. After all, I can take some time off from the day job, this site and speaking gigs, but I can’t take a break from being Black in America.

Over the years, I have written extensively about how racism can creep into everyday life. It was four years ago this month, where a family outing to tell the kids that their father and I were separating turned into a racial moment that went viral. A trip for gelato became the day that my then nine-year-old daughter had her first experience with the n-word.

The number of moments that have become racialized events are too numerous to count and frankly, the majority of these events occurred long before Trump became President. The day my daughter experienced the pain of that horrid word, Barack Obama, our nation’s first Black president, was still in office.

In other words, America had a racism problem long before Trump. It’s just that prior to Trump taking office, racism was on simmer and Trump turned the fire up. Simmering racism is just as toxic as the raging flames of racism—it just might kill you slower.

Since 2016, we have seen average people of all hues attempt to address the racial issues in this country and while that’s a great thing. The problem is that anti-racism work requires constant self-care, self-awareness and, at times, the ability to detach.

Given my work, that may sound surprising but the truth is, you cannot stay in this work long term without knowing your limits and when to walk away.

As Kenny Rogers sang in “The Gambler”: You gotta know when to hold’ em, know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away and know when to run

For Black folks and other people of color, this work of anti-racism isn’t just our work or even our side-gig; it’s our lives. Day to day and hour to hour. A rarely acknowledged truth is that even within the anti-racism community, when we are with our white colleagues, the relationships can be toxic and take a toll on us.

I repeat: Even in anti-racism spaces, white folks can and do cause harm. These are our allies and accomplices, who often by their own lack of awareness perpetuate the same systems of oppression that we are fighting against.

Which means even the good guys have the potential to be the villains and that means that we are getting it on two fronts. As you still have to exist in the larger world, which is filled with white people who have not a clue and are slamming you left and right with either direct racism or microaggressions.

You can fight each and every act of racism that comes at you, and while it may be the right thing to do, it will probably destroy you. We are not designed to be in a state of flight or fight all the time. It feels awful and it’s harmful. Stress in Black bodies is real and is one of the reasons for the greater level of health problems many of us face compared to white people. We can’t be on all the time.

I am not saying to stop fighting, but instead saying that we need discernment in picking our battles—and also knowing when to walk away. If the work is too much, it’s okay to sit out the protest, calls, etc. It’s okay to unplug and just take care of yourself. More important, though, is creating a community or a few good people who can hold you in community. People you can be real with and who know you and the work.

In recent years, many people, particularly young Black and Brown people, have come into movement work and I worry about whether we are giving them the support they need. Our work requires being in both community and relationship with one another, it’s what allows for accountability in the work. It’s also what nourishes us in the darker moments of the work.

In a world that struggles with the inherent beauty and value of Black life, it is a radical concept to love yourself so completely as a Black person that you put yourself first and tend to your inner garden as part of your movement work.


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7 thoughts on “Self-care is fighting racism”

  1. Shay, the first time I read about you was when your family was assaulted in the Old Port and it was bizarrely “non-reported” on a WCSH “newsperson’s” facebook page. I didn’t know the occasion was to talk about a separation, so I wanted to say again that I am so sorry this happened to you and yours. To this day, the event is infuriating, appalling, heartbreaking.
    “Thank you” is always inadequate for the work you are doing and the changes you are creating, Shay. But, thank you. I’ll continue to examine my life and work so my lack of awareness will not “perpetuate the same systems of oppression that we are fighting against.” With gratitude and admiration, Anne.

  2. So basically: you’re a professional race hustler. Youve even turned this nonsense into a job and cash flow. The fact that (white) people (c’mon its Maine) pay you to preach your nonsense is evidence that not only does your ‘widespread systemic racism’ not exist, but that infact youre making money off the con. They should come to their senses.

    • Do there REALLY have SO little relevance to your life that you have nothing better to do than troll?

      I’d LOVE for you to be right, though.

      But think about it this way: If you woke up tomorrow, and you were Black, not white, do you think your life would be the same? Everyone would treat you the same? You and everyone else would have no more opinion about the change in your appearance than if you changed your hairstyle? Be honest. Are there places you might feel more or less comfortable than you do now?

      If you think race changes nothing, its because YOUR race is the “given”. Walk next to a Black person for a while and pay attention. Then you can come back here and talk about it.

    • Chris — with your views, it is so interesting that you actually read Shay’s post. Perhaps a few seeds have been implanted into your conscience to germinate at some time and place… so that you will actually see the reality amidst you. I sincerely hope that you are not another one of those brats that Peaks has no trouble producing !

    • Chris, it is hard to leave a kind reply to that. I just hope you get the chance to see life from another person’s view from your own. You are wrong and Shay didnt deserve that response.

  3. Chris Meyers clearly didn’t follow the link to your piece about your family’s experience of racism in Old Port. (S)he didn’t note that you head a non-profit in Boston, not Maine (c’mon). And (s)he is willing to attack one black woman and deny her lived experiences while not acknowledging all the ways racism and white supremacy have shown themselves, and damaged the lives and livelihoods of black people in North America, from the 1600s to the present day.

    How hateful one must feel to spew such garbage in a comment. And how much that comment proves the urgent need for black self-protection, safe spaces and self-care. And for all of us to protect black people in words and actions in our everyday lives.

    I’m not dismissing the need for the same protections for non-black POC and indigenous people. Just responding to the anti-blackness of the specific comment.

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