Black Women’s Self-Care as Self-Preservation

There’s a connection between self-care and the capacity to care for others.

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School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012 by Kerry James Marshall

For my entire life from attending elementary school in southern New Hampshire as one of two Black kids to present-day as “the only” in a number of professional settings and contexts, my focus on self-care and self-preservation is paramount. Like many Black women I am cognizant of the need to recharge and replenish after navigating the realities of double jeopardy. In my interviews for Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, women shared their candid reflections about self-care and how they preserve their core values, energy, and sanity in a world that often counts us out.

Within the social sector, there are varying perceptions of whether self-care is a necessity or an indulgence. Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Political warfare is a bold statement conveying the sense that Lorde is about to do battle to protect her being and fight for what she determines important. For many of the women interviewed, taking time to recharge was a form of self-protection involving a range of activities including exercise, time with friends, prayer and meditation. Several of them spoke of the stigma associated with “self-care” as a luxury. Oftentimes Black women are carrying more than their share of the load whether that’s extra office housework, parenting, caring for aging parents, or other commitments.

Tulaine Montgomery, a self-described social impact doula and managing partner at New Profit, a venture philanthropy organization, reflected on her approach to self-care and the necessity of learning to tend to herself. “For Black women we are dealing with both patriarchy and racism. We have to navigate both external and internalized bias. I consistently strive to create leadership that is powerful and results-driven while also featuring grace and love. Black women get a lot of messages about how hard we are supposed to work to have value in this society. We are often prompted to work well beyond what any human can sustain. Shaking off that oppressive mythology, leading with equal parts power and love, requires daily vigilance because it’s counter culture.”

Can I get an amen? Montgomery’s naming of oppressive mythology and internalized bias challenged me to interrogate the ways in which I have acclimated to white dominant culture in my career pursuits. Leadership and success are not uniform and society certainly doesn’t account for the diversity of lived experiences, race, ethnicity, or the other dimensions of one’s identity that inform how one leads and what it means to “show up.” Montgomery went on to say, “Regardless of how you talk, think, or look, recognize that the time you spend nurturing yourself is not a luxury. Don’t exhaust yourself into illness before you prioritize self-care. Or if you have already done that, do your best to forgive yourself and build a new set of habits. Value yourself enough to know that you, your ideas, and your inspirations are like the earth…precious and finite, so restore and protect your wellness and wellbeing. Self-care is not only for women with disposable income or leisure time, it’s for all of us.”

The challenges presented by racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and other social toxins require constant navigation on the part of Black women to simply survive — and we do, though the exhaustion is real. Ify Walker, founder and chief talent matchmaker at Offor Walker Group, spends her days partnering with organizations to find exceptional talent. She challenges assumptions and strives to push her clients to interrogate their biases that have real consequences for people’s futures. “There are moments in time where there is values misalignment and I’m able to run towards that tension because I think I can be a part of the solution. But, there are other times when I have to remind myself that our bodies [Black women’s] and our time are made for more than suffering — for more than enduring.”

To recognize that our bodies are made for more than just work is an instance of reclaiming our time. Saying no unapologetically — and realizing that it is a full sentence — is an instance of reclaiming our time. Setting and enforcing boundaries that demonstrate we know our worth is an instance of reclaiming our time, and each of these actions promotes our self-care.

Akaya Windwood, president of Rockwood Leadership Institute in Oakland, had an extended interpretation of self-care — an almost sweeping definition that included others. Windwood shared, “I don’t actually love the term “self-care” because it makes it sound like I am caring about myself. Part of my responsibility as a community member is to care for my being, not the self as a separate thing other than connected to other people. Self-care sounds like I am going to take this elitist step away from the world because I can, which is different than understanding that my well-being is inextricably connected to your well-being. I want you to be well so we are well. At Rockwood we call it ‘personal ecology’ — being part of a broader ecosystem. It doesn’t serve the forest if the oceans are sick. Similarly, we can’t have a healthy community if we individually are sick. It’s my responsibility to tend to myself and well-being in service to our collective health and well-being. What you call self-care, I see as caring for the world.”

Between the reflections of Montgomery, Walker, and Windwood, I see self-care as a continuum that spans from the individual to the collective…a sense of ubuntu (often translated as “I am because we are”) which lifts up the interdependence between people as we make our way through the world. All parts of the continuum are not equal: in order for me to fill anyone else’s cup, I have to ensure that there is something to pour from my cup. If I run myself ragged then that’s not possible. While some deem self-care as a nice-to-have, I claim it critical for my survival and a requisite for me to care for others. 

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