In the past few weeks, many posts have crossed my timeline on Twitter and Instagram reminding people of the importance of stepping away from the computer and practicing self-care amid a stressful news cycle. It’s common advice, advice I deploy often as a mental health writer. But not this time. Not for white people.
The messages weren’t referring to the “stressful news cycle” of anxiety-inducing coronavirus updates or infuriating Trump tweets. They referred to the nationwide protests, floods of police brutality incidents, and the many calls to action spurred by the most recent murders of Black people in the U.S. And these self-care reminders weren’t meant to affirm to Black people that it’s okay to step away from media that dehumanizes, traumatizes, and demands emotional labor from them; they were written by white people, giving advice seemingly to other non-Black people on how to feel better after a long, stressful week of…witnessing secondhand the atrocities Black people have dealt with all their lives.
This sentiment is egregious for many reasons, especially considering that the concept of self-care as we celebrate it today was conceived largely by and for Black people in order to survive in a world that cares disproportionately about white health and well-being. Seeing this advice persist now—and seeing white mental health, white feelings, and white self-care continue to be prioritized and centered—got me thinking a lot about the role self-care can and should play in the lives of white people at this moment.
I won’t say that self-care isn’t important for everyone—self-care, done right, is a mental health lifeline for many. But instead of peddling tips on tuning out and logging off for our #mentalhealth, we should be discussing how we can talk about and practice self-care thoughtfully—not only to take care of ourselves but to better support our communities and participate in the important work of anti-racism. If you’re a white person thinking about how to look after your mental health right now, I implore you to keep the following things in mind:
1. Don’t use self-care as an excuse to tune out.
Frankly, many of us aren’t used to expending large amounts of mental bandwidth talking and thinking about race, anti-blackness, and racism on a regular basis—which means the inherent discomfort of these conversations might feel like a lot. But that’s the point. The fact that white supremacy allows us to tune out and step back from these conversations is indicative of the very privilege we should be putting to better use. We have to build up stamina, not run from the work under the guise of self-care.
Because as a reminder: Self-care encompasses the many things we can do to support our mental health, and tuning in to conversations about systemic racism and white privilege isn’t harming our mental health; it’s just difficult. There’s a huge difference.
2. Do consume media intentionally and mindfully.
Staying informed doesn’t have to mean watching upsetting video after video or RTing post after post—in fact, we often tell ourselves scrolling, boosting, and consuming an endless diet of media is equal to action and involvement when all we’re actually doing is draining ourselves of energy that could be put to better use. (Speaking of, it might be helpful to set a rule that for every hour you spend scrolling and RTing, you have to take one other action item that further supports the cause you’re boosting on social media.)
Managing your media consumption can be an aspect of self-care, and you should focus your efforts on staying informed without burning out. A solid place to start is by setting intentional boundaries. For example, deciding not to stay up late scrolling through Twitter in bed, setting time limits when you check the news in the morning, and making conscious decisions about when you’re stepping back and why. Deciding you’re going to take Saturdays away from social media is different than throwing up your hands and saying you can’t keep up on the news because of #selfcare.
3. Do ask how self-care can support your goals.
Right now, there are many things white people can do to help fight racial injustice (I talk about some here), but activism and white allyship are marathons, not sprints. In order to be doing this work long-term—not just when the news cycle and your social media feeds are holding you accountable—we have to plan for it.
In that way, self-care is about filling up your own cup so you can continue to pour from it. That can include plenty of the ways you already manage your mental health and practice self-care (from going to therapy to getting time in nature), but it’s also planning how you can continue to show up as a white ally in the long run without burning out. Similarly, you can practice self-care by choosing ways to be involved that don’t harm your mental health and do honor your health and safety needs. For example, if you have social anxiety disorder, you shouldn’t force yourself to spend all your time protesting or phone banking, but you can ask what else you can do instead.
For more information on what long-term action looks like and how that can combat burnout, read “Beware of Burnout: Sustainable Strategies for Activism” by Tatiana Mac. Then support Tatiana via Venmo (@TatianaMac) or Ca$hApp ($TatianaMac).
4. Do use self-care to process uncomfortable emotions.
This might sound weird to you if your personal definition of self-care is all sheet masks and bubble baths, but when mental health professionals talk self-care, they really mean a whole host of behaviors and actions we can take to support our mental and emotional well-being. Often, self-care isn’t soothing and pleasant—it’s work.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of getting involved in anti-racist work and serving as a white ally involves discomfort. White people often make the mistake of burdening Black people and other people of color with their feelings—wanting to talk through white guilt, seeking validation, and asking advice on dealing with all their newfound stress and discomfort. Don’t do that.
Instead, do the work privately. Talk to your fellow white people if you need, and also think about how various self-care practices—such as journaling, emotional regulation tools, and other modes of self-reflection—can help you sit with and process your discomfort. Just remember, the goal isn’t to make yourself feel better and get rid of the feelings so you don’t have to deal with them; it’s to face them, unpack them, and use them to grow.
5. Don’t forget about community care.
Many factors influence someone’s ability or inability to practice self-care and access mental health care—including race-based injustice, oppression, and trauma—so community care is crucial to reducing harm and supporting the mental health and well-being of others.
So what exactly is community care? One of my favorite definitions comes from Nakita Valerio, a community organizer and researcher who went viral after posting, “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people” on Facebook following last year’s terrorist massacre of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand. In a subsequent interview with Mashable, Valerio defined community care as people “leveraging their privilege to be there for one another in various ways.”
That can mean anything from interpersonal acts of kindness to organized efforts. Knowing that community care hinges on the willingness of the privileged to help those who are oppressed, it’s imperative for us as white people to continue to ask ourselves, “Would some of the energy I’m spending on self-care be better spent on community care?” The answer is likely yes.
Not only is community care deeply intertwined with self-care itself because of the inherent mental health benefits (volunteering, for example, is greatly associated with positive mental health), it’s also a way to help alleviate many of the burdens that force people to rely on self-care for their mental health in the first place. In that way, community care can look a lot like allyship. We should always incorporate community care into our own self-care practices, and now is a great time to start if you haven’t already.