Being a person of colour has never been much of a picnic but, these days, it’s taken on an especially pernicious edge. Flip on the news and you’ll witness the revival of One Nation, a political party whose version of “one-ness” doesn’t extend to anyone who’s ever struggled to buy foundation at Myer, see Brexit’s Nigel Farage throwing slurs like a poison game of discus and Trump, whose threat of setting up a deportation force to round up immigrants reads like a B-grade sci-fi film if it didn’t stand a chance of coming true.
And as xenophobia, a virus whose symptoms are always felt before they’re detected, springs up everywhere from muttered asides to national policy, it’s getting harder to find relief. Throw in garden-variety micro-aggressions (“where do you really come from?”) and achieving a state of wellbeing starts to resemble a marathon with no finish line, a clumsy stab at lightness in the face of a crushing ache.
There’s nothing hyperbolic about the pain of navigating a racist world. In September 2013, a University of Melbourne study which surveyed teenagers from East Asian, South Asian, African American and Hispanic backgrounds found that discrimination had an adverse impact on self-worth and could trigger depression and anxiety and a July 2014 BeyondBlue report revealed that 56 per cent of Indigenous Australians and Torres Straight Islanders who regularly encountered racism reported high levels of psychological distress.
The damage strips away at the soul, leaving the body diminished over time.
In June 2016, Bim Adewunmi, a Muslim writer of Nigerian descent, wrote a powerful Buzzfeed essay about the effects of living in Trump’s US. “The damage chips away at the self, burrows in and makes itself at home, erodes defences like water does topsoil. The damage strips away at the soul, leaving the body diminished over time.”
It’s always struck me as ironic that we’re sold a thousand routes to loving ourselves but nothing to cope with a world that refuses to love us. The self-love industry tells us that regular spa dates and daily affirmations are the ticket to a glittery existence and that happiness starts when you divest yourself of toxic energy. But what if that toxic energy doesn’t take the shape of a boyfriend who won’t return your calls or a friend that undermines you but a culture in which your presence is barely tolerated, where your body is both policed and exoticised and where the home you’ve built for yourself could dissolve from under your feet at anytime?
Where’s the app for tracking the labour of bucking stereotypes or the exhaustion of feeling like you have to be perpetually productive and achieve nothing short of excellence because failure to do so casts doubt over your worth as a human being? If you find a ClassPass for spinning away the stressful truth that this struggle may be getting worse, not better, you know where to find me.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote the poet Audre Lorde in her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light. Unlike most quotes which have been Tumblr-ed to oblivion, this one stays with me because the idea of taking time to care for yourself is a tiny revolution, an act of defiance that insists that your needs will be tended to despite a system that finds power in looking away.
Being a person of colour can feel like running a marathon with no finish line
Self-care, whether it means listening to music, cooking yourself a nourishing meal or spending time with good people, is the intentional alternative to that easy-to-package performance of self-love. “Without that instant gratification, you have to keep repeating these steps and almost blindly hope that they’ll benefit you in some way,” writes Fariha Roisin in a 2014 series on self-care for The Hairpin.
For me, life got a whole lot better once I realised that I could turn off the news, prioritise the things that replenish me and give myself the kind of care I was looking for from the world. Being a person of colour can feel like running a marathon with no finish line but we deserve joy, rather than survival, as our default state.