Self & Collective Care/Caring
Rus Ervin Funk
2020 has, in countless ways, been a dreadful year. I’m sure, like me, many of you can’t wait until midnight on Dec. 31 to turn the corner and say goodbye to 2020! Between the seemingly endless pandemic, the racist killings and racial uprising, and the election that seemed to never end we have all been through an excruciating emotional, spiritual and relational ringer. As the year winds down, it’s a time when I (in part based on my faith traditions) take a moment to reflect on my year and what I’ve experienced and learned. It’s also a time that I tend to differently focus on caring for mySelf and those around me. One of the services I offer as a consultant/activist is an array of services that promote Self and Collective Care. I also note that this year, in the past several weeks, I have seen a significant increase in interest in these services (mostly webinars, events and workshops). This interest calls me to reflect on the ways that Self & Collective Care, and our practices of self and collective care, are gendered.
Here’s a starting point that I think is important to note when examining Self-care rhetoric and practices: white supremacy culture centers white people; and patriarchy centers men — our needs, our wants, our care. Our social interactions, political and economic systems, cultural institutions… all already center me (as a white man).
Gender matters in regards to how we think about and practice Self-care. Taking the above starting point in mind, than it suggests that the ways we talk about and practice self-care tend to land differently on and with white men – and that white men need to consider how gender and race, in the context of our socio-political-cultural landscape, impact on how I practice Self-care. In other words, ask the question: how does my centering mySelf in order to practice Self-care, reinforce the my centered position in the world I’m living in? How could my centering mySelf inadvertently reinforce racesexism?
I intentionally locate Self-care alongside collective care in part because of my own experience of a white man growing, working, living and care-giving in the context of white supremacist patriarchy.
Most of the conversation, recommendations and practices around Self-care, which primarily (from my own experience) come from women or women-identified people tends to start and end with making time for ourSelves by ourSelves. I don’t mean this as a criticism – there are times where it is important for all of us to have some moments/hours of solitude. Being strategic and intentional about using solitude as a means for caring for ourSelves, I agree, is of critical value. Particularly so for those of us who are so focused on attending to, thinking about, and caring for others.
And I think there is a tremendous difference, given that we live in a white supremacist patriarchy, for women and women identified folx to talk about the need for solitude and space for centering themSelves, then there is for men to talk about solitude/isoation and for us to focus on centering ourSelves.
While solitude is one important aspect of Self-care, it’s also important that we (particularly we as men, we as white people and we as whitemen) cultivate a way of thinking about and practice our Self-care in the midst of our relations with others. Our human nature is, for the most part, to be in relation with others. It’s how we’re designed. It’s how we best manifest who we are and who we’re striving to be. Being in relation is how we best learn about ourSelves and practice how most we want to be. A Zulu word that captures this is “Ubuntu” — “I am because we are.” While I do exist as an individual separate and distinct from you and yall; Who I am, how I am, and how I understand mySelf to be is also because I am in a relationship with you/yall. We (whichever “we” I’m in the midst of) provide me a feedback look that informs who and how I am in the world. I need times of solitude in order to reflect on who I am and how I am as distinct from whatever “we” I’m a part of, but I also need to come back into the “we” in order to fully be me.
In this way, caring for and about ourSelves is most effective and most meaningful when it is in the context of also caring for and about others, and being cared for and about by others, is a critical factor. Self and Collective care!
As a whiteman (yup, writing that as one word is intentional) raised in white supremacist patriarchy, the general way that Self-care is framed to be largely an invitation to self-serving and selfishness. There is a crucial difference between self-caring and self-serving (a distinction that isn’t explored so much in Self-care dialoguing), there is also an overlap. And who we are in relation to these dynamics matter. In a culture in which women, and black and brown folx, are pretty much always expected to put others first, inviting them to engage in self-serving means one thing. For men, white people, and whitemen, being Self-serving is often a very different ask.
My experience of the difference between Self-care and self-serving is more complex and nuanced. I’m a whiteman living in a world that is designed to put me first (and often only). Our entire political/social/economic infrastructure is about me — both “me” as a generic white man, and me personally, as Rus who is a whiteman. Growing up in this context, I have enormous lessons (lessons I continue to realize anew that I’ve internalized) that expect me to care for mySelf at the expense of others. A form of self-servingness and selfishness that harms my relationships with others and continues to reinforce systemic and personal oppression and domination. Somewhat ironically, this form of self-servingness actually also does me little actual good. To put it another way, practicing these forms of self-servingness is actually self-harming. This may be my own limitations, but I find that I don’t know how to practice the forms of Self-care that I find most available in the “self-care” literature and practices without being self-serving.
There are some notable differences to this most recently. Authors like Adrienne Marie Brown and this podcast from moblab speak to the interconnectedness of Self and Collective care, but these seem to be the exception rather than the rule. It’s also worth noting, I think that these are women – and largely black and brown women who are leading this conversation.
In my own Self-care practice (and here I’m referring to my practices of caring for and about me) I have had to intentionally push back against my tendencies to engage in self-care that is or becomes self-serving. And the most effective way for me to do that is to start with a first question: how does my Self-care impact on others – particularly those who are most impacted by racism and sexism? This question, as a beginning, refers not only to my general practice, but also to my immediate actions. One way I care for and about mySelf is to go for daily walks through our neighborhood (which has several really lovely parks). But going on my daily walk has an impact on my partner (who is female) and our child. Going for a daily walk through my neighborhood has an impact on my neighbors, and a different impact on the women/girls/women in my neighborhood and the black and brown folx in my neighborhood. Recognizing that my Self-care impacts on others is my first step toward practicing Self and collective care. Acknowledging that my Self-caring impacts on others and may, in fact, be harmful to others doesn’t mean that I should engage in Self-care. It does mean that my caring for me is not separate from my caring for and about others.
Being accountable is a second step in practicing Self and collective care. Accountability is a common phrase in Self-care circles – but it is usually about how I can invite others to help me be accountable for my own Self-care practices. There isn’t so much talk about how my being accountable to others is also a form of my Self-care. But my being accountable to how I treat other people, and making amends when I’ve caused harm to others, is also a part of my Self-care practice. This includes how I might accidently cause harm to other while in the midst of caring for mySelf.
Caring for mySelf need not center me. We can align ourSelves, in our minds, hearts and certainly in our practices, alongside others while actively caring for ourSelves…and other
Gender and race do matter — in how we think about, talk about, and practice Self Care.
© 2020 by Rus Ervin Funk, All Rights Reserved
Gender Matters is produced and distributed by Rus Funk Consulting – offering a range of services, training and TA to work meaningfully with men and boys to promote gender and racial justice.
Rus Ervin Funk is an activist and consultant based in Louisville, KY. You can learn more about my work at http://rusfunk.me/.