Starting Well: Self-Care Amidst the Academic Frenzy

Passion-Planner-1024x689Start semester well. I wrote the three words in the box labeled, “This week’s focus,” in my new Passion Planner. It had been two decades since I had used a paper planner. I was an early adopter of electronic organizers. Before smartphones and WiFi-enabled PDAs, I kept track of my appointments and tasks using my Sony organizer with its flip-up telephone modem. It was a lot easier than writing “Statistics class” in a planner 24 times in one semester. It’s worked for me through two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and my stints as assistant professor in three institutions.

Lately, though, I’ve felt pulled in so many different directions by varying projects, people, and responsibilities (is this post-tenure life?) that I needed something different. I needed some way to help me to keep track of the big picture, to keep focus on my priorities, and to keep me from being over-committed…well, to keep me from being ridiculously over-committed.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned with 20 years of experience in higher education, it’s that the beginning of the semester is a perfect time for losing sight of one’s priorities, especially those that have to do with our well-being and professional development. There is no gradual transition from the slower pace of summer. Fall term starts at full tilt, a two-week frenzy of faculty and committee meetings, workshops, orientation events for new students, convocation, and social gatherings. In this midst of this, there’s the scramble to finalize syllabi, set up course websites, and to prep the first classes. There’s the anxiety of new students who worry about what’s ahead and the anxiety of graduating students who…worry about what’s ahead. And for some unfathomable reason, there is no sabbatical from the planning committees that are ramping up for the fall conference season.

It’s enough to drive any sane person crazy (although it begs the question whether a supposedly smart person who chooses this as a lifestyle is sane). At a minimum, it’s enough to overwhelm typical routines of spiritual disciplines, self-care, and personal development. The struggle to make an early meeting pushes aside the morning devotional; an orientation event overrides writing time; sheer fatigue cancels the afternoon workout. If it were just one week, it might be okay. But for many of us, it’s at least two, which makes recovery harder.

This year, as our classes began, I set my intention for the week: “Start semester well.” Starting well was not about being the perfect professor, the one who finalized and printed her syllabi, set up the Blackboard sites, and prepped her first lectures last week. It was not about being two weeks ahead (or more) of the students in terms of course readings and activities. Starting well was about not losing sight of the big picture. And because I’d just done my first “passion roadmap,” I had a very good idea of what that big picture was: love God; serve God’s people; remaining cancer free; be a good wife and mother; be financially ready for retirement; and be a badass scholar-teacher (well duh…there is a reason I’ve chosen this insanity, after all).

When I drew my passion roadmap, I was surprised at just how few of my lifetime goals were reflected in my daily activities. Being a great scholar-teacher was actually the lowest of my priorities but it probably took up most of my daily energies. I rarely scheduled explicit time toward my other goals. That was about to change.

Starting the semester well meant that in addition to the classes, meetings, and office hours, my schedule would also include time for meditation, chapel, writing, and spending time with my family. It meant that the frenzy of the first two days of the week would be followed by a midweek day of restoration, which included getting a massage and cooking a healthy meal that would get my family through the week’s end. It meant my personal to-do list included exercising at least three times and going to the farmer’s market. It meant showing up for classes without having a perfect plan for the semester (and being upfront with the students about it). It meant letting go.black-woman-meditating-e1325516643421

It was probably the healthiest first week that I’ve had. And it was the very sort of discipleship that I want to exemplify for my students. Because soon, if they don’t already, they will know the pressures of being pulled in multiple directions by ministry. And they will need to know how to start well.

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Older Women’s Takedown of Young Stars Does Not Challenge Status Quo, Either

Grace Jones has a new memoir coming out. Given her sass, it’s name is appropriate: I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. It’s already getting a lot of attention, which is remarkable that Jones has been fairly absent from public view over the past two decades. My most recent memory is her role as Strangé in Boomerang.

The main reason for the attention is that Jones dishes out some critique for younger female artists, such as Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna. Of course, everyone’s only reporting the scintillating excerpts, most likely taken out of context, where she says that female stars noted for being countercultural trendsetters – including Madonna and Beyoncé – are actually playing to trends that she set long ago. Thus, they’re not being original at all. Nor are they challenging the status quo.

I think there is some truth in Jones’ statement. Being countercultural – at least in terms of clothing, hair, and rejection of respectability politics – has become the new fad, so it doesn’t take much courage to do it. And above all else, it sells. A lot. When Jones was doing it, she was actually risking commercial and financial success.Cover image Grace Jones' book, featuring a frontal upper-body photograph of the author wearing a black sleeveless top with a high collar while leaning against a stone wall. She is smiling, with gaze directed sideways.

But this idea that young female stars bring nothing new to the table and are simply mimicking older women is problematic. It is not a new argument. It has been replayed in so many contexts. Honestly, who cares whether Bey challenges the status quo? It’s not exactly what I’m listening for when I play “Drunk in Love” ad nauseum during my thirty minutes on the elliptical.

Folks are always fanning the flames of tension between older and younger generations of women who are in the same field. The older crowd looks at the younger and says, “We already did that! Admit that we’re your inspiration!” The younger crowd looks at the older and says, “We never even heard of you. We’re doing our own thing!” Neither one recognizes that the other is just caught in the throes of their own developmental crisis: younger folks trying to assert unique identities and older folks wanting to ensure they’re leaving a legacy. All of them – of us – failing to recognize that there is nothing new under the sun. The same creative spirit of the universe that touches Nicki touched Kim. And before them, it came through Grace, Eartha, Josephine, Bessie, and Moms. It touched legions of women before them. It will touch legions after them.

As far as I know, the universe has not decreed that only one woman can be special at a time. That seems to be what society would like us to believe, though. After all, it sells magazines, books, and concert tickets. It feeds the age-old stereotype of women as eager for attention and adoration, of women’s relationships as filled with envy. And it reinforces our beliefs that women – especially Black women – are incapable of creative expression without the assistance of others. Those stereotypes are the real status quo. And the generation wars between women don’t challenge that, either.

I Am Not the Woman You Used to Know

The following is a public service announcement. Ignore at your own risk.

I am not the same. I knew that I wouldn’t be. Somewhere under the shock, grief, and anger of my breast cancer diagnosis, there was curiosity. Who will I be when I emerge from this experience? Because I knew that I would emerge. And I knew that I would be different.

Many of my friends, colleagues, and students may be surprised at some of the changes. My family probably won’t. They already knew what stock I came from. The same genes are there. It’s just that the Greene family sweetness has taken a back seat to the Walker and Allen frankness. That Johnson sass has turned all the way up. Plus, I’m borrowing some of that “Don’t come for me ‘less I send for you” from those Barnes and Evans clans. Yeah, I’m finally living into the nickname that my grandfather gave me: Mess.Breast cancer journey

In the past 421 days, I have been through four surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy. I have spent nine months with temporary implants the size and weight of baseballs in my chest (and no, there was never a moment where I wasn’t aware of them). I have had more needles stuck in me than I can count. I lay on a doctor’s table fully awake while he made a one-inch incision in my chest to remove my chemo port.

You better believe that I am not the same. I have looked a potentially fatal disease in the face and told it, “F*** you all the way back to the pit of hell that you came from, and when you get there, tell Satan that I said f*** him, too.” And while all that was happening, I celebrated the release of my first book and got tenure. I learned to use my voice on social media to make a clarion call for justice even while I was sequestered from the danger that simple illnesses could pose to my weakened immune system. And even though the battle is not over, I have changed immensely.

I am more confident, more outspoken, less tolerant of excuses and complaints, and less willing to spend time and energy on things that don’t matter. I have less of a filter and I curse in public. I might even be willing to dance in public without really giving a d@%^ if you think I move like a White girl. And I’m only filtering the curse words in this post because I want to make sure all my “good” Christian friends don’t get so caught up on those that they ignore the rest of what I’m saying here. But in real life, there is no backspace, no edit feature. So be forewarned.

I am even more determined to be an agent in God’s mission of justice and reconciliation, not just in the great big world out there, but in the spaces that I inhabit on a daily basis. If this is my “for such a time as this” moment, I am going to use every bit of it.

I am also more committed than ever to loving myself fiercely. I have ended my decades-old war against my body. I love every bit of my flab, every one of the 11 surgical scars that mark my torso. And no, I do not want to let my hair grow out to see if the texture has changed because I had learned to love that wiry hair with no discernible curl pattern. Even more than that, I love not letting my hair define how I feel about myself.

I am committed to enjoying as much time as possible with my husband and son. Ironically that means that we’ll probably never get furniture for our living room because we’d rather spend that money traveling. Plus, that leaves more room for train sets and dog races and folding tables for family dinners. We like all those things better than rooms with nice furniture that people never sit on.

This is me now. I am not the same. But, hopefully, I’m better.

I Am Not the Help

“Which one of you is going to help me write my book?” The woman shouted her question at us for the third time, clearly not getting that our lack of response signaled that she was being inappropriate. The five of us had just entered the pool at the luxurious spa. We were probably an odd sight: five African American women hanging out at a spa on a Monday. We were a group of scholars working together on interdisciplinary volume on Black women and mental health. The project’s editor suggested that we embody good health practices with a full-day writing retreat. Truthfully, we did more retreating than writing.

We started our day at the pool. Two older White women were lingering after their water aerobics class. “Come on in!” they said, “the water feels great!” Their invitation was followed promptly with the question, “Are y’all celebrating something?” The spa is a frequent destination for weddings and spa parties, so it was a fair question to ask. When we responded that we were there to work on our book, one woman answered, “Oh, you’re writers! Y’all can help me write my book!” It wasn’t a question inasmuch as it was a demand. She affirmed that she was serious by asking repeatedly over the next 20 minutes: “Which one of you is going to help me write my book?”

It would be easy to dismiss her demand as a failure of emotional intelligence. But for each of us, it echoed a common experience that we’ve had as Black women: White women’s assumption that we are “the help.” For most of our history in the U.S., women of African descent have labored primarily in service to white women. Until the Civil Rights Movement, it was the only option available to most of us. As late as 1970, the average Black woman had a tenth grade education, worked as a domestic, and lived at or below the poverty line.

scarletthillaryFast forward four decades and the average Black woman has a bachelor’s degree, works in a professional or management field, and makes at least $25,000. But that doesn’t mean we have left service work behind. In many areas of the south, white families still employ Black and Latina women as household domestics. And Black women make up a disproportionate number of the “new domestics”: custodial workers, nannies, and nursing home staff. In each of these jobs, Black women from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa take care of White children, White elders, White homes, and White businesses.

In the 21st century, many Whites are so accustomed to us as their servers that they have a hard time imagining us in any other role. In my experience, this happens especially with White women. Here is a common scenario:

White woman: “Excuse me, where is the [insert random item here]?

Me: “I have no idea.” [Employs dismissive tone.]

White woman: “Oh, I thought you worked here.”

Me: “No, I don’t.” [How in the hell do I look like I work here when we’re in Target and I am not wearing a red shirt and khakis? Not to mention I’m carrying my damn purse and putting stuff in my basket?]

I have been mistaken for the help in Target on more times than I can count. Grocery stores, too. And I’m never wearing anything that looks remotely like the store uniforms.

Ironically, the woman in the pool that day was a Christian. Phrases like “Praise God” and “Amen” littered her conversation. Her book, it turned out, was a memoir on spiritual warfare. I should have asked her if she would be writing about the powers and principalities of patriarchal racism.

Even more ironically, her demand seemed very similar to my experience at a Christian social justice festival just a few days earlier. I had given a short talk on Black women’s erasure from discussions of racial justice before opening the floor for dialogue. The first person to raise her hand was a White woman, who asked, “What can I as a White woman do to help?” I gave a few ideas, including the strong suggestion that White men and women stop expecting Black women to educate them and do their own work (unless they compensate us). After the session ended, the woman told me that she enjoyed the talk but that I hadn’t really answered her question. “I want to know what to do. No one ever tells me what to do.”

I wanted to scream at her, “Did you not hear a word I said about doing your own damn work? Stop expecting us to do the work for you! I am not your Mammy!” Instead, I referred her to a few books and politely took my leave.

By the time that I got to the pool, I had reached the end of politeness. So I stayed away from our interlocutor. Or at least I tried. It was a small pool. Fortunately, one of our members had the name of a writing coach handy. That seemed to deflect her demands.Black-woman11

To be honest, though, I grow weary of deflecting White women’s expectation that I be their help. It takes too much emotional and intellectual labor, especially when it involves people with whom I am not in relationship, such as my students and friends. I am not your superwoman. And I am definitely not your help.

White Friends: Here’s Your Bill for My Racial Labor

Dear White Friend,

Thank you for choosing me as your consultant for your recent questions and concerns about racism and/or racial reconciliation. I trust that your needs were met and you were satisfied with the level of grace, thoughtfulness, and honesty with which I responded to your inquiry. Below you will find the invoice for my services.

You may be surprised at this new billing structure. For many years, I have provided these services freely. Being a racial ambassador is part of my call to God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20), and I am grateful for the privilege of working with you. But the “worker deserves [her] wages” (Luke 10:7).

I am sure that you will find this new billing structure to be significantly reduced given my credentials, which include:

  • 40+ years of lived experience as an African Racial labor invoiceAmerican woman living in the southern United States, with a multigenerational legacy of slavery, sharecropping, and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • 13 years of formal, self-funded education in cultural and gender studies, theology, and psychology, resulting in 2 bachelor’s degrees, 2 master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.
  • 12 years as a scholar and teacher in these areas, with dozens of academic and lay publications, including my recent book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
  • 20 years of clinical and ministerial experience with people of color and economically disadvantaged populations.

The attached invoice does not bill for prior expenses. It is limited to expenses incurred directly as a result of our recent conversation, specifically the time for services rendered (time that could have been devoted to professional activities for which I am paid) as well as the considerable emotional distressed induced by our conversation.

Racism is not an academic subject that I study objectively or from a safe psychological distance. It is a systemic oppression that envelops my daily existence. When you come seeking answers to your questions, you are asking me to delve into thoughts, memories, and experiences that are bathed in emotion. Memory cannot be separated from emotion. So when you ask me to recall an event, you are also asking me to recall – even re-experience – the fear, anger, and sadness that accompanied it.

Further, each time I engage in conversation with you on these topics, I do so fully knowing that you may dismiss my experience. You may employ your white privilege to tell me that my interpretation is invalid, that you know more about my experience than I do, that your limited time thinking about race trumps my four decades of living with it.

Even if you do listen to and trust my experience, at the end of our dialogue, you get to walk away from it. I, in turn, slip further down the rabbit hole of painful racialized memory.

There are also the costs of continuing education. I work constantly to be informed about issues of race. This includes keeping up with the latest publications on race and gender, even those not in my discipline, so that I can serve as your personal reference librarian. That in itself is a costly endeavor. I am also required to keep informed about national issues such as Ferguson, Baltimore, Rachel Dolezal, and the Charleston shooting. That means that I am continually subjected to cultural trauma, which has significant impact upon my health and well-being.

Previously, I have simply absorbed these costs. I am unable to continue to do so. Thus, I am requiring beneficiaries of my expertise to compensate me for the financial, emotional, and physical costs associated with this labor.

It is impossible to estimate the actual monetary value of my services. Instead, I am billing you for the therapeutic services required to recover my equilibrium following our conversations. These include flotation therapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture. You may remit payment by calling FLO2S or Massage Associates of Atlanta to put a credit on my account.

For high-frequency clients, I strongly recommend that you put my services on retainer by purchasing a FLO2S monthly membership or a Massage Associates of Atlanta acupuncture series.

If you are unable to work with this billing structure, I would be happy to refer you to an alternative provider for future consultations.

Sincerely,

Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Attachment: Racial labor invoice

Race Matters and So Does Racial Fraud

Beyond retweeting a few folks and reposting some interesting articles, I have tried to refrain from commenting on this Rachel Dolezal situation. I don’t want to engage in speculation about why she did it. As a psychologist, I know that the question of why is usually far more complicated than can be deduced from reading a few articles or listening to a few interviews.dolezal

I am more interested in the the rhetoric that I’ve heard invoked about the case. There’s a lot of wrongheaded thinking on this, even by people who are usually considered well-informed on racial issues. We’re clearly muddled by the idea that someone would pass for Black. Here are a few of the puzzling comments I’ve heard and read in the past week.

She’s done a lot for the Black community and hasn’t hurt anyone with this. The media is just using this to distract us from real racial issues.

This one really gets me. If you’re this easily distracted from “real racial issues,” then you don’t have much of an attention span and you’re not really a racial justice advocate. If you think Rachel Dolezal’s racial fraud is simply a misguided act that doesn’t hurt anyone, then you obviously have never been: (1) a person of African descent whose racial allegiance is questioned because of your light skin; (2) a person who has been accused of being a justice advocate solely for personal gain; or (3) a cultural studies scholar (or a non-white professor in almost any field) whose presence and/or scholarship is deemed unworthy of the academy.

Well, she’s just being transracial.

Please stop. No really, stop. If you think that transracial is a new word to describe this, then you are wrong. You are co-opting a word that has a long-standing use and a very specific meaning related to adoption. And if you’re trying to draw a parallel between Dolezal and Caitlin Jenner, you really should be quiet. Spend a few more years listening to and learning from transgender people and maybe you’ll eventually get why that’s a bad parallel. Tanning your skin and wearing braids can no more make your Black than wearing a bone straight weave and blue contact lenses can make you White.

Race is just a social construct, so she can choose to be whatever race she wants.

Scholars have to take some of the blame for this one. We’ve been pushing the race-as-social-construct argument too hard. Yes, race is largely a social construct. Most humans – regardless of race or ethnicity – share over 90 percent of our genetic material. That makes sense given that we are more like each other than we are like other mammals. The factors that distinguish us are very limited in quantity. They are important only because we as a society decide that they are important.

We typically assign a person’s racial identity based upon characteristics such as skin color, facial features, hair texture, primary language, geographical origin, and family history. And our understanding of racial identity is not fixed, but changes over time. This is especially the case with the category of White, which has been expanded over time to include groups who used to be considered non-White, such as Irish and Jewish peoples. There are several excellent books on this, including Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color.

Then you take the fact that there’s been so much mixing between ethnic groups in the Americas and the determination of race becomes more difficult. From a biological perspective, many people in the Americas are really mestizo, a combination of multiple racial and/or ethnic groups. In the United States, though, we don’t use that category. Because of that one-drop history, we just reduce people to one category, the one that they most look like. So racial identity becomes a social definition rather than a biological definition.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no biological component. When we say that someone is Black, we are not just talking about what they look like. We are saying their family line originated on the continent of Africa. It’s true that all humans share much of the same genetic material. But people who originate from a common land will share even more.

Just look at research on disease processes. Sickle cell is almost exclusively diagnosed among people of African descent, while cystic fibrosis is almost exclusively diagnosed among people of European descent. It does not matter where in the world those people live or how many generations it has been since their families lived in Africa or Europe. There is something about racial origin that determines the diagnosis.

Sometimes race determines disease process. Black women in the U.S., for example, have slightly lower rates of breast cancer than White women. But breast cancer in Black women tends to occur at earlier ages and their tumors are more aggressive. And that happens regardless of their income, education, access to quality health care, and use of routine screening. Researchers keep trying to find some other explanation than race. But so far, it keeps coming back to race.

Even if race were a purely social or psychological construct, it has very real impact on people’s lives. And there is a growing field of research that shows that social experience transforms biology. This is especially the case with trauma. Using brain imaging and other techniques, researchers have shown that the experience of sexual abuse or other forms of trauma actually changes how the brain is wired. Social experience becomes biological reality.

And it doesn’t just do it for the trauma victim. There’s some emerging research that shows that the effects are intergenerational. The children of mothers who have experienced trauma have different brain chemistry than the children of mothers who have not.

Now imagine what that might look like for a group of people who share a common geographic origin and are subjected to shared experiences of enslavement and oppression for four centuries.

White Feminist Privilege and the War on Mother’s Day

Over the past few days, I have watched a stark racial divide develop among my social media friends, many of whom are progressive clergy, academics, and social justice activists. The divide in itself is not unusual. I have noticed it each time that some major social justice concern has occurred, whether it is the impending execution of a White woman, the videorecording of police killing an unarmed Black person, or the unjust conviction and sentencing of a Black women defending herself from an abusive partner.  Just like most of U.S. society, social justice concerns tend to be divided along racial/ethnic and class lines. So the mostly White activists organizing on behalf of Kelly Gissandaner are largely silent about Marissa Alexander. And the mostly Black female crowd organizing on behalf of Marissa are largely silent about Kelly.

mothers-dayBut the latest issue that divides my Facebook and Twitter pals is not a social justice concern. It’s Mother’s Day. For some reason this year, the holiday is engendering some vigorous antipathy. There’s been a proliferation of anti-Mother’s Day articles. Anne Lamott’s 2010 Salon article, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day,” seems to have started a new genre of writing. Several writers have joined their voices with hers to lament this holiday that celebrates mothers to the exclusion of non-mothers. One writer agrees with Lamott’s disdain for the holiday but says that it’s for an entirely different reason. Another argues that “Mother’s Day is NOT a Liturgical Holiday.” Every article has some variation of the same argument: Mother’s Day is bad because it makes too big a deal of mothers.

It’s bizarre that so many people are spending time complaining about a day that they think receives too much attention. It’s even more bizarre that it’s mostly my White feminist friends who keep posting these articles on social media, with comments such as “This writer says everything I ever thought about Mother’s Day.” In contrast, my Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American friends and acquaintances are largely silent on the issue.

Actually, they’re not silent. They are posting photos of and tributes to the women who have mothered them, to those whose mothering they admire, and even to the children who have made them mothers. They are posting articles about women of color whose rights to mother were taken away by hospitals and Christian missionaries who stole their babies, by states who forcibly sterilized them, and by a society that undervalues them.

moms14n-1-webThey are reminding us to pray for the exclusive mothers’ club whose membership consists of women whose unarmed Black and Latino children have been killed by police and white civilians. They are grieving along with people who are motherless or childless for a number of reasons – death, neglect, abuse, infertility. They are acknowledging that all mothering is not good and that many people have complicated relationships with their mothers. In the  best traditions of womanist, mujerista, and Native and Asian American feminist thought, women and men of color are both celebrating Mother’s Day and lamenting the sources of individual and systemic pain that the day can bring.

I suppose it’s much easier to denigrate a day that venerates motherhood when it is your culture’s ideal of motherhood that’s being elevated, when your right and capacity to mother have never been systemically questioned, threatened, or denied. But for some of us, motherhood has not always been a crystal stair.

Tread lightly, my white feminist sisters. Your privilege is showing.