Health

When It Comes To Anti-Black Racism, How Do Healers Heal Themselves?

Black women and non-binary folks who do healing work must make space and time to heal themselves and prioritize joy like our lives depend on it—because they do.

It’s the second night in a row I’ve been staring blankly at the wall at three in the morning. I know better than to pick up my phone in the middle of the night, but that’s exactly what I do, and I start scrolling through the news. The truth is, I’m emotionally and physically exhausted from the news cycles of anti-Black racism, police brutality, gendered and transphobic violence, and I can’t sleep. I know I’m having a trauma response to all of the information I’m uploading. The increased news coverage has exacerbated public acknowledgement and conversations on anti-Black racism, an experience that isn’t new for many Black folks. I’m grieving, and I can tell that I’m moving through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. I’m not quite at acceptance yet—and I am not sure if or when I’ll get there.

At 8:30 a.m., the alarm clock goes off. I have two events scheduled today: a panel discussion on Black mental health and self advocacy, organized by University of Toronto’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office. The second, an online yoga class for Black grief that I started as a direct response to support the Black community processing the impacts of anti-Black racism, police brutality, microaggressions and other forms of oppression. The day hasn’t even begun and I’m wondering how I’m going to get through.

I’ve dedicated the last 12 years of my life to supporting survivors of gender-based and racial violence; to providing healing and education to support those impacted by different forms of oppression. I’ve worked as a front-line service provider, an educator and trainer, and as a trauma-informed yoga instructor. My work requires me to take community and self-care very seriously; but these last few weeks have felt different. It is said that healers need to spend time healing too, but how does that happen in practice, especially right now? How do we, as healers, make space for ourselves when we are bombarded by requests during times of need?

I decided to pose that question to healing space holders working in different areas of the movement to affirm Black lives. Healing space holders can be defined as counsellors, therapists, yoga teachers, reiki practitioners, change makers, educators, wellness activators, and curators: People who create and support spaces for folks to process emotions, and heal.

Black folks who do this work are in high demand these days. “My schedule is full right now, supporting Black people who are going through collective grief,” says Toronto-based therapist Randi-Mae Stanford-Leibold. “Emails come in daily with people seeking support to process not only the current moment, but past traumas of anti-Black racism.”

The last four weeks have seen a resurgence of space holding for the Black community to mourn and seek justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, Jamal Francique, George Floyd, Tony McDade, or Oluwatoyin Salau—Black individuals who have been killed by police, died in police presence or died as a result of negligence. And to think that these are the names we do know.

Roselyne Douge-Charles, a community organizer in Ottawa, reminds us that “murders of Black community members happen every 28 hours in North America. Whether we choose to engage with certain cases and not others, those murders are still happening.” Black people across the country and across the world are collectively experiencing the trauma of having to justify our existence by simply naming that #BlackLivesMatter. Since the fight for liberation is a marathon and not a sprint, we must lean into collective visions of care for each other, as space holders for healing.

Here are some strategies that I would like to share on how we can sustain ourselves as we fight for liberation.

“No” is a complete sentence

Setting boundaries and self-care are important practices. “My inbox has been filled with requests for services [and that] means I must align myself in the most fierce ways and with no f-cks given,” says Rachel Ricketts, international author and healer, who developed Getting Through Grief, an online support program. If you have an inbox that is demanding your labour, your time and your energy without regard to your well-being, we must interrogate this. This is because the urgent and demanding entitlement of whiteness is what we—as Black womxn—have been trained to respond to. If this is about liberation, then we need to prioritize rest unapologetically. 

(Note: The spelling of womxn is meant to show inclusion of trans, nonbinary, womxn of colour, womxn with disabilities and all other marginalized genders.)

Create a ritual

I have created a habit of waking up, going outside to the porch for fresh air and then practicing yoga or making my morning coffee. Now, I’m not saying that you need to follow the same path, but it is helpful to create rituals that centre you during the day or before going to bed. Allison Hill, founder of Restore Collective at Hill Insider—a wellness series developed to give Black womxn practical tools to restore hope, health, joy and community through yoga, meditation and wellness practices, names running as an important ritual for her mental wellbeing. “I made a deliberate choice to strengthen my mind. Running was important because it was hard, but I have been talking myself through it. I mentally walk myself through what I am capable of and it becomes applicable to other parts of my life.”

Challenge the idea that you have to have everything together

In her book, Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde—poet, activist, scholar and ancestor—reminds us that, “Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.”

The whole week prior to hosting my second yoga session for Black grief, I was thinking to myself, “Oh I can’t cry during the practice. I need to keep it together for my community. Why are people trusting me? Do I know what I am doing?” My emotions felt like a rollercoaster. I knew that these questions were an indication that imposter syndrome was showing up—but also that I was moving through the stages of grief, just like my community. From watching Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s family plead for justice on social media to the widely shared video of George Floyd pleading for his life, how could I not be affected? The best thing I could do was be honest about my emotions, which meant naming how I was feeling in the session to participants.

Understand the role you are playing within the movement of affirming Black life

I taught my first yoga session for Black grief the day before the #JusticeForRegis rally and march was held. The morning of the rally, I had told myself that I would head out around 2:30 p.m. At 2:35 p.m. I was still at home and unable to move from my bed, because the week had caught up to me. Despite cognitively understanding that my body was suffering from chronic fatigue, emotionally I felt a tremendous amount of guilt as my social media feed filled up with images of friends and acquaintances marching. “When I think about solidarity,” says Douge-Charles, “guilt should never be the centre point of organizing; what does it look like to practice consent with ourselves. We need to take a disability justice lens to organizing, which means engaging in different forms of activism.”

I’m not one for binaries; I know that guilt can be a useful tool and motivator for action. For Black healers, it’s important that we shift feelings of guilt to honest, practical considerations of how and when we engage with activism. Some folks are on the frontline marching, some folks are having difficult conversations with non-Black community members, and some folks are hosting spaces of healing. All of these are valid and needed during these times.

Invest in your relationships

When I think about Black liberation, I often think about the people around me who I could share the moment with. In more recent years, I’ve come to really understand the importance of investing in relationships. “In supporting others, I have been fostering new relationships and I’m vibrating—I’m doing the work I’m passionate about, while building community,” says Hill.

This past week, I had a heartfelt conversation with my father where he told me a story about the Chewa people, my ancestral connections in Malawi. Having these conversations and check-ins have been important to maintain a connection to my ancestral African roots and family. It’s those relationships and moments that remind me that I’m not alone, that I have community, and that I come from a lineage of powerful people.

One relationship that we must not forget about is the one we have with ourselves. Ricketts reminds us that we should prioritize relationships over to-do lists. “I have to prioritize myself in this moment,” she says, “which means I’ll take a walk or a bike ride mid-day, before getting back to my long to-do list.”

Don’t feel guilty about feeling joy or pleasure

It can be challenging to feel joy, especially when videos of Black death plague our feeds and so many stories of microaggressions and anti-Black racism are disclosed in our healing sessions. In her latest book, Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown frames the book’s titular idea as work we can do to reclaim our whole, happy and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions and limitations of oppression.

Kleaver Cruz, founder of the Black Joy Project, also names Black joy as a form of resistance. My feet in the grass with sun beaming in my face brings me absolute joy; dancing to my favourite afro-beats (which right now is basically anything by Juls) gives me life! I encourage you to create a joy list and to try to cross one thing off that list per week. Nothing is too small. Let us revel in the words of Douge-Charles, who urges us to remember that, “Joy is the closest feeling to freedom, so we need to be intentional about activating joy.”

Healing is inherently political and is inextricably linked to our plight for justice. Whether it is setting boundaries, taking spiritual baths, talking to a counsellor or listening to a podcast, cultivating space for healing ourselves as Black healing space holders is vital. We must lean into healing and commit to prioritizing joy like our lives depend on it—because they do.

Yami Msosa is a Malawian born organizer, educator and trauma-informed yoga teacher based in Tkaronto. Their work focuses on ending sexual violence, racial justice and queer liberation. Yami currently hosts yoga classes to support Black folks through grief, anti-Black racism and collective healing. Learn more about their work at yamimsosa.com.