A self-care manual for artists of color by Ruskeat Tytöt
In this text Ruskeat Tytöt explains why people of color need to practice self-care, and they present a how-to guide for artists.
This text was first published in Actualise Utopia: From dreams to reality. An anthology about racial barriers in the structure of the Nordic arts field, by editor Ninos Josef and project coordinator Kemê Pellicer. Published by Arts Council Norway as part of the project An inclusive cultural sector in the Nordics. POC = person of color.
Intersectionally feminist self-care manual for the POC artist
Written by Ruskeat Tytöt
Self-care is defined as any action to preserve or better one's health. The general interpretation seems to culminate in the idea of straightforward physical actions, like sports, or mental exercises such as meditation, increasing comfort and oxytocin levels and therefore contentment and health. Unfortunately, as marginalized people and artists, we do not possess the luxury of viewing the care of our health only from the most obvious, concrete perspectives, as mentioned above. Nor can we rely on the privileged to tell us how. Because we constantly need to tackle societal barriers and faulty perceptions of what we are, simply to exist as versatile and complete beings, we need to observe our all-round well-being from a more fundamental angle.
That is not to say we cannot enjoy sheet masks and scalp massages like our non-marginalized, white colleagues. On the contrary. We should delve into everyday self-care with passion. Because in a society that teaches us to serve its derogatory agendas, practicing kindness, loyalty and respect towards ourselves, even through the smallest of actions, is nothing short of rebellious. As the late African-American writer and activist Audre Lorde once said:
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
Accordingly, the first lesson needs to be imposing mercy, starting with ourselves. Learning to let ourselves be incomplete, imperfect and impulsive is vital. Coming to terms with the reality that a significant portion of our creative, mental and physical capacity is unwillingly consumed by the struggle merely to exist in a marginalizing society. The constant experience of being pushed aside from what is considered normal and neutral inevitably affects how we see ourselves in relation to the society we exist in. But that is not all. Research suggests that experiences of racism might even have severe effects on an individual's mental health. This phenomenon is referred to as racial trauma. In The Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Surveys (CPES) conducted in the years 2001-2003, it was found that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the diverse U.S. population is significantly higher among people of color in comparison to Caucasian participants.1 Needless to say, staying above the surface, in an environment sculptured to swallow us whole, is a struggle that indeed is very real.
From this need, we birthed a list of guidelines and suggestions to help in the process of redeeming and strengthening our sense of self-worth:
✴ You are not an artist in relation to whiteness, you are an artist.
Your creative work exists as independent creations and not in relation to whiteness. Whatever the content may be, it should not be pre-labeled by white collaborators or audiences. As an artist of color, it is especially important to not let outside forces shape your narrative without your consent. Unsolicited characterizations are just tools of oppression and tokenism. Your content does not need to play into a storyline dictated by society. Your art is yours to determine.
Whereas pain and inspiration might at times intersect, your creative work does not need to embody elements of personal trauma or have any aspect of politics for it to be valid. Your content does not need to derive from suffering, nor does it have to have any educational value for it to be impactful.
As there are significant opposing forces at play, it is also important to understand that your worth as an artist is not tied to how you succeed in a field that is rigged against you. However, you are allowed, and should be encouraged, to celebrate your achievements in it. Enjoy your personal and professional wins. You do not need to shrink yourself for others.
✴ Acknowledge the structuralized injustice towards marginalized artists as a wholeness.
In order to understand the entirety of discriminative structures, we need to start looking at art institutions as they are: Built by and for the white gaze only. This applies to art at all of its levels: Starting from the schools and teachers who teach us what art is, trickling down all the way to those who determine how it should be viewed, reviewed and presented, and even what its impact is and should be. It is essential to understand that racist power structures are also internalized through all the casual injustice we have become accustomed to. Having a sense of the discriminative patterns in all of their many layers makes it easier to redirect our thought patterns. There is potential for great empowerment in realizing that, as a POC artist, feeling out of place in those pale structures is not only possible, it is designed.
✴ Taking care of your mental health is important.
Unfortunately, not all of us have the resources needed to seek the professional help we need. Even if the resources are available, there is no guarantee of having access to professionals with the required skills in the specific area of racial trauma. If this is the reality for you, we advise you to seek support from people with similar experiences. The best thing you can do for yourself is to not stay alone with your possible anxiety and experiences of discrimination. Marginalization forces us to the side, but finding others on the sidelines makes it easier to push back or even just stay still. Utilize all possible ways of finding peer support. With the world at your fingertips, making connections on an international level is easier than ever, so the tools to help your personal journey might very well be found somewhere else, especially if they are not provided locally. Network ferociously - there is power in sharing and unloading.
To empower, you need to be empowered. As the needed spaces do not necessarily yet exist for artists of color in your micro-reality, you might need to create your own platforms and institutions. Stay open, lead discussions, share your art and experiences with others, and create the space you wish you had.
✴ Let yourself try and explore.
You do not need to excel at everything you do.
Fighting against discrimination in our everyday life often results in a mindset of working twice as hard to get half the praise and always maintaining a meticulously high quality in our work. It can be excruciatingly difficult to unlearn this mindset, but in order to nurture our creativity, we need to give ourselves room to play. Every project does not need to be a masterpiece. Let yourself be messy, embrace imperfections.
✴ Expect more from allies, collaborators and institutions. Recognize real allyship.*
Activism is ultimately based on actions, and allyship always requires deeds that go towards dismantling the unequal power structures. In order to do so, an ally needs to understand the imbalance of privilege and be aware of the hierarchies invisible to many. However, antidiscrimination and/or pro-equality, an ally in a position of privilege is never able to truly understand the experiences of the oppressed on a personal level. To understand their status of privilege, an ally needs to come to terms with their own position in the hierarchy.
As a marginalized person you have no obligation to feel gratitude for the bare minimum from allies. The idea of giving space to marginalized groups is problematic, because it feeds into a narrative of fighting discrimination as an act of heroism, when in reality it is merely common decency. You do not need to waste energy putting allies on a pedestal for white saviorism. Instead, celebrate real progress.
Do not let institutions whitewash your work. When collaborating with non-marginalized parties, it is easy to start filtering your art towards a more palatable form.
- Demand more diversity at all levels of the projects you are involved in. To have a better chance at a truly receptive working environment, there needs to be representation not only at the production level, but also in executive roles.
- Do not let yourself be diminished into a token anything. If possible, make sure you are not the only marginalized artist in any project.
- Do not work for free for the benefit of those in power. There is a huge difference between supporting each other as marginalized content creators and working without proper compensation for white institutions. Choose where you invest your power and creativity, for it is priceless.
- And don't forget to live, love, laugh.
✴ You are allowed to say no.
You have the right to turn down parts in projects that compromise your values or integrity.
You can say no to racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic and fatphobic productions, just for being that. In the event that you nonetheless end up in a project with offensive features, which most of them have one way or another, you have the right to voice your disagreement with the marginalizing content to the people in executive roles.
Typecasting is an unfortunately common and demeaning reality, pushing POC artists towards stereotypical parts. Turning down such roles is not always possible for the simple lack of non-offensive projects and roles. There will inevitably be situations where you are forced to choose between your values and work. We encourage you to trust your intuition. If something feels off, it most likely is. It is a useful habit to prepare yourself in advance for situations where you might be discriminated against by default, such as casting or pay negotiations.
✴ Someone has probably done it before, you do not need to start from scratch every time.
Even though marginalized artists are not yet in the mainstream of our field at large, there is usually someone who has done it before, at least once or twice. Just as you should find help from your peers in relation to other issues, you should also seek advice when it comes to practicalities. We do not encourage you to claim the knowledge or expertise of others as your own. Instead, we urge you to use the already existing talent of the community to support your personal wellbeing. There are lessons to be learned in the fights of other marginalized groups as well, and research is essential. Give credit where due to those who paved the way, but do not shy away from benefiting from their achievements. When based on mutual respect, thriving individually also strengthens others.
✴ Take a break, also from activism.
All of the above promotes self-care in the long run. But above all, you need to stop just to breathe every now and then. Realistically we cannot rely on the world to change overnight, and meanwhile we still need to take care of our acute wellbeing. Do things that bring you joy in your daily life. Try to minimize negative influences in your life, such as harmful social media content and people who are not supportive of your growth. Practice mercy, solidarity and kindness, starting with yourself.
About the authors
Ruskeat Tytöt (eng: Brown girls) is an institutionally nonaligned, politically and religiously independent, non-profit organization for Brown People by Brown People. Their mission is to broaden representations in the field of culture – especially media, literature, communications and advertising, as well as to function as a platform for cultural professionals of colour to realize their creative and meaningful projects. Their vision for Finland is a more inclusive and norm-critical culture and media field, work-life and society.
*) There are three possible parties in the act of discrimination: the oppressor, the oppressed and the ally. However, in writing the anthology, we as a team began to wonder whether the role of allyship even exists, because, ultimately, an ally always plays into the unequal power dynamic, just by being in a position of privilege.