Imagine all that we could do if we are first just comfortable in our own skin.
- Amandla Stenberg
Recently, I watched a video of Amandla Stenberg explain that “My Authenticity is My Activism.” As soon as I finished listening to her message, I was amazed at the wisdom and beauty of this 17-year-old young woman. I immediately started to wish that I had a friend like Amandla when I was 17-years-old; a friend who would encourage and reassure me to be my true self. I can only imagine how different my life would have been at that time, and the years to follow. Simply put, Amandla described how she has become a social activist, and that it primarily involves pushing herself to be none other than her true self. At first, this may not sound like a radical idea, or something that should be considered “activism,” however I would argue otherwise.
The Miserable Pressure of Social Norms.
Believe it or not, there is a pressure must of us feel daily that comes from social norms. These norms tell us what to do, how to dress, what to say, and attempt to define who we should be. Social norms are everywhere, and can be drastically different based on social and cultural context. Sometimes, social norms become rich traditions that are reverenced and celebrated. Other times, social norms become inflexible and limiting. Depending on who you are, different social norms may have a different impact on you and your life.
Because social norms (which often align with the voice of the majority) are so powerful, you’re less likely to experience backlash or resistance from society when you “fit in” or follow along with the decided norms. However, that does not take away the pain and despair that comes with attempting to be someone you’re not.
Using Yourself as a Form of Resistance.
One portion of Amandla’s message that I found myself identifying strongly with was her relationship with her hair.
I’ve realized that loving myself has been a gradual process. Coming into myself as a Black person and as a woman has been a gradual process. When we grow up as Black girls, we are told we should be ashamed of our hair, we are told we should be ashamed of our bodies, and that we should be ashamed of our voices….We’re fed these advertisements that tell us to straighten our hair, as if, if we straighten it, we’ll be more civil, which is just another way of saying more White.
While this part of Amandla’s message may appeal specifically to Black Women, the overall idea is that oppressive social norms and standards often limit the expression, potential, and happiness for millions of people from various cultures, every single day. This is because these oppressive social norms often say, “your true self will not be accepted here, and so you must change.”
However, choosing to resist those social norms, and resist the pressure to fit in or conform is courageous, inspiring, and healing. These are all adjectives I would use to describe activism. Choosing to be yourself in a world that often tells you otherwise is at the core of what it truly means to be an activist. Let your true identity be your resistance. Be who you want to be and be proud of it. Then, your activism will become authentic and will speak for itself.
It’s okay to exist as yourself. Be the very best version of your true self.
How can I be an activism in a society that disparages me? ...Just by choosing to love myself, choosing to honor myself and being comfortable with my identity in a society that tells me I shouldn’t, I am starting a revolution.
Thank you, Amandla!
I've recently been exploring and researching more into the idea of Black Woman Identity Development. One theme I've always been bothered by and continues to come up is the tradition of Black women being asked to "protect" the integrity of Black men, for the greater good of the Black race. This is unique because while women in general are often told their issues are less significant, within the Black community there is pressure placed on women to diminish themselves in order to protect an entire race of people. So in a sense, asking Black women to forget that they are women, to uphold the Black community. As I personally begin to understand the significance of my womanhood and its impact on my identity, this becomes more and more problematic for me.
Black women acknowledging issues of gender-related oppression is not "Black man bashing." Bringing attention to Black women and girls should never been seen as a personal attack on Black men. It does not take away from or diminish the love and power apparent within relationship between Black men and women. It is in no way meant to demonize or diminish the character and integrity of Black men. It's simply Black women asking for recognition and protection that should innately be present, because we are human. Neglecting to understand that within the Black community still exists oppressive acts and ideologies based on gender, sexual orientation, ability status, age, SES, religion, nationality, etc. is absurd and something that I hope we can continue to illuminate.
The Black community is not a monolith, and it is possible for us to be unified while at the same time address issues that impact our lives in different ways.
What do you think? Share your thoughts!
When I was a teenager, I would fantasize about growing up during the 1950s-60s. For me, there was something very glorious, epic, and striking about being a part of the Black Civil Rights Movement. I romanticized that time period more than any other because from it I have gathered strength, determination, courage, empowerment, and inspiration. From this time period, I have learned that activism is revolutionary, appealing, effective, and extraordinarily powerful. Still today, I believe that being an activist, especially one who is willing to give your very life for a cause that is much larger than yourself, is the noblest idea I have ever known.
I have grown since then, and so has my romanticized perspective of the Civil Rights Movement. As my life evolved, so did my ideas and my understanding of activism. Now I’m able to see all the other pieces of activism that I was unable to notice before. Now, I can’t help but to notice the heaviness of rage, or how isolated one can feel within such an immense movement. The hopelessness one may feel as they attempt to fill others with hope and encouragement and the sheer hurt that comes with realizing that one’s own worth and value is conditional, are both unsettling. As said by the great James Baldwin, to be Black and relatively aware in America is to be in a constant state of rage. With that, activism isn’t so glamorous.
I was asked to write this piece as my psychologist self, to address the mental health needs of Black millennials who are dedicating their lives to the “good fight” that is so reminiscent of sixty years ago. Yet, as I write and think about this group of individuals, #blacklivesmatter, and the recent death of MarShawn McCarrel, I can’t help but to see myself as a member of this prestigious yet demanding group. So in a way, I am not only offering up advice as a psychologist to a vulnerable group, but more so attempting to see that my brothers and sisters are taken care of, as we journey down this necessary, noble, yet daunting road called activism.
What is Mental Illness?
I typically do not like to talk about “mental illness” without first addressing mental health. Mental illness is a term that many find intimidating because it implies that something is wrong, unnatural, or “crazy.” Instead, it’s much easier to talk about mental health. Why? Because mental health is natural, something everyone has, and something everyone should prioritize. I like the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health, as it states:
“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
In contrast, mental illness can occur whenever one’s mental health is assaulted or compromised in any way. Based on WHO’s definition of mental health, it seems relatively easy for one to experience some sort of mental illness (ranging from relatively mild to severe) at some point in their life.
Unfortunately, mental illness is something anyone can experience, yet something that most are afraid to discuss.
What are the mental health consequences of being an activist?
Remember what I said about activism not being so pretty? Part of that includes the threats to one’s mental health that can result from involved activism. It is difficult and uncommon for one to dedicate a considerable amount of their thoughts, actions, and resources to fighting incredible injustice, yet that is exactly what several of us who are fighting the “good fight” do, constantly. Many people choose to remain unaware or oblivious, because it’s much easier to remain “asleep.”
It’s undeniable that activists are strong and incredible people. However, in regards to mental health, we are vulnerable and are more likely to have our mental health compromised due to the tremendous commitment that activism requires. Likewise, the presence of certain risk factors will put us at even greater risk. These include (but are not limited to):
So what does this look like?
Most of us are familiar with terms such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or even post traumatic stress syndrome. However, it’s very common for mental illness to manifest in ways that are not always easily identifiable. This is particularly true for children, men, and ethnic minorities. So how will you know when you or a loved one may be burnt out? Look out for the following red flags:
How to incorporate self-care into your lifestyle.
This does not mean to no longer fight for what you believe in, but to consider how you may modify your life purpose to protect yourself and preserve your mental health. This can be difficult and take some thought, but I was able to do so in this way: One of my greatest passions is the advancement of Black American, which is a large feat. However, to make it less cumbersome, but my ultimate purpose is to inspire others to feel empowered to live their best lives. I do this simply by living my best life and letting that be an example. This is only one of many ways to refine your purpose so take your time and consider what fits best for you.
In the words of the great Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” Remember this very important part of your activism. Take care of yourselves.
Recently, research was conducted at Columbia University’s Teachers College investigating student learning success in science. What they found was that learning about the struggles of famous scientists may help students succeed in science.
“Investigators divided 402 students (9th and 10th graders) from low-income areas into three groups. The control group read an 800-word typical science textbook description about the great accomplishments of such famous scientists as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. Another group read about those scientists’ personal struggles, including Einstein’s flight from Nazi Germany to avoid persecution as a Jew. The third group read about the scientists’ intellectual struggles, such as Curie’s persistence despite failed experiments. At the end of a six-week grading period, students who learned about scientists’ struggles, of either type, had significantly improved their science grades, with low-achievers benefiting the most.”
Wow, amazing right?
Finding My Voice.
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.
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