Rachel Ricketts on spiritual activism, self-care as a Black woman and why 'rest' is a 'form of resistance'

Kamilah Newton
·7-min read
Rachel Ricketts talks the importance of spiritual activism, self-care and setting boundaries.  (Photo: Rachel Ricketts; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Rachel Ricketts talks the importance of spiritual activism, self-care and setting boundaries. (Photo: Rachel Ricketts; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Rachel Ricketts is a thought leader, racial justice educator, attorney, speaker and the bestselling author of Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy. That book, Ricketts tells Yahoo Life, is “essentially a combination of my personal and professional experiences of a lifetime of navigating white supremacist systems as a queer multiracial Black woman — and it is rooted in spiritual activism,” something she says is the most commonly left-out part of the global movement for liberation.

Spiritual activism, Ricketts explains, “means doing [the work] from a space, of a grounded understanding, in the way we are all involved in systemic harm in a way that ensures that we are connected to ourselves as well as each other, as well as all beings — conscious or not — including nature, and to something bigger than us.”

Yahoo Life spoke to Ricketts about the importance of spiritual activism — as well as setting boundaries and ways that Black women can combat daily stressors, especially those associated with white supremacy.

Why do you say that spiritual activism is the vital — but missing — piece when it comes to dismantling white supremacy and all forms of oppression?

This work requires us to connect to something larger than us so that we can ensure we're doing this work in a community-based way — in a way that understands that "my oppression is your oppression" — but at the same time, understands the ways in which oppression manifests differ greatly, depending on the identities that we have. I don't think that you can be a spiritual person and not be an activist in some shape or way, because you're a person who ought to be rooted in this notion of interconnectedness.

Activism is really about understanding that this work has to start within us first, so that the work we do out in the world is a reflection of that. It's grief work, it's healing work, it's trauma work, and if we aren't treating it as such, then it just becomes an analytical exercise. And that's why 400 years into this whole human oppressive experience, we are where we are.

Video: Rachel Ricketts on the message of her 'Do Better' book

Why does racial justice require inner work, just as much as outer?

If we can't even understand how these systems operate and exist within us, whatever work we're doing out in the world will perpetuate more harm. And that's also why we see a lot of white women wholeheartedly believing that they are acting in allyship, even when they're not.

White supremacy is not just white men out in the woods with cloaks on. Firstly, there's a lot of women members of the KKK, and secondly, white supremacy is prejudice plus power plus privilege, so every white person belongs to it, whether they intend to or not. Having an acknowledgement of that is not, "Am I causing harm?" but "How and when am I causing harm?" We know white supremacy is alive and well in spaces without white people, just like we know heteropatriarchy is alive and well in rooms without any cis men in it, so we all have work to do.

What is an "oppressed oppressor"?

The majority of us are oppressed oppressors, because we have some level of power and privilege and at the same time, many of us include some intersecting identity that means that we are oppressed. The majority of [our privilege] is subconscious and doesn't require intention or thought, so simply by virtue of belonging to a dominant identity, you oppress the non-dominant identity — that’s how systems of oppression work.

The reason I speak very specifically to white women (especially cis white women) is because they have the hardest time acknowledging that they are all oppressed oppressors, because they focus on the ways in which they are oppressed by heteropatriarchy — and they absolutely are and that absolutely needs to end — but then the buck stops there. They have a really hard time understanding that they also, by virtue of being white, oppress all Black, Indigenous and people of color — which doesn't make you wrong or bad, it makes you human.

What do you do to cope with the stress and trauma society inflicts on Black women?

One of the main features [of Do Better] is that we have to care for ourselves and do our own inner healing work… because there's no way for us to show up for others if we haven't shown up for ourselves — not in a sustainable, integral, effective way.

For me, a lot of that is breathwork, energy work and meditation — things that really help me move through my own discomfort, help myself heal and connect to myself and to the planet, the universe and others. And then also really tapping into community care. I couldn't do the work that I do if I didn't have a community of folks who also supported me and lifted me up.

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Do you have any self-care rituals when you’re looking to recenter and recharge?

One of the major ways I care for myself is rest, which, especially as a Black woman, is a form of resistance. Rest is really important, especially as someone who identifies as a disruptor, as a change-maker, as an activist, because identifying in that way and being a queer Black woman often means I'm expected to do everything all the time [for] everybody without centering myself.

This work I'm doing is for centering Black and Indigenous women/femmes, our healing and our liberation — and that must include me. I can also be very honest in saying that it is really hard, it's a struggle and I do my best [to rest] and I fail at it every day.

Who has inspired you?

I get a lot of inspiration from the work of other queer and trans Black women and femmes… [and] all of those folks who came before me that paved the way — because nothing that I'm saying is new. Nothing that any racial-justice, anti-racist activist, disruptor or change-maker is saying is new. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou (who's mentioned in the book), Audre Lord, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Malcom X, MLK, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and all the names I don't know and will never know — even my own ancestors.

I wrote the book, but I also channeled it. I was a conduit for all of my ancestors to be able to put out in the world what they needed to say and will never be able to… It's also really important to me to ensure that I am uplifting and centering the trans, dark-skinned, disabled, poor, fat, non-neurotypical, queer Black women/ femmes that live additionally oppressed identities — ensuring that I am always learning from them and crediting them.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

One of my Black femme friends told me, "[If] you want to work for Beyoncé, you gotta meet Beyoncé standards." I put it on a Post-it Note on my computer and the reason it resonated in every core of my being is: As a Black woman that has standards and sets boundaries, I am demonized and vilified constantly by everybody — including other Black women and femmes, so it’s just a reminder to me... that I'm allowed to give myself permission for that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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