I recently asked my students to define what love means to them. For many of them, love meant to “care for someone” like their family and friends, while others mentioned that love is a “special bond.” Love is when you have a “connection to someone,” when you “give your heart” to that person and you feel “happy” when you’re around them.
When I first think of love, I also immediately think of my family and partner – the people for whom I would go to great lengths to ensure their happiness and safety. Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with these definitions of love, but there is something that’s missing.
Why is it that when we speak of love, our immediate reaction is to think of others, their needs, desires, and wants before our own?
I cannot help but think of my mother, who was forced to drop out of high school and give up her dreams of becoming a Doctor because her father got sick and she needed to work in order to help put food on the table. Shortly afterwards, my mother decided to leave everything she had ever known behind –her family, her friends, her country, and a piece of herself – to come to the United States in search of a better life and opportunities for herself and her daughters. My mother has made a lot of sacrifices to make sure that her children felt loved, protected, and cared for. She constantly put the needs of others before her own because she loves us, but also, because that’s what a “good” mother, wife, sister, friend is “supposed” to do, or at least, that’s what she’s been socialized to believe. Women, particularly women of color, are socialized to believe that our love is first bound to others and that we must make sacrifices and put the needs of those we love and care for ahead of our own. The thing is that when you’re always giving away your love, you barely ever leave some for yourself (if at all).
Self-love can mean different things depending on who you speak to, but for me, loving yourself is the radical act of unconditionally loving, knowing and owning who you are in a way that is not bound to anyone but yourself. But how do we get to this point of self-love in a society that is constantly trying to render you invisible and tell you that you and your experiences don’t matter, that you are not loved but hated?
I recently came across an online post for The Feminist Wire titled: The Radical Politics of Self-Love and Self-Care by SooJin Pate. In this piece, Pate asserts that “To affirm, value, and validate yourself—to love yourself—amidst this daily onslaught of disparaging messages is not only political but also radical. It is radical because you’re not supposed to survive. It is radical because you’re not supposed to exceed the boundaries and limitations that society has set for you. It is radical because you’re not supposed to see self-love and self-care as worthwhile practices.” If you know me, you already know I read this with my hand up exclaiming YASSSSSSSSSSS (insert several clapping emojis)! Self-love is a radical act and a powerful form of resistance because you’re not supposed to do it. Doing so would be the equivalent of a big FUCK YOU to White supremacy, patriarchy, racism, sexism, and all other isms that try to box you in and teach you to hate yourself. They say “self-love is the best love,” but how do we get to this place of magical and radical resistance? Well, I don’t have the answer to that and I can’t sit here and give you a prescribed list of suggestions because we all love differently. The way I can and will show love to myself will differ from the ways you can and will show love to yourself. What I do know, is that the benefits of radical self-love are limitless and that we must first learn to love ourselves unconditionally before we embark on doing this work with our students, you know, “demolishing white supremacy, patriarchy, and institutional racism in the pursuit for freedom and liberation for Diasporic people.”
As someone who has worked (and is still working) to develop a healthy sense of who I am and to detach my sense of worth and love from others, I have long thought about what teaching self-love would look like for my kids. I was able to answer some of my questions when I worked as a Social Action Teacher at an elementary school in Washington Heights last year. Through my role, I was able to design and teach a culturally responsive, culturally relevant, social justice curriculum that centered on Brie Picower’s “Six Elements of Social Justice Education,” which you can learn more about here. The first unit I taught my kids focused on the element of “Self-love,” which I defined as “knowing and celebrating who you are.” The purpose of the unit was to empower students to celebrate who they are by way of using different markers to identify themselves on their own terms. They were able to explore their own cultures with the help of their families as well as other factors that shape who they are such as ethnicity, race, gender, social class, etc.. This way, they were better able to understand themselves, develop a sense of self-pride, while also learning about their classmates. The essential questions included the following: What is identity? What shapes my identity? What makes me special/unique? How can I show love and celebrate myself?
By the end of the unit, I heard my students saying things they hadn’t mentioned before like “I’m Black and I’m proud,” “I love my curly hair,” “I love being Dominican and being able to speak Spanish,” “I love my brown skin and you have to deal with it.” One mother came up to me and happily told me that her son, who happens to be the darkest in his family and felt ashamed of it, went home boasting that his skin has more melanin in it and so he is more protected from the sun than the rest of his family members. I cannot begin to describe the utter joy I felt every time I heard or saw these expressions of self-love. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough. Although my students were learning how to love and care for themselves unapologetically, I would often think about the millions of other Black and Brown kids that weren’t.
I will do my part to help Black and Brown kids understand that they are valued, that they matter, that they are capable of AMAZING things, that are loved beyond measure and should first and foremost love themselves before they can dare to love someone else. I invite you to join me on this road to making radical love a possibility for our children.