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  • Cary Martin Shelby

Unlearning What I Have Been Taught on my Path Towards Self-Care

Updated: Jun 9


Cary Martin Shelby at Harold Washington Library

Awaiting Derek Chauvin’s verdict for George Floyd’s murder propelled me into an agonizing blend of sorrow and anger yet again. Before I could even process the verdict, an onslaught of additional police killings permeated the news cycles. The infinite ways in which the system failed Ma’Khia Bryant will haunt me for a lifetime.

Experiencing this repeated angst amid the collective grief that the pandemic unleashed onto our communities was just about unbearable. Even still, the workload never decreased. In fact, it increased into realms of inhumanity. Mothers had to multiply their workloads exponentially as childcare became scant or nonexistent. Black people had to take on additional burdens of leading diversity initiatives or COVID-19 task forces while the agony bore down upon our backs. As I prepped to teach what must have been my 50th Zoom lecture, my eyes felt as if they were pulling from the backs of their sockets in sheer exhaustion.

Yet, detaching from my humanity was something that had seeped into my identity at an early age. My upbringing inadvertently taught me this skillset in a way that was brutal yet efficient. I learned that dissociating from my humanness would increase my chances of breaking through the chains of poverty. These lessons were reinforced by society’s callous expectations. When it came to my education, I had to excel in the worst of circumstances such as earning straight A’s while living in degrading conditions. When the state of Illinois revoked guardianship from my parents, I was forced to live in a myriad of settings that increased the magnitude of my abuse. Even when I made it to college, I had to work 20-hours per week as a full-time college student and single parent to qualify for SNAP benefits. Failure was not an option. As an emancipated former foster youth, there was no one to catch me should I fall.

When I finally “made it” to the upper echelons of elite institutions, I learned that not much had changed with respect to how my humanity was viewed as a Black woman. Accessing the unwritten rules for success, while wrangling a constant stream of microaggressions as a Black woman in corporate America, was a daily battle. Working excessive hours while coming into the game at ground zero in terms of resources and connections was next to impossible. As a law professor, I similarly learned that Black faculty were expected to disproportionately provide arduous labor for free such as mentoring, committee work, and administrative labor. Even worse, these kinds of service-oriented activities fall at the bottom of the three-pronged ladder of service, teaching, and research that extends towards the highly coveted prize of tenure. We are therefore stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: voluntarily provide significant free labor and possibly sacrifice our health and/or career trajectories, or leave our Black students fending for themselves in an environment plagued by racism and other layers of toxicity, while eliminating our voices from key institutional decisions that are dominated by homogenous groups.

I gradually hit a point where unlearning what I had been taught about my humanity became essential for my well-being. Staying on the same path would have caused irreparable damage to my physical, mental, and spiritual health. The first component of this unlearning process entailed acknowledging that I was treated in an inhumane manner, while further honoring my humanity with the utmost respect. Confronting these truths likewise made me a better advocate for the injustices that our communities continuously endure. Although my story reveals great depths of perseverance and tenacity, it also reveals that there could have been easier and more effective paths for me to reach the same levels of success. If I had access to more resources and equitable treatment, then my current success could have been even greater given the extraordinary range of skillsets that I bring to the table. It further reveals that removing these barriers could significantly increase the numbers of “survival” stories within our communities. In reflecting on my story, I know without a shred of doubt that our daughters deserve better than what I have had to tolerate. Our sons also deserve better, as well as our communities.

Next, I had to reconfigure my boundaries with institutional structures, even if it meant breaking from the status quo, or sacrificing prestigious career opportunities. With respect to existing obligations, I now pour my resources into the spaces that match my core strengths. And I lead with those strengths whenever possible. I also monitor my success with respect to these strengths so that I can show such “receipts” whenever necessary. If I am asked to take on additional work obligations, I assess the extent to which these obligations are equitably distributed, or whether they are accompanied by additional compensation. If I am called to consider any new opportunity, I carefully assess the layers of sacrifice that it would require. For example, I ask myself the following questions: Is this opportunity aligned with my core values? Am I being asked to fulfill a leadership role as a mechanism to conceal larger institutional problems? Am I being asked to work excessive hours just for the sake of a prestigious title or position? These questions are merely suggested launching pads into much longer conversations that you should be having with yourselves and perhaps your key mentors. From a personal standpoint, reassessing my boundaries with institutional structures is a continuous work in progress that is constantly evolving.

Most importantly, this unlearning process required me to honor my gifts with the love and respect that these structures are historically unwilling to provide. This required unlearning the constant stream of messaging that taught me that my gifts were somehow subpar because I was “lucky” to reside in such elite spaces. I had to further learn how to appropriately value my labor even though institutions frequently categorized its primary components as having a limited market value. Honoring my gifts in this manner has paved the way for wondrous possibilities that I had not initially imagined—that my gifts could spearhead personal and professional opportunities that are far more rewarding than the ones that I had to sacrifice.

I highly recommend engaging in this process of unlearning as a pivotal first step towards any self-care journey. Without it, self-care can be nothing more than a series of performative and unfulfilling tasks. It is also necessary in understanding why self-care is so difficult to achieve for certain groups. Self-care is truly a privilege when you are constantly confronted with inhumane expectations. Be gentle with yourselves as you embark upon your own journeys of unlearning. It can be a painful process but recognizing these unjust patterns will bring you one step closer to freedom.

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