Black communities have long practiced core tenets of the lifestyle—yet are not well-represented amongst its most recognizable influencers.
Just a few years ago, “minimalism” meant something different than it does today. Some people simply liked the look of less clutter in their house; others downsized because of circumstance, or to clean out their closets. In the last three years, though, minimalism became a lifestyle movement: People began to share tips and tricks for downsizing online to a growing number of followers. Today, self-described minimalists intentionally pare down their possessions to create a better quality of life for themselves.
One doesn’t have to look far for evidence of the trend. Books like 2010’s The Joy of Less and 2009’s The Power of Less promise that happiness and professional success will result from simplifying one's life; documentaries including 2013’s Tiny: A Story About Living Small and 2014’s Small Is Beautiful depict the effects of living with less as life-altering. On social media, Instagrammers regularly post under the hashtags #minimalist and #minimalism, among others associated with the lifestyle.
While minimalists preach universality—you don’t have to be rich to own fewer things—the authors behind the most influential minimalist-themed titles and #minimalism posts tell a different story. Influencers that frequently appear on lists of influential minimalist Instagram accounts are predominantly white and East Asian (today's Japanese minimalism arises from Zen and Buddhist traditions). The best known minimalist authors today—Marie Kondo, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, Francine Jay, Joshua Becker, Fumio Sasaki—fit within the same demographics.
And yet, various communities of color fashion a lifestyle off of living with few possessions, though they may not self-identify as minimalist. Today's minimalists have been criticized for framing minimalism as a choice to live a life that emphasizes experiences over stuff, rather than a financial necessity. “It’s become trendy for those with money to appropriate the poverty lifestyle,” Judy Westhale wrote of the “Tiny House Movement” in 2015. Poverty rates are higher among non-white populations than white populations in the U.S.; black Americans have the highest poverty rate of all races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As the lifestyle as we know it today continues to produce new titles and followers, black Americans' relative absence from best-selling minimalist book covers and lists of Instagram influencers is salient. How does this affect the way that today’s black, self-identified minimalists approach the lifestyle? I talked to a few to find out.
Minimalism as we know it today has its roots in the first half of the 20th century, when it referred to a trend within visual arts, music, and other mediums that sought to liberate art from representing reality. Minimalism emerged in post-World War II Western art and in the American visual arts between the 1960s to early 1970s: Works like artist Tony Smith’s sculpture Die (1968) and Sol Lewitt’s installation Wall Drawing #122 (1972) had a spare, geometric style and portrayed abstractions that challenged viewers to consider the work itself, rather than the visual metaphor.
The name was attached to different mediums in the following decades, including architecture and fashion. Picking up steam in the 1980s, the “capsule wardrobe” struck a chord with a niche audience—those who could afford to experiment freely with their clothes, rather than those who could only afford a few clothes. After the Great Recession, "minimalism" also became associated with decluttering and getting rid of excess possessions in the wake of a financial crisis.
This new, broader minimalism trend entered the mainstream in 2014, the same year as Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up hit the bestseller list and attracted a cult following, colloquially called “Konverts.” That same year, HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters hit the airwaves; two years later, Netflix’s Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things emerged, capitalizing on minimalism’s latest moment.
Thanks to these developments, minimalism, once an art movement, became associated with a lifestyle premised on the notion that living with fewer physical items can create a greater quality of life overall. While today's minimalist lifestyle can overlap with environmental philosophies—like veganism, or living low-to-zero waste—followers mainly recruit via images that highlight the aesthetics of living with as few items as possible. Potential followers now have social-media platforms such as YouTube (which has minimalism-focused videos, channels, and TEDx talks) and independent blogs (such as Becoming Minimalist and Be More With Less) to become more informed on minimalism. Instagram is perhaps the central hub for documenting and connecting minimalism activity, and can give admirers a sense that the movement, like the waist trainers or nutrition vitamins that are omnipresent on the platform, is a health trend. For those who aren’t ready to commit to a full lifestyle transformation, taking an Instagram of a sparse closet can be a less-intimidating start.
What separates today's minimalist movement from other practices of living with little comes down to choice; though people of color have been practicing core principles of minimalism for generations, their lifestyle often resulted from poverty, classism, and racism. In the United States, redlining helped create communities colloquially called “ghettos.” With nowhere else to live, communities of color, and particularly black people, had no choice but to reside in communities that were significantly underdeveloped compared to the housing communities that white families lived in. And though it began with the National Housing Act of 1934, redlining and other forms of institutional racism still operate today, restricting communities of color’s access to home loans and down-payment assistance.
People of color, then, approach today’s minimalism in different ways than their white counterparts. Despite the new movement's lack of diversity on the surface, there are a small number of black individuals who proudly call themselves minimalists in 2017.
Roe Cummings, a 29-year-old self-described creative and “intentional-living advocate,” lives with her boyfriend, E Johnson (who prefers to go by his first name), in a 800-square-foot household in the Bay Area. They document their minimalist life on Instagram, where they aim to normalize the lifestyle by sharing seasonal storing tips and suggested reading on minimalism, among other items.
Cummings says she embraced the lifestyle after being miserably stuck in a “buying binge cycle fueled by low-self esteem [and] confused self-identity.” She wanted to live her life more sustainably and resolved to restrict her purchases. "Minimalism, if defined to me, is the practice of looking around at what you have and living your abundant life in the now,” she says.
E says he was a minimalist before it was a recognized identity because he grew up poor. His background has added to the richness of how he and Cummings interact with the movement and interpret it for their own lives, he says. As he grew up with a single father and two siblings that moved around frequently, E says noticed the “weight” his possessions took whenever he would pack up to move again. “I started to notice things that I carried around that I didn’t need to anymore,” he says.
Financial freedom is one of the perks of living a minimalist lifestyle. Since they both became self-described minimalists, Cummings and E have been able to save approximately $10,500 by living on half of their income and saving the rest, the couple says. For Cummings and E, the extra funds they have as a result of redistributing the money they previously used to buy new things gives them more freedom to plan for travel; they are also chipping away at debt.
Nneka Okona, a food and travel writer based in Atlanta, decided to adopt the minimalist lifestyle to let go of the past. After she moved to Madrid in the fall of 2013, Okona says that everything she owned fit into two suitcases and a carry-on bag. The experience kick-started her interest in culling other extraneous possessions. “I see minimalism as a journey into releasing past baggage and attachments in order to feel freer and lighter,” she says.
Nneka believes that black people have a particular relationship to the minimalist movement. She says that the “ownership of things is so heavily tied to class and worth” in the community; minimalism has helped her to redefine and reposition the value of stuff in her life. “I'd like for more of us to get to a place where we don’t allow the pursuit of capitalism to wholly define us and seek validation, worth, and value from other healthier sources: emotional well-being, reciprocal, nourishing relationships, a strong sense of self-love,” she says.
And though minimalist posts on social media and online are predominantly non-black, Cummings doesn’t believe the community has made her feel like any more of an outsider than her country historically has. “As black [people] in America, we have a history of being on the edges, forced to the edges more times than not ... in many ways, we feel on the outside of the minimalist movement—and not necessarily because we don’t feel welcomed or that we don't deeply believe that less is best,” she says.
Indeed, many black minimalists make the case for the community to embrace today’s iteration of minimalism: Rosetta Thurman, the founder of the “personal-development company” Happy Black Woman, argues that minimalism, along with self-care and wellness, are important yet under-discussed topics within the black community. Yolanda V. Acree, founder of the Black Minimalists blog, has conducted “black minimalist chats” on Twitter in the past, covering topics of sustainability and eco-consciousness.
For inspiration on how to better incorporate minimalist values in her life, Cummings looks to Instagrammers such as afrominimalist, thehillbillyafrican, and ecoconsciousluv, who are also black women. Still, Cummings says that “conversations with black people and other [people of color] about the challenges to downsizing,” such as letting go of attachment to items and the pressures of assimilation, are still missing from the material she reads online.
The black minimalists I spoke to indicated that the small community of black people who identify as minimalists is growing. Still, black minimalists lack the overall visibility that their white and East Asian counterparts have. Today’s minimalist movement has helped to bring greater attention to issues such as environmentalism and sustainability: Lifestyle movements premised on such conscientiousness can’t afford not to be invested in their own diversity. As more black and other people of color continue to explore the possibilities of changing to an alternate lifestyle such as minimalism—or simply reframing or redefining one they already know—the paradox of minimalism’s exclusivity is becoming ever clearer.
This story originally appeared as “Is Minimalism for Black People?" on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.