It’s time to change the way we think about minimalism, says Christine Platt, author of the newly published book, The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less.
Minimalism is less about the white-walled aesthetic often associated with mainstream minimalism, and more about a commitment to intentional living, she says. Christine, AKA the Afrominimalist, is adamant that minimalism can invite color – she embraces vibrant hues and influences from the African diaspora – and that embarking on a life of intention and minimalism can be liberating.
Christine knows this firsthand. About eight years ago, she traded a 2,500-square-foot house and closets of clothes for a 630-square-foot condo, where she now lives with her teenage daughter. In The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less, Christine shares the why of this journey, but also the how, delving into the psychology behind why we accumulate possessions and the emotional and cultural reasons we tend to hang on to them.
In The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less, Christine encourages readers to explore the psycho-social reasons behind their purchases and provides a roadmap to paring down possessions to only the things they need, use, and love. She also explores the cultural factors that complicate ownership for members of marginalized communities. For example, Christine shares the pressure she felt to purchase things as a first-generation college graduate and six-figure salary earner as a symbol of Black wealth – and not only to keep up with the Joneses, but also to show that she had “arrived”, behavior she says she now understands was a form of conspicuous consumption.
In our conversation, which was conducted via Zoom and email, Christine explained how she’s working to expand the idea of minimalism, why understanding ourselves and our cultures is key to minimizing our possessions, how living with less can be liberating, and how sharing a small space with her teenage daughter has helped her change the narrative in her family.
Irie: Tell me more about the psychology behind ownership.
Christine: One of the things I realized on my own journey was that mainstream minimalism focuses heavily on aesthetics and less on the practice of living with less. Rarely were there discussions about why so many of us have more than we need or why it’s so hard to let go of certain things that no longer serve us. So, I wanted to dig into the psychology of ownership before encouraging others to start decluttering.
The psychology of ownership is the feeling that something is ours and/or is an extension of us. It’s why we are motivated to purchase certain items and why we form attachments to our belongings – and this is the reason why so many people struggle to let go of things. Understanding the psychology of ownership is so important when it comes to taking a more holistic approach to letting go. And more importantly, to maintain one’s minimalist practice. Once you understand your motivations and your emotional attachments, it’s much easier to look at items objectively and, if necessary, release them and pay it forward by allowing them to help someone else in need.
On a podcast, I heard you say that you like this phrase “living with intention”, which probably is more communicative of what the lifestyle is than maybe the word “minimalism.” Can you speak a bit more to living with intention as minimalism?
The reason I like redefining minimalism with “living with intention” and “living with less” – I mean, I even prefer using the term “decluttering”– because the minute you say “minimalism”, it evokes a certain type of aesthetic and a certain type of lifestyle that really is not desirable for a lot of people. They’re like, “I can’t be a minimalist, but I can live with intention” or “I can’t be a minimalist, but I can live with less.” I think reworking and reimagining the definition of minimalism and using terms that are more reflective of the practice can be helpful, especially for individuals who are curious about the lifestyle.
Mainstream minimalism has this aesthetic. I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to dismantle it, but it is just so not reflective of the practice. And this is irrespective of race because I know minimalists from all walks of life and we often say, “Where did [the] mainstream minimalist ideal of a neutral, barren space come from?”
What’s interesting is that this aesthetic is also what draws so many people to the practice! We see this all-white room with one piece of furniture, and it just looks so serene. And we’re like, “I need that type of peace and serenity in my life.” It’s only upon trying to mirror that aesthetic that we realize, “This doesn’t really feel good in my home. What can minimalism look like for me?”
I often joke that had I known more about the practice when I got started, that my name probably wouldn’t be “Afrominimalist.”
I really actually love that it is, though. I think it’s helpful to challenge what we might perceive as minimalism, which as you say, is very white, very neutral. I’m wondering if what people are drawn to is the simplicity of the aesthetic look – and then you try it on, and you’re like, “But I want color!” Some people do.
What so many of us long for is simplicity and ease and cleanliness and order, but we have to understand that will look different for everyone in practice. That was another turning point for me, which is how The Afrominimalist came about. I was like, Oh I can’t do this all white. It was like, white walls and white bed linen.
I mirrored the aesthetics I saw on Pinterest and I was like, I hate this, so I guess I’m going to have to be the Afrominimalist. I needed to evoke some elements of the history and culture of the African diaspora. It was only when I did that that I really could develop my own minimalist practice – a minimalist lifestyle that works for me. That’s what I always tell people – you are creating and curating a minimalist lifestyle, a lifestyle of less that will work for you.
I love in the book how you talk about intentional consumption. Even when you give away something, being very intentional about what that looks like so that we’re not creating more waste or creating more suffering for people. Can you speak a little more to how we consume, what we consume, and how that can relate to minimalism?
Once we think beyond the price tag of our item, we understand that there are just so many more costs associated with our purchases – from the garment workers who are making our clothing down to the materials that are being used. Even when we think about paying it forward, once an item no longer serves us, there is an environmental impact to consider. When you think of the lifecycle of being a consumer, it just makes you more mindful.
This also goes beyond what you’re purchasing. It’s gifts that are being offered to you – whether it’s a free gift with purchase [or] a gift from a family member or a well-meaning friend – and saying, “Thank you for being so thoughtful, but this really does not serve me.” I know not to bring gifts that I don’t want into my home because I’m going to feel responsible for them.
I always tell people: Be easy on yourself. Extend yourself some grace and forgiveness. Depending on your age and life experiences, there may be a lot of unlearning and self-discovery that needs to happen.
I want you to speak a little bit more to those emotional and cultural reasons that people might accumulate more stuff. You speak to that in the book. Why was that important for you to include as an important first step for simplifying, especially for people of color and for people from marginalized communities?
It was very important for me to have what are called the “For the Culture” callouts because there are additional considerations for marginalized communities when it comes to consumption. There are historical implications and generational beliefs. We inherit a lot of what we believe as well as our habits and behaviors.
The role that culture plays in Black consumerism is very different than other communities. We’re more inclined to buy things if a celebrity approves it or if it’s more acceptable or deemed “Black.” We are influenced in different ways when it comes to our consumption and likewise, the psychology of ownership is very different for us.
Many members of marginalized communities are first-gen everything: the first person in their family to attend college or get an advanced degree, the first person in their family to earn six figures or purchase property. There’s no generation[al] guidance like, “This is how you manage your wealth. This is what your great-grandmother did.” So individuals are more inclined to say, “I’ll just do what everyone else around me is doing.”The American Dream seems to be: I’ll earn a college degree so I can get a good job and buy whatever I want – the good life.
Marginalized communities just have to be ultra-mindful of our consumption [and] what is being sold and promoted to us. We have to, again, think about historical implications. Generationally, there is a lot of stuff that we are carrying. Unless we have those conversations, there’s not going to be the collective change that we need to bring about in our communities – to move more from acquiring things to building generational wealth. Many of us are the first to have an opportunity to do that [as well as] investing in our communities and in our businesses.
All of those things are just very eye-opening for marginalized communities. [The idea that] It’s payday, I’m going to live for the moment and I’m going to buy whatever I want – instead of pausing to say, “Where did that [idea] come from?” “Live for today, because tomorrow isn’t promised” was very accurate in the Jim Crow era.
And you couldn’t bequeath anything. It was difficult to acquire land, it was difficult to acquire a house, it was difficult to acquire anything and really maintain possession of that to pass it down and to pass on wealth. And so, I do think that relationship is very complicated.
It’s extremely complicated. I have a couple of friends who are decluttering professionals, and so many of them have said, “Thank you for your book because these are not considerations that I was aware I should be factoring in for my clients who are Black or who are from marginalized communities.”
So much of your work around minimalism seems to be about getting things out in the open so that you can see what you’re dealing with – literally and figuratively. You talk about not having drawers full of stuff, not having nightstands and dressers. Can you speak just a bit more about that process of getting things out in the open and how that helps you move along this lifestyle?
The acknowledge[ment] process works differently for everyone. For me, I couldn’t really understand my consumption until I saw how much I actually had. I was really good at organized clutter, which is why I can’t have drawers, I can’t have baskets, I can’t have bins – I can’t have anything with a lid where I can hide things, because I learned this is a problem for me. If I have something where I can hide the thing, then it doesn’t make me feel like I have so much because it’s hidden.
I’m really big on really, just pull it all out. See how much you actually have, which to me is that first step in the “letting go” process. It will evoke a lot of emotions. When you look at it all before you, it’s undeniable. And there are various emotions that arise for people. For some its sadness [or] disappointment in themselves. Anger. People always think about how much money they “wasted.” I’m always like, “It’s how much money you spent.”
Going through this process [is necessary] before you just go into your closet and [say], “I’m going to let go of things!” It just does not work well that way, which is why I started the book the way that I did. Before we jump in, we’re going to first understand why we have more than we need, and then why it’s so hard to let go. To help you understand and acknowledge your overconsumption.
I want to ask you about this idea of less being liberation. I do think that minimalism can feel limiting or constraining or trigger feelings of scarcity or lack. How has minimalism been liberating for you?
For me, it has been so liberating financially. This idea that I don’t have to go buy something to celebrate or to make me feel happy when I’m feeling down. I don’t have to buy things that I don’t need, use, and love.
It has helped me creatively. There is just something about cleanliness and order that is very conducive to the creative mind. I remember having writer’s block, or moments where I couldn’t do this or I couldn’t do that. And I don’t really have those moments anymore. I’m just not surrounded by a lot of things to distract me.
It’s been liberating in terms of, oh my goodness, my time in the mornings. For me, the mornings were just always this source of angst. Time – it’s just afforded me so much.
What’s also very beneficial to me – and I tell people this all the time – there’s no way you can just be intentional with your belongings, your wardrobe, and your home décor and not have intentionality trickle into every area of your life. You just move very differently because you truly have an opportunity to see what your life can feel like and look like when you are intentional.
I would love to hear more about how setting that example of minimalism has been important for that relationship with your daughter.
One of the things that I’m very grateful for is that I started on my minimalist journey when I did, because it was at an age where my daughter was very influential. I think I’ve given her a great gift, which is: You don’t need a lot of things to be happy.
When you live in a small space with someone that you love, there’s nowhere to run and hide. You get to confront things and challenge things and have these conversations. I remember living in our big house and we might not see each other the entire day. When you’re in a small space, it forces you closer, and I just love it. She’s going off to college now, but the past seven [or] eight years here, it’s been beautiful.
I’m proud of her and proud of me for teaching her and shifting that narrative from what I was taught and shown growing up.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Cover Photo Credit: Jared Soares.