Recently, a colleague — Troy, a Black emerging entrepreneur — asked me to work as his adviser for a new product launch. We’d met several years prior when he was a corporate newcomer and I was leading a business team at a Fortune 100 Tech company. He recalled that I had been the only “fierce Black woman” he’d ever seen in a leadership role. When he called to ask if I would lend my expertise, he told me a story about myself that I had forgotten but that had left an indelible impact on him.
Troy was presenting at a contentious executive review session with mostly white male leadership — and me. Troy was running a few minutes late and the group was prepared to start without him. I insisted we wait. Standing up for Troy was natural to me; he deserved to be there, and to be heard from the start. Now, he still remembered this moment of support that came so naturally to me, but I had almost forgotten it happened at all.
I didn’t know then what I clearly know now: Black women have forever been holding the moral mantle, sharing their strength to lend support for those overlooked, undervalued, and deprioritized. I watched my mother and aunties take on this role, which is why I became an activist for the Black corporate community. I don’t feel that it was a choice. It was my mandate — and my baseline expectation of human interaction — to ensure fair treatment and the well-being of those in my circle/care.
This is the only role I’ve ever known, but it has taken its toll. After that meeting with Troy many years ago, I remember returning to my desk exhausted and emotionally taxed by the effort it took to persuade half a dozen white men to give just five more minutes of their time. It wasn’t yet noon.
For Black, indigenous, and people of color, we wake up bracing for acts of racist aggression, knowing they will occur throughout our day, every day. Whether it’s the way our input and value in a meeting is easily discarded or dismissed or the way we continuously witness the harm, trauma, and murder of Black people throughout our country every day, it gut-punches us and chips away at us bit by bit.
When you live with racism, you live in a constant state of stress. We worry about our safety; we feel the silently loud microaggressions in our neighborhoods, schools, and among those we think we know well.
I believe it is critical for Black women to prioritize the filling of their own cups, the setting of firm boundaries on the energy they generously give to others, and cultivating a practice of restoration in order to preserve and protect their own happiness. On this point, clinical data support what Black people have long known: Existing as a Black person in a white-centered society takes more of a toll on our mental health and our bodies when we do not take the time to care for ourselves. This phenomenon is known as weathering, which refers to the idea that the constant stress of racism can lead to premature biological aging and worse health outcomes for Black people.
Here are some ways we can protect ourselves:
It took 20 years as a corporate workaholic before I acknowledged that being a Black woman is hard work. Sometimes I simply cannot muster up the energy or patience to face the world, so I disengage for a period of time to let my soul rest. I’ve come to a point in my life where I block time on my calendar that reads, “No White People Today.”
Stress puts the body in a state of imbalance. I saw it in myself. Despite regular exercise and a balanced diet, my health deteriorated. I was worn out and emotionally exhausted when I finally realized that the items on the “white healthy menu”— Soul Cycling, veganism, green smoothies — were not working to reduce the stress to my Black body. Instead, I tried something different. I sought the help of an integrative physician who taught me about meditation, breathing exercises, setting boundaries, and taking time away from my other “job” as an often-unintended Black activist.
I know, however, that not all of us are that lucky. Sometimes we grow so used to feeling tired, empty, and run down, that we don’t realize how great the need to care for ourselves is. I am reminded of Erica Garner, the young grief-stricken daughter of Eric Garner, who reluctantly transformed herself into an activist after her father was killed by police. She died at the age of 27 from not one but two heart attacks suffered within months of each other. She was a leader and activist for change, and the world would have benefited greatly from having her voice and passion at the helm of our collective evolution as a society. Now it never will. I am reminded that what happened to Erica could have happened to me.
I will often take a moment to myself and pray. I pray for myself and for all the other Black women that are continuing to rise at this moment. I pray that we take a portion of the love that we so freely give to others to love ourselves, so that we may repair, renew, recharge, and stay active in this work, not just for today’s meeting or protest, but for the long arc of humanity’s evolution.
I’ve learned that it is my responsibility to set boundaries on my time when I need a break, or simply can’t deal with another unconscious microaggression. Since I became involved in this work of educating white people as a cohost of the antiracism podcast The Opt-In, I am learning that I must prioritize myself and my well-being in order to protect myself and my mental health. I am beginning to understand that nothing about caring for myself is selfish, self-serving, or grandiose — rather it’s actually the biggest act of service to myself and to my community that I can give. I plan to be here for the long run because I believe in where we are going and what we are doing to get there.