VIEW: The Emotional Labor of Black Women

Alexis Yeboah has a Masters of Public Health from the University of Minnesota and is a writer and healthcare consultant focused on whole-person care for Black communities.

It has taken me a long time to write this column. I have stopped and started many times. But now feels like the right time. The trial of Derek Chauvin continues and, no matter what the verdict, there will be no justice. I push with all my might to avoid news coverage, but I sit here asking: why is it that we still rely so heavily on Black women to bear mental and emotional labor?

The ‘Strong Black Woman/Superwoman schema’ was defined by Dr. Cheryl Giscombé in a 2010 peer-reviewed study that attempted to put a framework around health disparities in Black women — including adverse birth outcomes, lupus, obesity, and untreated depression — as factors of stress and coping.

Black women know the Superwoman schema through the caregiving role many of us hold with our families, workplaces, and communities. It is the unpaid emotional labor of education and advocacy, on top of all the other work we engage in daily to live and survive.

In this time of racial ‘reckoning’ and the impact of COVID-19 on the Black community, we still fail to call attention to the immeasurable role Black women are playing in the movement for change.

Black women are fighting for the rights of other Black women and the rights of everyone else. Who is fighting for us?

The disproportionate economic impact of COVID-19 on Black mothers, who are most likely to be the breadwinners for their families, and the medical racism and misogyny Black women and their babies face is ongoing. 

I am a Black woman from Minneapolis, who lives less than a mile from where George Floyd was murdered. I am in the heart of a state with the highest disparities in health outcomes, wealth-building, and educational achievement. We have always had to advocate for ourselves, much of which has been uncompensated and unrecognized until the past year.

Black women are often propped up as the spokespeople, educators, and emotional laborers who keep the momentum and healing work going among those who harm us, those whose foundations were built on keeping us down. This kind of labor has impacts, especially on health and wellbeing.

I think about the burnout I have faced by being the only Black woman in the majority of academic and professional spaces I have occupied. I rarely have the luxury to do the task I am there to do. I have felt exhausted and extracted from the constant need to hold space for others.

During my graduate studies, for example, I was one of only two Black women in a program of more than 40 students. This led to me playing two roles — one in which I had to first be a student, and one in which I was also a teacher to my peers and an advocate for my community.

In a conversation with one of my peers, they commented on the East Phillips neighborhood in a derogatory way, citing the low-income, health disparities, and crime. I pushed back on their surface-level assessment, which failed to take into account the systems which caused these outcomes — low investment, toxic dumping, racism. I pointed out that I am from East Phillips and know this as a lively, loving community. I was met with blank stares. One classmate came up to me afterwards to say they did not realize I was from that neighborhood.

In that snapshot of time, I had to advocate for my community, myself, and educate the class on their biases. None of which I wanted to do, but I did not feel free to do any less, costing me capital in emotions and vulnerability. I should not have felt like I had to speak up — like I had to open that space for others to potentially step into.

This is the unaccounted emotional labor of Black women. In a better world, my professor would have course-corrected this student. I was left alone to do it in a way that was free to my peers but costly to me. 

This is a regular occurrence, professionally, socially — even when I take a walk around the lake. I did not want to take walks after the George Floyd murder because I was regularly stopped by white people I did not know who felt compelled to ask me how I was doing or my opinions on what was happening and how to get involved. That kind of emotional labor is constant and relentless. 

My call to action is this: let us not only acknowledge the emotional labor Black women are bearing now, but also create a behavioral change.

I would love to be both compensated and supported for this emotional labor and to stop feeling compelled to take on the role in the first place.