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Why Black women are saying no

Even with the swell of support surrounding gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to step back from the Olympics to protect her mental health, there was a nagging narrative that the star athlete — who won nationals with broken toes, won world competitions with a kidney stone and endured years of sexual abuse while representing an organization that protected her abuser — wasn’t strong enough. It echoed a longstanding and problematic stereotype: Black women must be strong. Black women must be resilient. Black women must prioritize others over themselves.

The stereotype of the “strong Black woman” creates an unrealistic idea that Black women need less support than others, said Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. And this stereotype has harsh consequences.

A 2019 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 67.1 percent of Black adults with any mental illness do not receive any sort of treatment.

“[Black women] tend to have greater rates of depression, and it’s not something that they talk about because again, that stereotype makes it seem like there’s nothing wrong,” Anderson said.

Black women have long endured toxic work settings fueled by racism and misogyny. A 2018 study by Leah Hollis of Morgan State University found that 68 percent of Black women experienced workplace bullying. This rate was even higher for Black women whose identities intersected with marginalized religious and sexual identities. And this discrimination led to adverse career effects, like being demoted or threatened with termination.

More and more Black women are saying no to these conditions — very publicly — and choosing themselves. Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open after being fined $15,000 for not attending media appearances to protect her mental health. When the University of North Carolina offered Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure following backlash against their initial decision to not grant her tenure, she declined. “I can’t save the University of North Carolina and it’s not my job to,” she told CBS This Morning in an interview.

Dr. Cheryl Woods Giscombé, a psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina, developed the “Superwoman Schema” to give context to how the stereotypes surrounding Black women’s strength negatively impact their health.

“The five characteristics of superwoman’s schema are perceived obligation to present an image of strength; perceived obligation to suppress emotion; perceived obligations to resist being vulnerable or to need help from others; a motivation to succeed despite limited resources; and a prioritization of caring for others over and above self care.” Giscombé said. “We call it a social historical phenomenon because historical factors have driven those characteristics. They don’t just come from nowhere, but I think women are starting to talk about it more.”

2020 brought a global pandemic that put racial health disparities under a microscope as the movement for Black lives gained even more momentum following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. According to the Census Bureau, anxiety and depression among Black Americans spiked following the week of George Floyd’s murder, from around 36 percent to 41 percent.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, race-related trauma, political trauma and stress have made many of us reach capacity and we’re oversaturated by stress. And so I think it’s just getting to a point where people want to do something different,” Giscombé said.

For Kimberlee Morrison, a yoga teacher in Tempe, Arizona, a year of reliving racial trauma while in isolation ultimately pushed her to make the decision to leave her job to protect her own mental health.

Yoga was a part of Morrison’s personal mental health journey. When she began practicing, it improved her mood and gave her space to breathe and learn to regulate her nervous system. After leaving a job where she felt discriminated against, she eventually became a yoga teacher in 2016.

Yoga as a practice in Western countries is dominated by a community that is mostly white, thin, able-bodied and financially well-off, according to a University of Connecticut study. High pricing on classes and locations of studios can make yoga inaccessible to communities of color and people with lower incomes, and instructors are often teaching in a way that favors able-bodied folks and focuses more on the physical rather than spiritual aspect of the practice.

Although Morrison was consistently told she was one of the best teachers in the studio, she would also be told that her energy fluctuated too much and that she needed to be smiling in every class, despite having an autoimmune condition that sometimes compromised her energy levels.

“I would show up and I felt like I had to put on a mask, like I couldn’t show up fully myself, even in this place where they’re saying ‘show up and be authentic and we’re going to support you,’” she said. “Well, they didn’t.”

That was when Morrison said she realized she needed to pull back from teaching in that environment. She worked on her personal practice in her home as the pandemic began and started Love Revolution Yoga, a virtual yoga studio that is rooted in principles of social justice and being accessible to everyone.

Throughout her yoga practice, Morrison realized mental health and physical health are one in the same. “We go to a doctor for our physical bodies and our brains are part of our bodies. So why is it a problem for us to take care of our brains as well as our bodies?” she said.

Like Morrison, the last year has caused others to reflect on “our world and how we want to exist in it,” Anderson said. There’s been a pushback, especially among younger people, against subscribing to the status quo, whether that’s certain kinds of jobs that run on traditional office environments, long hours, little flexibility and prioritizing a career over having a family or personal time, or traditional family structures and milestones, like having kids or buying a home. After a year of living through what Anderson described as “chronic stress,” people have chosen to take their mental health into account, even if that means doing the unthinkable by saying “no.”

“We can care without carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. It’s possible to do both. But it’s something that we have to learn because it’s not often something we’ve seen or been taught to do,” Giscombé said.

Elizabeth Montgomery had been reaching her burnout breaking point for years. When she first started her job in 2018 at the Arizona Republic, the largest newspaper in Arizona and part of the USA Today Network, a team of journalists discovered that the former editor of the paper edited a 1989 Arizona State University yearbook that included photos of white people in blackface. The editor, who had just become USA TODAY’s editor-in-chief, published a column apologizing for publishing the photos.

Montgomery remembers breaking down in tears during a staff meeting addressing the situation, telling her coworkers and managers that she felt like they didn’t care about Black people. From that point on, she said, she never really felt safe in that work environment.

She enjoyed connecting with community members who were usually not reflected in news coverage and uplifting their voices. But she said she was constantly gaslit in her various positions. For instance, she was told her writing “wasn’t good enough,” despite the few stories she wrote outside her work duties consistently ending up on the front page.

Her love for journalism is what kept her in this toxic environment for three years. Feeling undervalued or a lack of respect is part of why so many companies are struggling to hold onto Black employees in particular, experts say.

In April 2021, a labor union that represents thousands of journalists across the country released a pay study that revealed a $27,000 pay gap between white men and people of color at the paper. The paper responded with a statement that disputed its practices were discriminatory, and pointed to the strides it and its larger network has made in diversifying their staffs, but did not address any racial or gender pay gaps..

At the time, Montgomery was struggling financially. She said she had previously asked for a raise, but was declined. She was homeless for three years, from age 18 to 21, but she never imagined that she would be near the brink of it again mid-career. Once, her bank account dropped to $34.26 after she paid her rent.

“One day, as we’re working from home at the time, I just woke up and I didn’t want to be here anymore,” Montgomery said. “I was just like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this anymore. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to live anymore.’”

The stress, gaslighting, burnout and financial struggles all piled up and brought her to a dark place, she said. She recognized this, and decided to share her struggle on Twitter in case anyone else was going through something similar. She said she was both shocked and moved that people in her community wanted to help her afford groceries.

“From the beginning, I was just a lover of the community. Once I realized the community loves me back enough to donate money to help me get by, I realized, I don’t need this job anymore. I can be happy without this job and I can leave this place and be happy.”

Montgomery took a two-week break in an attempt to recover so she could return to working for the newspaper. But as the break ended she decided that working there didn’t serve her, so she put in her notice and left in June. Now, she works as a social media editor for Downtown Phoenix, Inc., a nonprofit with a mission to facilitate community connection in the city.

She said seeing high-profile Black women like Biles, Hannah-Jones, Osaka and more prioritize themselves over institutions that harmed them helped her embrace prioritizing herself too.

“It has been like a weight has lifted,” she said. “It just makes me proud to be in such good company and see that I made the right decision for myself.”