When Black Women Say No
“When a Sista says ‘I refuse,’ it’s a mantra, an anthem, a war cry, a lullaby. Worlds get shook. Systems are unended. Isms are battered. History is harkened. Progress is underway; with a periodT and side-eye for the ages.” — TaRessa Stovall
These last few weeks have been rife with Black women standing their ground and telling folks — mostly white folks and corporations — “no!” Naomi Osaka kicked it off by refusing to show up for a mandatory post-news conference at the French Open. Instead of attending, she stood her ground, paid the $15,000 fine and chose herself. The tennis pro shared that she suffers from social anxiety and becomes uneasy and nervous when having to speak to the press. Black women all over the world loudly applauded her decision to prioritize herself because often we do not — and the price we pay with our mental, emotional and spiritual health is too high. Naomi used her forum and privilege to show the world that Black women can, and should, prioritize themselves no matter what.
Too many Black women work in spaces where we are invalidated, underpaid and expected to perform no matter how we feel. We experience microaggressions and sometimes blatant racist/sexist actions without any support or concern. Rarely are people asking us how we feel. And if they do, it’s not with the anticipation of a real answer.
These experiences sometimes create anxiety, impostor syndrome, anger and depression that impact not only our work life but also relationships outside of work. We internalize these actions and start to believe that something is wrong with us. Eventually, the motivation and passion for our work begin to wane and we become a shell of the person we once were.
Recently, brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Black woman, was denied tenure at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. That was in part because one of the white male board members did not like her 1619 Project. He felt it was denigrating to white Americans. The 1619 Project is a long-form journalism project developed by Hannah-Jones, writers from The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine which "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative."
Eventually she was offered tenure at the school but turned it down. Instead, she accepted an offer for a tenured position at HBCU Howard University, where she will be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. Like Osaka, Hannah-Jones, in essence, chose her mental, emotional and spiritual health.
When Meghan Markle decided to marry into Britain’s Royal family many of us truly believed that fairy tales do come true. Shortly after the engagement announcement, it was clear that this union would not be the dream we imagined. British media made her life a living hell by publishing race-tinged stories and leaking her private family discord. After her marriage and the birth of her first child, Meghan admitted that she battled depression because of the way she and Harry were treated by certain royal family members and the media.
Eventually, Harry and Meghan decided to leave their royal duties and move to America to cultivate their own lives. Ultimately this move was Meghan’s refusal to live under the intense spotlight, scrutiny and disdain of the royal family and British media. She prioritized her emotional, mental and physical health.
Late last year, I began working with a brilliant young Black woman as a client in my private psychotherapy practice. She was experiencing depression and high anxiety related to working in a racist and oppressive environment where she was frequently invalidated, shut down and disrespected. This toxic environment left her feeling drained, sad, angry and unmotivated. This client decided to cultivate intentional practices of mindfulness, meditation, embodiment, yoga, affirmations and prayer to mitigate her symptoms. Recently, she resigned from the toxic position, but not before emailing a powerful letter to the HR department regarding her experiences and the impact they had on her. My client ultimately decided to say “no” and prioritize herself.
For many of us without the privileges of these Black women, it might be a challenge to make these decisions. Most Black women have families and responsibilities that may undercut our ability to walk away from jobs. However, we can make sure that we cultivate practices (i.e., affirmations, mindfulness, meditation, prayer and body movement) that will provide inner peace, joy and happiness. Black women should seek out therapy services and/or relationships where we can tell our truth and process hurt, pain and trauma. We can be intentional about speaking up for ourselves in workspaces where racist/sexist behaviors are practiced.
And finally, we can learn to say “no.” Or, as Nikole Hannah-Jones said, “I refuse.” The emotional, mental and spiritual health you save might be your own.
About the Author: Lisa Butler is a licensed clinical social worker, counselor and diversity and inclusion expert. She has 20 plus years of experience providing individual, group, and couples counseling. Her areas of expertise include depression, self-esteem, mother-daughter conflict, anxiety, shame, and trauma. She believes that we all deserve to live free from shame, guilt, and emotional pain. For more information visit www.lisabutlerlcsw.com or follow her on Facebook and Instagram @lisabutlerlcsw.