June 17, 2015, was the day I knew I was tired. One week before the first day of Summer, a white supremacist walked into the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, and was welcomed with open hearts by members of the church during a Wednesday evening Bible study. Then he opened fire on the black men and women as they stood to pray.
I first read about the hate crime where many of us discover news of the latest surprise album drop, a friend's engagement, or mass shootings: on social media.
I immediately wanted to stop what I was doing and go home. But I couldn't; I was just four months into a new job. Instead, I continued drafting light-hearted social media posts for TV shows that have long been forgotten, even though the weight of the event and the attack on a group of people — people who could have been members of my own black, Southern, Christian family — felt as if it had just happened to me. I felt powerless. After years of working to design a coping mechanism against never-ending microaggressions and stereotypes in my own life, all while struggling to make sense of how the senseless deaths of those like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Aiyana Jones regularly go unpunished, I was emotionally depleted.
"Having to wake up daily and feel like the world around you is crumbling, then going into these hyperwhite spaces and feeling like no one understands . . . I'm exhausted."
Adrienne Thomas, a 26-year-old powerlifter and student studying urban elementary education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, knew she was exhausted when she began crying midsentence during a 7 a.m. meeting at work. "People asked me what was wrong and I said, 'It's everything,'" Thomas recalled. "Having to wake up daily and you feel like the world around you is crumbling, then going into these hyperwhite spaces and feeling like no one understands . . . I'm exhausted."
In her 2005 book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, researcher and historian Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary explores how centuries of trauma and post-traumatic stress from oppression and systemic racism directly affect descendants of slaves. This theory has been explored in several studies on how abuse and trauma might actually alter human DNA and be passed down through generations via a process called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. The theory — while scientifically controversial — has been studied in populations including black Americans and descendants of Holocaust survivors.
Cheryl K. Webster, an LA-based clinician studying at the California School of Professional Psychology, points to research suggesting the trauma black women experienced during slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era may still have a compounding impact on black women today. "We have a lot of stress because we put so much on our shoulders," Webster said. "Whether it's with our black men being attacked and now our black women, it's just a little too much to deal with."
The feeling of simply being overwhelmed by factors that are out of my control returned when Nia Wilson was murdered this Summer. Wilson was an 18-year-old black woman on her way home following a family gathering when a white man fatally stabbed her at a BART station in Oakland, CA. At first, I avoided reading the details of her attack; I also refuse to watch any video of a black person being killed by a police officer. But as soon as I could bring myself to do so, that familiar feeling of sadness, anger, and exhaustion returned. I felt alone in my frustration, but it didn't take long to realize I wasn't.
The day after Wilson was killed, teacher, lecturer, and activist Rachel Cargle posted an image of the words "You OK Sis" on her Instagram page. The gesture was meant to provide women of color with an opportunity to share how they were feeling and coping — not just with Wilson's death, but in their own day-to-day lives.
#YouOKSis was originally created by activist and author Feminista Jones in 2014 as a response to the street harassment black women face. The image Cargle shared was of an art piece by Kate Just, which served as a tribute to the movement. Hundreds of women shared how Wilson's death impacted them on Cargle's post — only for the post to be taken down by Instagram because it was reported as being in violation of the platform's hate speech guidelines. (It was restored two days later.)
These feelings aren't just feelings. They are rooted in hard data and a reality that affects black women in nearly every aspect of their lives.
In the post's nearly 600 comments, women wrote that they were fearful for their safety and the safety of their children. Others addressed having anxiety. A common theme, however, was simply that black women were tired. "I'm feeling anxious and exhausted," wrote Régine Kalala, a newlywed who lives and works in Texas. "I'm feeling invisible at work and [to] white people who are blissfully unaware of this and other murders of black people and people of color in this country."
Kalala told POPSUGAR that while she's trying to remain hopeful, she can't help but feel defeated. Like Thomas, continuing on with daily tasks and having to be enthusiastic about her job after a troubling event in the news cycle affects her on a personal level. "Having to go to work and continue to exist while white coworkers don't understand why this particular week is extra hard. People talking about their plans for the weekend and just talking about things where you feel like you can't relate. It never stops being heavy," she said.
These feelings aren't just feelings. They are rooted in hard data and a reality that affects black women in nearly every aspect of their lives. Black women are undervalued at work, where they are paid 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women. Statistics show that black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, a reality that impacts even wealthy, famous black women like Serena Williams and Beyoncé. According to an extensive report by Mic, one in 2,600 young black transgender women are murdered annually vs. one in 12,000 in the general population of young adults. Is it any wonder that, along with the daily tasks of combatting racist stereotypes and confronting microaggressions, many black women are emotionally, spiritually, and physically drained?
Kalala remembers the moment three years ago when she broke down crying in the middle of a flight. She was on a plane in the Summer of 2015 when she read about the death of Sandra Bland. Bland was arrested that July 10 in Prairie View, TX, during a routine traffic stop. Three days later, she was found dead — apparently hanged — in her jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but many suspected foul play. Not only did the arresting officer use physical force in arresting Bland, the disturbing footage of which was captured on a dash cam, but her family and friends said she was not suicidal. On the contrary, they said, she was excited for a new job that brought her to Texas from Chicago. Bland's arrest and subsequent death left many women like Kalala feeling angry, confused, and vulnerable.
The constant stress and exhaustion of simply existing as a black woman can pose very real psychological and physiological responses that can threaten one's mental and physical health
Black women are not alone in feeling vulnerable under the weight of discrimination and prejudice. We live in a time when the man who is the President of the United States has a history of demeaning women; who publicly said there were "very fine people on both sides" of the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right white nationalist rally; who regularly positions Muslims, Mexican immigrants, and refugees as a threat to American safety; and who has hired, endorsed, or nominated individuals with anti-LGBTQ+ rights track records.
Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, a leading voice of black feminism and author of Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, explains, however, why the impact of our culture takes a particular toll on black women. Collins pioneered the theory of "matrix of domination," or the "matrix of oppression." This paradigm posits that systems of inequality as they relate to race, class, and gender — as well as sexual orientation, religion, and age — compound exponentially. "Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women," writes Collins in Black Feminist Thought. "Race, class, and gender may not be the most fundamental or important systems of oppression, but they have most profoundly affected African-American women."
The oppression is compounded even further for black transgender women. Antitransgender bias has lead to a rise in reported violence against transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which suggests many more instances go unreported. Fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color who may be more vulnerable due to factors related to antiblack racism, misogyny, transphobia, and, often times, socioeconomic disparities.
Twenty-nine-year-old Pia K. Murphy says the violence that some trans women like her have suffered, with often little to no mainstream media coverage or public outcry, makes her "want to change the narrative around transgender women." The social media talent manager, who is based in LA, says the realities of hate crimes toward trans women affect her on a personal level. Still, she has found that being a source of strength for others during difficult times has helped her throughout her own journey as she works to be more vocal about both the beauty and challenges of the trans community. Finding an online community of women who can relate to her experiences has also proven to be invaluable. Murphy mentions #GirlsLikeUs, the trans women of color empowerment movement created by author, advocate, and Pose producer Janet Mock: "It's connecting all of us and our supporters."
Atlanta-based psychologist Dr. Joy Harden Bradford created an online community called Therapy For Black Girls in 2014 to encourage black women to make mental health a priority. She said, among other challenges, setting healthy boundaries in relationships can be a challenge for women she works with. Dr. Bradford said "saying yes to too many things and people, and not having enough time and energy to really refuel themselves and cultivate good self-care practices" are just some of the contributing factors that have caused many black women to feel emotionally tired on a recurring basis.
Feeling overwhelmed isn't reserved for black women in America. For Canadian Jessy Thermil (below), the January 2017 mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec — which occurred blocks from her home — was a turning point. In that moment, she realized that hate-driven violence could occur in her own neighborhood. "This can happen in Canada. It has happened and it might happen again," Thermil said. For outsiders, Canada is often painted as a bastion of safety in contrast to America, but Thermil said it's not that simple. "My life is not struggle-free. There are microaggressions daily, and for me, it's a matter of always having to prove my humanity."
Black women have found safety in online communities like #GirlsLikeUs and those created by Cargle and Dr. Bradford, especially as the importance of a safe space for women of color to address their concerns, even if it's virtual, continues to grow.
"'You OK Sis' was a microcosm of group think, so that black women don't feel alone," Cargle said of her Instagram post, which drew both praise and backlash from some men and white women for being only open for the voices of women of color. Cargle has seen her following balloon by 70,000 since the Spring, and while most of her followers are white women who look to her for guidance on how to speak about race, feminism, and intersectionality, her voice has helped her black followers feel more prepared to address issues surrounding race and intersectionality both on and offline. "I get a lot of messages from people telling me how they use my work in real life, and it makes me so happy."
As social media continues to be a tool for healing among black women looking to connect with likeminded people, Dr. Bradford suggests defining your relationship with the platforms on your own terms to avoid making exhaustion or anxiety worse.
"I think everyone's relationship to social media is different, and so much of how it impacts us is an individual reaction," she said, noting that the platforms we seek out to find community can also be the source of the information we seek refuge from. "The constant news and images related to injustice and oppression are not healthy for us and can absolutely lead to feelings of overwhelm. I encourage people to be very careful of the media they're consuming."
When feelings of exhaustion begin to surface, she recommends taking a few minutes to exercise, dedicating the start of your day to journaling, praying or meditating, learning how to say "no " with conviction, and keeping a gratitude list.
For Cargle, her responsibility as an activist and her role as a public figure have reminded her just how important it is to lean on likeminded people while also making routine self-care a habit. "Be each other's space of comfort and sharing," she said. "Remind yourself of who you are, and reclaim yourself, even if you have to do it every day."