The Black Superwoman and Socially Conscious Self-Care

July
2020
Erin M. Charlens, Professor/Counselor, Umoja Coordinator, San Diego City College

Planning and nearly seamlessly executing the transition of our respective academic areas to be accessible remotely, nurturing interpersonal relationships, “crisis schooling” our children, meal planning, meal prepping, meal execution, prioritizing exercise, while adhering to a stay-at-home order, in the midst of an uprising for the attainment of justice for Black lives – Black women, we made it look easy.

While appearing externally cool, the indefinite convergence of our work and home lives, while overwhelmed with viewing the horrific lynchings of our Black brothers and sisters, left many of us laden with anxiety we had not yet known. At times, tears flowed; our bodies signaled for us to rest. With students to serve and justice to gain, rest never felt appropriate. Instead, care and concern for others, for the community, for the movement became paramount, sometimes at the cost of neglecting ourselves. How can we rest when our adversary, white supremacy, never sleeps? As Black female educators who wear many hats, we struggle to prioritize self-care. This article seeks to explore the persona of the Black Superwoman and to discuss balancing social consciousness with self-care.

Superwoman Persona

The Black Superwoman: We have seen her on television and in film (think Florida Evans played by Esther Rolle in Good Times), and for many of us, up close and personal in our homes. She is strong at all times in spite of whatever distress she may be experiencing (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2005). Corbin et al. (2018) describe a similar persona, the STRONGBLACKWOMAN, that develops as a coping mechanism to racial discrimination and microaggressions in predominantly and historically white spaces. It is an alternative persona to the less desirable, less socially-accepted Angry Black Woman persona. It is the idea that one needs to be strong and self-sacrificing, show little vulnerability or undesirable emotions, and help others. Even when experiencing great distress or pain, the Superwoman remains strong.

When I was growing up, while my parents shared in decision-making, my father would acquiesce to my mother’s will with regard to many financial decisions, as well as care and educational decisions for me and my siblings. My mom worked full-time, prepared dinner nightly, sewed clothes regularly to fit my tall frame, while being a pillar of strength in our home and in our church. It was rare to hear mom complain about her workload or express emotions that did not demonstrate strength. When mom was stressed or uneasy, no one knew. She went to her prayer closet and armored up for battle. Mom did it all, gracefully.

Balancing Life Roles

The Superwoman persona is often passed down as young girls observe significant female adults in their lives being everything to everyone. In fact, maintaining the Superwoman persona often feels necessary to balance the various life roles that we occupy as Black women. The challenge for us now is that most of us are far more accessible to others yielding even greater difficulty balancing life roles compared to our parents. Not only do we hold full-time jobs, but as educators, the needs of students are often so vast that our work does not have an ending point. When we do leave the office, those who are mothers begin their second shift assisting the children with homework and meal preparation. In addition to high levels of engagement, success in the role of educator and parent also requires a significant amount of planning and mental energy “off the clock” that must be accounted for. Further, many of us have regular commitments outside of our paid jobs for the advancement of Black people. 

Single Black mothers have the added stress of balancing the responsibilities alone. Women with partners often take on the role of being Superwoman to their partner.  Partnership implies shared responsibility, though time that is freed up by having the support of a partner often turns into time redirected by the Superwoman to one of the aforementioned categories. Sharing the load with someone sometimes thrusts some Superwomen into project management-mode, incessantly checking to make sure that everything is carefully executed. While some Black women manage to take off the proverbial Superwoman cape, what happens when this way of being becomes the norm?

Rest

Most women are conditioned to believe that we are obligated to deny ourselves and give to others first.  We are nurtured for self-sacrifice at an early age as we learn about motherhood. Many of us have watched significant female caretakers execute the role of Superwoman nearly perfectly. It is not, however, sustainable. In order to shift away from this, we have to change how we feel about rest. Not only did significant adults in our lives help shape our gender roles, they also framed how we conceptualize rest. In most of the Black families that I knew, rest wasn’t something that was proactively planned; it was the result of exhaustion after several hard days of work. Growing up, we enjoyed watching Black television shows, other than that, rest looked like reading, studying, and planning. Sometimes rest was sitting on the couch consuming the news. Other times rest was reading the Bible. Social activities like talking on the telephone took place simultaneously with a chore such as folding the laundry. Rarely did we simply rest. Rest was primarily reserved for sleep during the nighttime hours.

As an employee in higher education attuned to the needs of students, rest sometimes feels like a privilege. Rest can even feel selfish at times. Subconsciously, many Black people overcompensate with productivity as a counter narrative to the racist stereotype that Black people are lazy. Even when nobody is watching, some people simply will not allow themselves rest. On the contrary, hard work and high achievement are ways of demonstrating worth and credibility.

Revolutionizing Self-Care

Black women are often stretched thin, particularly in historically white institutions where they may be serving on multiple committees as the single voice for Black people. Our quest for justice in our nation and equitable outcomes for our students is a marathon. Prioritizing self-care is requisite for sustainability in this work. Self-care is the personal activities we regularly engage in to promote mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional wellness. It is an act of self-love.  Former Stanford University African & African American Studies student, Mysia Anderson reminds us, “Intentionally caring for your well-being, and making attempts to love yourself despite insults and dangers against your being is a radical act” (Anderson, 2015).

And so, I have some straightforward, revolutionary self-care tips for the socially-conscious Superwoman:

Develop compassionate boundaries. A boundary is an act of self-care and self-agency that defines your level of engagement in a particular activity or with a person. Often, when we find ourselves overwhelmed, it is an indication that we need to draw a boundary, or that we failed to exercise a boundary that we previously created. When a boundary is crossed, speak on it. Emotional suppression is detrimental to our health.
Connect.  We are wired for connection.  We must have spaces where we can be vulnerable and process what we are feeling. If the space does not currently exist, create it. Self-care and joy are acts of resistance.
Rest. In the midst of this racial climate, it may seem inappropriate to rest or to seek out things that bring you joy. Rest is not quitting. Rest is fuel! This is a marathon; your rest at mile seven may prove worthwhile as you continue on in the movement. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Press pause and fill up your cup with things that you enjoy.
Communicate. Every voice in this movement matters. People will notice when yours is missing from the table. Be accountable. Simply share with your village, “As an act of self-care, I need to step back from activities this week. I will return to our group activities next week.”

White supremacy will continue to feed us the lie that we are not enough and that we must overachieve to be worthy. Do not believe this! You are worthy. You are entitled to assert your needs. You are entitled and deserving of joy. Resist. Resist with joy. Resist with love. Resist with rest. Resist with power.

References

Anderson, C. (2015, May 21). Self-care is resistance. https://www.stanforddaily.com/2015/05/21/self-care-is-resistance/. Retrieved June 21, 2020.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, T. (2005). Keeping up Appearances, Getting Fed up: The Embodiment of Strength among African American Women. Meridians, 5(2), 104-123. Retrieved June 22, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40338673.


Nicola A. Corbin, William A. Smith & J. Roberto Garcia. (2018). Trapped between justified anger and being the strong Black woman: Black college women coping with racial battle fatigue at historically and predominantly White institutions, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 31:7, 626-643, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2018.1468045.

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