In its September issue, Harper’s Bazaar published a clever and timely article detailing the insurmountable weight of the unpaid work many women are socialized and expected to shoulder in their romantic relationships. At the article’s climax, author Gemma Hartley inserts an exhaustive (albeit partial) list of the various emotional-labor duties she is responsible for in her home, such as “reminding [her husband] of his family’s birthdays, carrying in [her] head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules….” The list goes on and on.
Sociologists, economists and feminist scholars have long employed the term “emotional labor” to describe the extra burdens women take on in various settings. Harper’s Bazaar introduces the term to a larger audience of women that finally has a name to describe a phenomenon that has likely plagued them for years. Although the article skillfully explores the nuances of how sexism permeates even the most intimate of relational spaces — and describes how women must manage or obscure their emotions for the sake of their jobs or someone else’s comfort — it fails to consider how race exacerbates the impact of emotional labor for Black women. In fact, its very neglect of the topic exemplifies how Black women are a largely ignored presence in society.
Most women must contend with rigid and oppressive gender roles and expectations; that’s a given. Yet Black women face a dual form of gendered-racial socialization that creates an even more taxing burden when compared to their white counterparts. Here’s a prime example: Black parents have to school their children to survive in a racially oppressive society — messages white children never need to hear. Often parents work to instill a sense of racial pride in their Black children, while simultaneously acknowledging that their children will frequently have to self-monitor their emotional expressions for fear of causing white people discomfort. For Black girls, an extra layer of gendered messaging is required. In addition to learning about being a racial minority, Black girls and women are schooled on how to survive as a “double minority,” learning that they must be self-reliant and “respectable” in intimate relationships, further inhibiting their abilities to be emotionally authentic and layered.
It doesn’t end there. Research has long established that Black women face unique and multiplying forms of oppression due to the marginalization of living at the “intersection” of race and gender. Intersectionality theory posits that simply by being both Black and female, a system of invisibility is created whereby their suffering and, perhaps, their very identity or value, is altogether ignored. And it has birthed a system that typically views Black issues as Black male issues (see My Brother’s Keeper, #SayHerName, etc.) and women’s issues as white women’s issues (see literally every example of modern feminism). Consequently, Black women are largely encouraged to choose either their race or their gender, while their distinctive experiences continue to go largely overlooked.
For Black women, emotional labor is conveniently couched within the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype. Black women are expected to be responsible for themselves, their partners, their children, their parents, their communities, their work and school responsibilities and, maybe…eventually…if there’s time… their own well-being — all without ever breaking a sweat. As evidenced by the Alabama election, the Super Black Woman saves Senate elections even while being systematically disenfranchised. And the sexism and discrimination Black women experience at work? That is only considered valid when white women have first expressed their dissatisfaction with gendered oppression. But time and again, the Super Black Woman shows up and speaks up, knowing her efforts will be ignored or replaced by a more convenient narrative that will ultimately place her at history’s margin. Nevertheless, she persists; she takes the risk; she saves the day? Not exactly.
Not only are these one-dimensional narratives of Black women as superhuman forces unfair, they suggest that Black women’s actions are primarily motivated by others’ sense of victimhood rather than Black women’s attempts to protect their own best interest. Being a strong Black woman is an exhaustive and, ultimately, thankless job that often reduces Black women to emotionless mules. While some argue that the stereotype is positive, highlights resilience and should be viewed as an aspirational ideal, research has deduced that attempts to align with this role are mentally taxing, stressful and limiting.
Were a Black woman ever to protest the impossibility of this role — or even acknowledge its heavy and unrealistic burden — she would be quickly assigned another ill-fitting and restrictive stereotype: the “Angry” Black Woman. This blatant and narrow-minded simplification is yet another attempt to dehumanize Black women, in essence shaming them for expressing the full range of emotions. Roundly expected to graciously save the world while sacrificing their own humanity, Black women thus endure more complex oppression causing their emotional labor to be even less valued than that of other women.
When considering the role of Black women within the US’s cultural legacy of unpaid physical labor, unacknowledged emotional labor in current times is not exactly a far leap from historical facts and generational expectations. In a now infamous excerpt from a 1962 speech, Malcolm X declared that “The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” The widely quoted passage, in its simplistic yet powerful phrasing, highlights how Black women have historically carried others without ever receiving any acknowledgment or gratitude in response. Instead, they have been met with disrespect and neglect despite their efforts both in and outside of their own communities.
While it is no surprise that our society consistently disregards and ignores the experiences and emotional labor of Black women, to experience such disregard within intimate partner relationships is not merely “frustrating” as the Harper’s Bazaar article suggests; it is devastating. It ranges from the persistently irritating (having to repeatedly remind partners to equally share household chores) to the more emotionally exhaustive and time-consuming task of explaining intersectionality (why Black girls and women are rarely seen as vulnerable or at-risk in the same way that Black boys and men are). Being overlooked in the world is infuriating, but to be expected; being ignored in the solace of one’s homes and within personal relationships is a more painful way Black women experience invisibility every day.
The recent upsurge in national attention on the prevalence of sexism and gender-based harassment and violence many women and femmes face daily is forcing men to contemplate how gender and associated power dynamics oppress women. While it may seem more attractive to highlight the symptoms of gendered oppression and assign blame to a few bad apples, men should grab this opportunity to reckon with how they might have contributed to oppression within their homes, relationships, and careers. And white women, eager to openly discuss sexism, should use this opportunity to examine their collective contribution to oppression by excluding Black women’s narratives and emotional experiences in their discussions. Perhaps when men and others in relationships with Black women reflect on their own complicity through their expectations or indifference to intersectionality and emotional labor they are all too happy to cede, they will finally be able to truly and fully see Black women not for what they do for them, but for who they are outside of them.