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The atrocities of 1619 are still affecting us as Black women today. Despite being beaten, raped and treated inhumanely, our ancestors paved the way for us. But as Black women, we are still experiencing the residual effects from 401 years ago. These discriminations prevented us from focusing on our mental, emotional and physical health. Therefore, it is time for us, my sisters, to acknowledge these oppressive forces, and at the same time focus on our health.

In what follows, I will share with you how we can redefine strength through the oppressive forces we face.

I am a Black Caribbean woman in a graduate program at a Predominantly White Institution(PWI) who also attended a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). I embodied the "strong Black woman" (SBW) and "superwoman" (SW) stereotypes, and did not prioritize my holistic wellbeing. However, that changed in October 2019 when I decided to redefine strength and prioritized my health.

Cultural Stereotypes

As Black women, we wear the strong Black woman (SBW) and superwoman (SW) stereotypes like badges of honor. But this can harm us. While these stereotypes are rooted in our embodiment of strength, they also silence our voices. This manifestation of strength prevents us from fully taking care of ourselves. So, if being strong means we are neglecting our wellbeing, then it is time that we redefine strength.

  • We redefine strength by saying *no, because no is a full sentence.  
  • We redefine strength by taking a break when we feel we are too overwhelmed to concentrate.  
  • We redefine strength by scheduling self-care time every week, so when we show up, we can do so as our true and authentic selves.  
  • We redefine strength by advocating and prioritizing our holistic wellbeing while in our graduate programs.
  • We redefine strength by showing others that as a Black woman, we will start to prioritize our wellbeing, and not be ashamed to say, “I am tired!”

Black is Not a Monolith

As Black women pursuing graduate degrees, we hold many different identities. We are graduate students, but we may also be a mother, a sister, a daughter, a caregiver, a mentor and an advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. These different identities we hold are important, and so is our health. When we make the decision to take care of ourselves, a restful body and mind can be life changing and empowering.

The Production Factory

Like the worker bee, we are expected to get the job done by any means necessary. We work all day, and if we have a family, we take care of them after work. And just like the older worker bee, we spend some more hours at night doing more work. This robotic lifestyle is not sustainable.

Each day we have to show up in spaces where we have to decide which one of our identities will be overlooked by our peers or professors. Will it be our race, our ethnicity, our gender? When this happens, how do we re-center and refocus ourselves? Do we internalize all the negativity until we burst like a pressurized balloon? Who do we run to? Do we have someone to run to? Remember that *all our identities matter, and we should not have to erase one to fit into society. As Black women, we matter, and we are enough despite being told differently.

The Campus Culture

Let’s face it, graduate school is hard. No matter how many hours we work, the work is never ending. If we previously attended a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), and now we are attending a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), the campus culture is vastly different, and the competitiveness is high.

The support systems that were in place when we attended a HBCU may not be present at our current institution. Yet, we are still expected to show up, despite facing racism and sexism in our respective programs. Additionally, our campus experiences are filled with gendered and racialized microaggressions, it lacks adequate representation and does not affirm our cultural identities. However, we are expected to keep going and assimilate into the dominant culture in order to be successful.

With all these changes happening around us, when do we find time to breathe? What do we do for ourselves? When the imposter syndrome kicks in and makes us feel like we are a fraud, and that we do not belong in our programs, we have to dispute that claim. We deserve to be there just like anyone else. We were not selected due to affirmative action.  Say this with me: “I deserve to be here!”

Benefits of Wellbeing

Being intentional about our health takes courage, and it is not easy. So, start small and give yourselves grace. Undoing the years of suffering we have experienced will not happen in one day, but we are off to a great start just by trying.

Below are some recommendations of ways we can re-center and refocus our mental, emotional and physical health, and I charge you to add to this limited list.

  • REST.
  • Carve out time daily for your self-care hour. This time can be used to be creative, to meditate, or to just to be still.
  • Find new hobbies or reacquaint yourselves with old hobbies that brought you joy.
  • If you are an avid runner, sign up for that marathon that you’ve been wanting to do for years.
  • Are you a foodie? Form a supper club with your best buddies, share recipes and schedule a virtual cooking night.
  • For you introverts who like silence, spend time with your thoughts and stare at the wall if that brings you peace.

As Black women in graduate programs, it is necessary that we counter these oppressive forces by intentionally focusing on our health. This will not only help us thrive, but it will empower other Black women around us to do the same.