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The Experience That Leads 3 Women To Say 'Being Black Is Exhausting'

NOEL KING, HOST:

Earlier this year, NPR asked our listeners, what is it like to be Black in America? Now, to be clear, lots of us who work at NPR have our own answers to that question. But more than 500 people wrote in. And a lot of them said it is exhausting.

MYLAH HOWARD: As a Black woman, we carry our community on our back. But our backs are cracking. And we are tired. And we're exhausted.

ASIA COOK: I've come to understand that being Black is exhausting.

MARIA RAMIREZ: It's exhausting and un-affirming (ph).

KING: I called up three of the women who gave that answer, who said they're tired. Asia Cook (ph) is 38. And she's a criminalist with the state of California.

COOK: I always had this thing about growing up where I felt this need to do everything by the book because I didn't want to be a stereotype. Well, she's Black, so it figures. And I remember I had a difficult time when I found out I was pregnant with my twins because their father and I weren't married. I didn't want the assumption that of course I wasn't going to have a baby daddy, or of course I was going to not finish school or whatever it was - you know, always trying to stay ahead of people's assumptions. And it's tiring. It's exhausting to keep up with that.

KING: When it came to telling white friends or white colleagues you all weren't married, did you hesitate to do that?

COOK: You know, I didn't really. It actually became quite obvious quite soon that I was pregnant. But a colleague of mine stepped into my office and said, congratulations. And I was like, oh, thanks. And, you know, then they said, you know, I just want to thank you for, you know, choosing life and gave me stats on abortions and how it was so much higher for women of color. You know, over 50% of them...

KING: Oh.

COOK: ...Choose to terminate their pregnancy. So I just really want to thank you. And I just thought, like, is this really happening?

KING: Yes, it was really happening. Next, I talked to Maria Ramirez. She's 31. She's the director of equity initiatives at NYU Steinhardt.

RAMIREZ: The day after I learned the news about George Floyd's death, I immediately experienced trauma. And it was - no one was speaking about it at work. It was like business as usual. And here I am dealing with trauma. It was really, really difficult.

KING: Did you go to your colleagues and say, hey, I'm messed up about the fact that you guys aren't talking about this?

RAMIREZ: I actually did have some support. But given that I work specifically in diversity, equity and inclusion, it was like everyone was already leaning on me to be able to come up with some kind of response or support to the whole community. There are other Black women that would be an associate professor of applied psychology or something. And they would also be expected - even though it has nothing to do with their job - to take on the extra burden of mentoring students that are Black, the extra burden of forming the diversity committees and sitting on them and advising their leadership on, you know, what we can do in this department when everyone has access to the same resources. It always falls on people of color because they're Black.

KING: And Mylah Howard is a 28-year-old teacher and consultant in Bowie, Maryland.

Mylah, when you're feeling that exhaustion, what are the ways in which you find yourself behaving that you think, if I had time, if I had space, if I wasn't so tired, I would prefer not to be doing this?

HOWARD: I would probably say, for me, it manifests in almost zoning out, you know, in spaces where I would normally engage more. In spaces where I normally would participate in conversation or share my ideas, there's no energy to tap into the things I normally would be passionate about. It's a lack of interest in things. It's a lack of desire to even say anything anymore.

KING: In a workplace, seeming spaced-out or disengaged or uninterested can really affect you professionally. Do you think that your exhaustion has stood in your way in the workplace?

HOWARD: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KING: Yeah. Yeah.

HOWARD: Seeing how some of our colleagues, who are not Black (laughter), are moving on every day in conversations - I remember I was sitting in a meeting. And I just finished, like, watching the news, had, like, a just deep sob. And I tap into the Zoom call. And somebody is talking about his beach house over the past weekend. And it's like, really (laughter)? Is that where we are?

KING: (Laughter) Yeah.

HOWARD: Do you - are you not aware of what's happening? It's infuriating.

KING: We put out this call - NPR put out this call asking, what is it like to be Black in America right now? And we got back over 500 detailed answers, which is unusual. Forty Black Americans mentioned exhaustion. They were all women. Asia, I'm going to start with you. And we'll just go chronologically, as we did before. Why is it only women, Black women, talking about exhaustion?

COOK: Well, I think it's this assumption that the planning, the, you know, figuring our way out of this, it falls to Black women. No one cares to consider or think about, what are the things that they're already managing? - a full-time job, a family. But it's one of those things that if we don't do it, who's going to do it? And we're already running on empty.

KING: Maria, why is it women?

RAMIREZ: For one thing, most of us are parents. And I came across this article recently by the Institute for Women's Policy Research that says three in four Black mothers are breadwinners for their families. We're also being disproportionately impacted by COVID. We're having to be the caretakers for people that are sick and have to be the funeral planners for people that are dying. So we are exhausted because we are carrying the world and the burden of everything important right now on our shoulders.

KING: Mylah, no men mentioned being exhausted. Why didn't Black men talk about that?

HOWARD: Because it is expected for us to handle it. I don't believe that Black men have always been given the space to do that or charged to feel that they have the space to do that, where Black women, it's like, you know, we're going to get the job done. And we're not going to move with the fear that our brothers may feel like they may have to move with - and again, just the overall expectation of, like, y'all got us. Y'all got us, so we're not going to worry about it.

KING: Mylah Howard, Maria Ramirez and Asia Cook. Thank you so much. We're really grateful for your time.

RAMIREZ: Thank you, Noel. Thank you for having me.

COOK: Thank you for giving us this space.

HOWARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.