Black women and emotional labor: a history

by Lauren Dubravec
February 11th, 2021

When I was in high school, one of my close friends ran the student government, essentially from the moment she stepped into the building our freshman year. One of a startlingly small percentage of Black women in our class, I watched her strive for absolute perfection as she was pressed to prove herself and justify her position daily. Not only did she found and maintain our Black Student Union, but she was also the designated “liaison” between the Black students and the predominantly white student population and faculty. When white students came to BSU meetings, she bent over backward to make them feel comfortable. When a student came to school wearing a confederate flag T-shirt, she calmly approached them to explain that they were making other students feel unsafe.

At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the work my friend was doing or realize how exhausting it was. Black women have been disproportionately responsible for emotional labor, or “a situation where the way a person manages his or her emotions is regulated by a work-related entity to shape the state of mind of another individual,” for centuries. Even after emancipation, hundreds of thousands of Black women raised the children of wealthy white southerners. They were required to be happy and nurturing for the children they cared for while facing continuous abuse from their employers and spending most of their time away from their own children.

Over 91% of domestic workers are still women and over half of that population is made up of Black and Hispanic women. Women are held responsible for the care and comfort of those around them, and Black women have an extra layer of responsibility in white-dominated spaces. In a Harvard Business Review interview of a group of Black female professionals, one woman explained, “In my actions and verbal communications, I try to avoid any opportunity for someone to label me as the ‘angry black woman.’ I also carry myself in a professional manner that may seem to be a step above the somewhat casual professional environment of the office.”

In honor of Black History Month, I wish I had more historical data and anecdotes about the emotional labor Black women have shouldered for so long, but what makes emotional labor so deep-rooted is its invisibility. It is the “every day” labor of “every woman,” and it has been consistently and systematically excluded from historical records. The past year has only increased this burden, as Black women were handed the task of “explaining” racism and police brutality in a “palatable” way for white audiences in every space, from TikTok to the Senate floor. Our society owes Black women centuries worth of gratitude for the essential, irreplaceable work they have done, but, above all, rather than allowing the burden to remain on their shoulders alone, we owe Black women the chance to rest.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

-Audre Lorde