Activism 101: Calling in Black

As first posted on The Inclusion Solution

One day I was driving to work listening to Kiese Laymon’s audiobook version of his memoir Heavy. This was around my third day of listening, and while it was heavy (as the title suggests), I had not yet cried. Then all of a sudden, he shares a story about getting kicked out of his university because he “stole” a library book. 

My mind started fixating on the injustice of it all. How was he kicked out of school for wanting to READ, yet it is so difficult to expel perpetrators for sexually assaulting people on campus? I started thinking about how justice feels impossible. I started thinking about Breonna Taylor’s killer being found not guilty. 

I started crying uncontrollably, racking sobs that blurred my vision and made it so difficult to continue driving. I kept crying as I tried to compose myself as I walked half of a mile to my office building from my parking spot, the tears coming faster the closer I got. I had to do a presentation that day to white college students about how to care about other people, and that made me lose it more.

I was crying uncontrollably. I had to present to white students that day and lost it more. How do I ‘turn off’ this reaction to trauma, get in front of white faces + pretend they care about my humanity? I should’ve called in Black.

When I got to my office, I managed to get past my coworkers and close my door before the tears came again. How do I just “turn off” all this grief and emotional reaction to trauma and get in front of 20 white faces and pretend like they care about my humanity? 

I should have called in Black. 

I got the phrase “calling in Black” from a title of a poetry book by Nicholle Ramsey. It’s like calling in sick or taking a mental health day, but these are for the times when being Black in America feels too overwhelming. 

How many times have you felt so much despair after witnessing a graphic video shared thousands of times online of another human being slain for just existing (if you even can stand continuing to watch those videos)?  

As Black people, we have inherited historical trauma. Slavery and Jim Crow are collective traumatic experiences. Police brutality and medical racism/experimentation are collective traumatic experiences. Red lining and mass incarceration are collective traumatic experiences. All of us may not have direct contact with every single one of these experiences, but we feel their effects, and we are threatened by them every single day. 

Constantly thinking “What if my son, mother, cousin, uncle is next?” is exhausting. What if I’m next? 

Many organizations strive to be more progressive these days and offer employees sick days for mental health days. Mental health days are important to mitigate the stress of the work environment and boost productivity. Racism is a very valid excuse for taking a mental health day. 

Mental health days are important to mitigate the stress of the work environment and boost productivity. Racism is a very valid excuse for taking a mental health day.

On the other hand, I can see why many Black people may not take advantage of the benefit. We live in a culture driven by capitalism that tells us our worth is contingent on how much we can produce. The glamorized “hustle culture” of Gen Z and Millennials is all about not taking breaks (all gas, no breaks). And on top of all that, we have Black people adopting (for survival) the mentality of “never let them see you sweat” and “you have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good.”

I know personally I never would have dreamed of “calling in Black.” I already feel guilty for taking necessary breaks to rest and recharge. My ancestors couldn’t afford to take a break, so why should I? 

Racial trauma is so real, though, and it can be very exhausting. We need the days to collect ourselves, process our grief, and nurture our healing. With the rise of social media and the 24–hour news cycle, Black trauma is ever more accessible; we can’t escape from it being so in our faces all the time. We are expected to just keep showing up to work and go on with business as usual. 

I will recognize that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to call in Black to their workplace. Many Black folks work in hourly jobs or in service-based industries. Some of us have white employers who will never see this as a viable excuse to take a day off. You don’t owe anyone an explanation or excuse for taking care of yourself. 

So, next time the news or social media shows graphic depictions of Black death without adequate trigger warnings, or you received one too many microaggressions, call in Black and prioritize yourself in the ways your workplace can’t. 

You don’t owe anyone an explanation or excuse for taking care of yourself. Call in Black and prioritize yourself in the ways your workplace can’t.

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