Calling someone strong is supposed to be a compliment. For generations of Black women, expecting and demanding they always be strong—and silent—no matter what, is cause for concern.
Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, licensed clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, is out to change the stigmas, misconceptions and invisibility of Black women and redefine what it means to be a strong Black woman.
Even the iconic Mary J. Blige is on board, writing a blurb for the book, “Black women give and give and give to the point of emotional exhaustion. Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen lets us know how to break this unhealthy cycle by learning self-forgiveness, which through God’s help, leads to self-love and the power to say, ‘No, I come first in my life.’”
Burnett-Zeigler, Northwestern’s Chief Diversity Officer in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, has spent a lifetime witnessing, experiencing, studying, researching and counseling Black women required to be stoic in the face of unaddressed suffering.
“Black women are raised to be caregivers and keep their heads up in struggle; often they are going through so much and they don’t get help,” says Burnett-Zeigler.
Ignoring the costs of sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty, childhood abandonment, community violence, racism and sexism, can lead to Black women paying the price with stress, anxiety, PTSD, and depression. The price of the fallout from this trauma can be hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, overeating, and alcohol and drug abuse, as well as other chronic health issues, according to Burnett-Zeigler.
“I think it starts with the cultural mandate to put your feelings aside and keep going. Black women are taught to push through and that their feelings are not what need to be attended to,” says Burnett-Zeigler, who has spent 15 years providing psychological interventions to help clients with mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, stress management, and interpersonal relationships.
“Those who do have challenges feel shame because they feel they are the only ones having a hard time. Add to that a lack of resources and that Black women are paid lower wages and have less access to mental health services and fewer Black mental health providers, then these are all barriers,” says Burnett-Zeigler, who is also a mindfulness trainer and certified yoga instructor.
Many experts agree. NBC reports that Mary-Frances Winters, founder and CEO of The Winters Group, Inc., writes in her new book, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit, “Science has proven that racism is a direct cause of physiological and psychological maladies. Black people suffer disproportionately from diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, obesity, among others. Many of these health issues are uncorrelated to socioeconomic status. In other words, contrary to what might seem intuitive, education and income are not mitigators. Further, experts have recently made connections to how chronic stress impacts us the cellular level and is passed down generationally.”
Generations of stress on Black women is what Burnett-Zeigler witnessed firsthand and reaffirmed in her extensive research.
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Burnett-Zeigler studied psychology undergraduate at Cornell University in 2002, and earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Northwestern University, completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan. In 2011 she came back to Northwestern to join the faculty.
“I really wanted to do work that would impact a large amount of people,” says Burnett-Zeigler, who is co-chair of the Chicago Council for Mental Health Equity.
Splitting her time between clinical work and research, Burnett-Zeilger says, “I saw the challenges and gaps in the health service system. Research allowed me to go to areas I felt most connected to, with the greatest level of need.”
Since 2016 she has been working with local community health centers. For four years, she has been leading a large, controlled test of 150 Black women with depression.
“The women in the study could be my aunties or somebody I knew from church growing up. It feels like very meaningful work,” says Burnett-Zeigler, who serves on the boards of Thresholds, Heartland Alliance Health, Chicago School of the Arts, Joffrey Ballet Women’s Board and African-American Legacy of the Chicago Community Trust.
The mission of her book and her work is “to raise awareness around how trauma and stress can impact people emotionally and physically. Giving voice reduces shame,” says Burnett-Zeigler, who has been a fellow with Leadership Greater Chicago, Chicago Urban League, Impact and the Public Voices Fellowship of The OpEd Project.
“Offering the opportunity for connection and vulnerability, these are the first steps to connect with treatment,” she says. “But there are large gaps that need to be filled in the system.”
The workplace is a major stress center for many Black women. “Black women are disproportionately the breadwinners in their household,” she says. “They hold that financial responsibility for families and are providing for extended family members. That is added stress.”
A survey conducted by the Gallup Center on Black Voices “found that Black women are less likely to feel they are treated with respect in the workplace. They are also less likely to feel like a valued member of their team and that their coworkers treat everyone fairly,” Gallup reports.
Additionally Black women are underpaid in the workplace, she says.
According to Payscale, historic racial pay gaps disadvantage Black women earning $0.97 for every dollar earned by a white man with the same job. For white men, median pay was $74,500, and $72,300 for Black women, according to Payscale.
This adds up. In 2019, the Brookings Institute reports, the median white household income was $188,200. That is nearly eight times the wealth of the median Black household at $24,100. White households reported average wealth of $983,400, nearly seven times Black household average wealth at $142,500.
Not only are paychecks smaller, but micro-aggressions are larger and more frequent, Burnett-Zeigler reports.
“There are difficulties for Black women in climbing the ladder, with fewer opportunities for advancement and fewer mentors,” Burnett-Zeigler says. “This creates feelings of isolation and loneliness.” Internalizing the negative comments adds to a compromised sense of self-worth.
Black women ask, “Is something wrong with me? Am I not good enough? This leads to performance anxiety,” Burnett-Zeigler says.
“The Gallup Center on Black Voices finds that only 13% of Black women strongly agree they have access to good jobs in their community, and just over a third say they’re living comfortably on their present income,” Gallup reports. Black women are the least likely to say their organization is fair to everyone, that they have the same opportunities for advancement, with 27% of Black women agreeing to that, compared to 33% of white women.
This affects well-being. Gallup reports, “Black women are the least likely to be classified as having ‘thriving’ well-being, compared with all other racial/ethnic groups.” Forty-seven percent of Black women say they are thriving, compared to 53% white women.
Attending to that stress and making workplace culture fair for Black women, Burnett-Zeigler suggests “finding your tribe that validates you. Use that energy, that power in challenging situations. You may not be able to change the dynamics in the workplace,” but you can lessen the negative impact it has on your health.
Here are additional tips from Burnett-Zeigler for Black women addressing their wellness in the workplace and for leaders to make workplaces fair and inclusive for everyone.
1. Understand the stress of feeling unseen. “Particularly when talking about incidents of the last year, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of how news and trauma affects Black women personally.”
2. Address the lack of support. Company leaders can make shifts and accommodations. “That might be understanding that complex family situations require more flexibility in the workplace.”
3. Allow for authentic selves. “Black women have to portray a good Black woman persona and they do self-monitoring. They can’t be their authentic selves talking about music or TV. Black women have to work on impression management.”
4. Create community with Employee Resource Groups based on demographics. “Have a space that allows people to have content specific to their interests.”
“I think for the most part there is a sincere sense of urgency to do something,” Burnett-Zeigler says about organizations and leaders addressing the inequities in workplace culture. “There is pressure to take a step and there are workshops where a step is taken. But there are broad, deep and complex issues beyond that. Count the steps; it can’t be one and done.”
Leaders of organizations have to put forth “a continuous effort with continuous checks and balances, clear goals outlined and outcomes.”
“It is shifting,” Burnett-Zeigler says. “People are starting to question deeply some of the practices passed down. They have been hurtful to our emotional wellness. Think about self-care, therapy and mental health in a different way.”
She adds, “Think about a new way of being strong. It can mean setting boundaries and getting the help you need. This is not a sign of weakness.”