Being raised a Black woman, “strong” is who you are. Sensitive me didn’t measure up.
Content warning: This article contains racial slurs.
I was in first grade in Vine Grove, Kentucky when a little girl called me a “nigger” for the first time.
My mama had given me $.50 to buy a Coke and candy sticks, and hers had not. Had that little girl asked me for some of my candy, I would have happily shared, but she didn’t. She didn’t ask me for anything. She just got mad at my good fortune and said she didn’t know how that nigger got candy, and that was true — she didn’t.
I didn’t know what that word meant, but I knew it was not nice and made me feel different. When I went home and asked my military father about it, his response was one of indignation. He told my three older brothers and me that if anyone uttered that word to us, we were to to look them square in the face and say, “Kiss this nigger’s ass.”
And there it was: “How To Combat Racism 101,” as instructed by my Army drill sergeant daddy.
Daddy’s directives weren’t good enough for me. I wanted — no, I needed — to understand what was behind this word that made him so angry. I needed to understand why, when I asked him about it, I immediately felt the burn of anger and hurt and pain rise in him and transfer to me.
I was consumed by an unquenchable thirst to know more, more, more, and to understand deeper, deeper, deeper. I think a lot of highly sensitive people (HSPs) are like this — we are the 15 to 20 percent of the population who feel and process information deeply, and that means we see connections that others miss. When we know we’re missing a piece of the puzzle, it drives us nuts.
In that moment, my blackness and high sensitivity made a blood pact that they would never part. And, all these years later, they have not.
Black + Sensitive Is a Heckuva Combo
Growing up, I believed I was just a mess. Daddy, bringing up my large, Black family in small, mostly white towns on the outskirts of military bases, was protective. We went to school together, ate dinner together, did homework together, and went to church together. There was a lot of togetherness, and I felt like I was suffocating.
If I retreated to my room for the “me time” that sensitive-me craved — the alone time that all HSPs need to process their thoughts and feelings — I was labeled as “funny-acting” and “moody,” or mocked as having an undiagnosed psychological problem.
Being raised a Black woman, you are taught that strong isn’t what you have to be, it is what you are. Period. So many times — too many to count — what I felt like on the inside didn’t mirror who I was told I was “supposed to” be.
I spent the greater portion of my 20s and 30s thinking there was something inherently wrong with me. I gravitated toward the role of confidante in my relationships (thanks to my “trustworthy” energy) and absorbed the weight of other’s problems into my own emotional baggage. You see, this is common among HSPs (remember how my daddy’s anger had transferred to me?). In essence, the mental and emotional flooding left me feeling tired and even depressed.
Life — even at its happiest of moments, like weddings, birthday parties, and reunions — felt just a little heavier for me, and trying to keep face as a Black woman and not appear too ghetto/loud/brash/aggressive/passive was exhausting. It felt like carrying a pebble up a mountain every day until the weight felt like a massive boulder at the top, only to roll down the other side of the mountain and do it all over again the next day.
In my late 30s, an exceptional therapist helped me see that there wasn’t something wrong with me. She reframed my intuitive nature and sensitivity as strengths, not paranoia or weakness. She encouraged me to empathize with myself as much as I did with everyone who wasn’t me. It didn’t happen overnight, but she helped me to see my high sensitivity as a superpower.
My Highly Sensitive Black Woman ‘Starter Pack’
Today, I fully embrace all of the nuances that make me me. That’s not to say that it’s easy. Being Black and highly sensitive means not only being fully aware of my blackness, but being even that much more aware of the microaggressions I face day to day.
If you’re unfamiliar with microaggressions, here’s the sensitive Black woman “starter pack”:
- It’s pretending not to feel dismissed when people see my name and rather than even try to pronounce it, they apologize, “Oh, it’s too hard,” or they mispronounce it and shrug it off.
- It’s dreading an invitation to a ’70s-themed birthday party since 1) I know that my husband and I will be the only Black people there, and 2) I know there will be some level of cultural appropriation (think afro wigs and dashikis) that I don’t even want to try to deal with.
- It’s replaying the comment of a soccer mom after she smiles and tells me her family doesn’t see color — and her social worker experience makes her directly in-tune with my Black experience. I ruminate for months on this lost opportunity for her to teach her kids that the world is not one-dimensional, to use sports to illustrate how people of other colors can come together for a common goal.
- It’s mourning — on a visceral level — the deaths of Black people in the news whom I don’t know. Reliving the trauma that sends me into an emotional spiral. Again. And again. And again.
- It’s the exhaustion from watching it all happen to other people, yet somehow also to me.
- It’s a hashtag.
- It’s a protest.
- It’s agonizing over the words to answer the hard questions my teenage daughters ask about race — as honestly, tenderly, and with as much love as I can. Regardless, I lie awake in bed dissecting and overanalyzing my answers on what I could have done better. When my girls are away from home, I obsessively tick off a mental checklist of scenarios we’ve acted out. What you do if you get pulled over. What language to use, if confronted, so you don’t seem like a violent threat.
- It’s so much. So damn much.
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How I Learned to Thrive as a Black Female HSP
To be clear: Being both a Black woman and highly sensitive is the version of myself I would choose every time. I have finally learned to navigate this world and am intentional about giving myself credit for the good things that have resulted from my high sensitivity.
I know how to deeply feel, support, heal, and love. I know how to be a better friend, mother, and wife. I may cry more easily and a little longer over injustices dealt to people I’ve never met; but while some people numb the pain, I embrace it and the lessons it offers.
To prevent myself from becoming too emotionally depleted, I’ve proactively adopted several self-care practices. Prayer, daily meditation, and weekly therapy have been key. I finally understand what healthy boundaries are, and I respect and honor them.
To recharge, I regularly seek out solitude. My favorite escape is to the small, still quiet of my closet, where I sit on the floor with my back against the cabinet and lose myself in the pages of a good book. It’s my place to be alone and take a break from the thoughts swirling in my incessantly working mind.
I also surround myself with trustworthy, solid, reliable friends; they are vital to my survival. Remember that ‘70s party I dreaded? There is something to be said about being able to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I’m nervous about ____, and I’m even more nervous because I’m Black,” and being met with zero judgment.
I called a good friend and told her about my trepidation. Her response was one of love and Let’s figure this out together. She helped me realize that I could go, and if it was a vibe I wasn’t feeling, I could leave. More importantly, she reminded me that I wouldn’t be alone. She would be there with me.
We need our people, and the night of that party I had my person. At any moment I knew I could have looked at her — mid-dance — and said I needed to get out of there, and she would have hopped in an Uber with me. No questions asked.
Instead, surrounded by afro wigs and dashikis, we posed for pictures, danced, and happily shared the edible party favors that the guest of honor had sprinkled on the tables as a throwback to her childhood (and mine): candy sticks. It was a subtle reminder that even through our trials, sometimes there can be a sweet ending.