Black women and women of color need to reclaim their power. This is a way to start.

By Jess Sims
August 04, 2020
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"No" is a complete sentence—that's what Oprah says at least, but I only just learned that important life lesson for myself a few years ago. Before I learned the power behind that word, I spent so much time being afraid of saying no; I didn't want to be seen as the problematic Black girl, or someone who was lazy or unable to keep up with her peers. But in always saying yes to keep up appearances for others, I was actually doing damage to my own mental health—that's according to the Mayo Clinic, which says the overcommitment aspect of always agreeing to everything can put our bodies under too much stress, making us more susceptible to illness or just feeling exhausted all the time.

Women in general are more likely to feel pressured against saying no, simply because we're hardwired to be agreeable. In The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It—And Mean It—And Stop People-Pleasing Forever, by social psychologist Susan Newman, PhD, she breaks down one of the reasons women especially have a hard time saying no: We want to be liked and we don’t want to appear selfish or uncaring. But for women of color in particular, there are also power dynamics at play. "There's a connection [of BIPOC women's] hindered ability to say no because of financial constraints," Tichianaa Armah, MD, Medical Director and Vice President of Behavioral Health at Community Health Center, Inc., tells Health. That's "because Black women and many BIPOC women do not have the cushion that comes with intergenerational wealth or assets that many white women have."

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Clearly, women—especially Black women and other women of color—need to reclaim their power, learn to set boundaries, and turn away people, places, and things that don't serve us by learning to say no. But, because it's not an easy thing to do, it's hard to know how to start. Here, four BIPOC women in the health and wellness field reveal why they practice saying no as often as possible, and how doing so has enriched their lives.

"One of the most powerful self-care practices is protecting your time"

As the co-founder and CEO of Golde, a health and beauty brand powered by superfoods, Trinity Mouzon Wofford is a busy woman. The health and wellness entrepreneur is an advocate of using the word no to make sure you have enough time for yourself. “One of the most powerful self-care practices is protecting your time," she says. "You have to say no to anything that’s not serving you, or risk feeling like you’re drowning in it all.”

But Mouzon Wofford doesn’t just view saying no as self care—it also allows her to learn to put herself first. "Learning to say no allows you to prioritize yourself over others requests. It’s essential for mental health." Other essentials for mental health—especially for women of color—according to Mouzon Wofford? Remembering to be kind to yourself, even when times are tough. "It's okay to have joy even in dark times. Take breaks, and remember that the weight of the world does not rest solely on your shoulders.”

"I trust other opportunities will come my way"

Rachel Ricketts, a racial justice educator, spiritual activist, and public speaker, is constantly doing the work to help the BIPOC community to heal from internalized trauma and challenge white supremacy—and saying no is a huge part of that. "Saying no is a critical boundary-setting practice for [both cisgender and transgender] women, especially Black and Indigenous women," she says, adding that saying no isn't just a word, it's a practice.

Ricketts says Black women can especially benefit from this practice. "Black women are expected to work harder, longer, and better than everybody else for less pay and less respect," she says. "Saying no allows us to prioritize ourselves rather than prioritizing everyone else, as we have been socialized to do." And she practices what she preaches: "I recently declined a huge business opportunity, but I know that rest is vital for my emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being," she says. To that end, Ricketts doesn't stress over those opportunities she says no to, either. "I trust other opportunities will come my way, including some that would not open up to me or for which I would be too sick or burned out for, had I not carved out dedicated time to rest."

“Saying no means we are paving a way for our true essence to finally shine bright and free”

Prior to becoming a sustainable lifestyle influencer and eco-activist, Valeria Hinojosa was a private banker—but the industry didn't align with her values or passions, so she left her career. "It was this disconnection with my soul that pushed me to leave banking behind and recreate myself," she says.

From there, Hinojosa's platform, Water Thru Skin, was born, and her journey has helped her unlearn some cultural ideologies that made saying no difficult. “As a Latina, I was raised in a society where women are programmed to say yes to family, events, careers, friends and lifestyles.” Hinojosa realizes that saying no is never an easy thing to do, but over time it can lead to freedom and self love. "Saying no means we are paving a way for our true essence to finally shine bright and free," she says. 

“When Black women say no, we are prioritizing ourselves and repairing the harm of inherited trauma”

Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD, a Peloton yoga and meditation instructor, global Lululemon ambassador, and founder of Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art wears a lot of hats—and she attributes her success to having the agency to say no, a right her ancestors fought for. "Historically, African American women have been denied the right to say no when it comes to the agency we have over our bodies," she says. "When Black women and other people who have been denied the right to say no make the decision to make their boundaries clear and say no, we are prioritizing ourselves and repairing the harm of inherited trauma.” 

Jackson Roberts's past experiences have taught her, no comes from a place of love—and feeling forced to say yes does not. “It is in the experiences when I have said yes and I really wanted to say no, that I typically find myself resentful, tired, and frustrated. These feelings take me further away from love.”

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