The guest this episode is Dr. Seanna Leath. Dr. Leath and I have such a wide ranging conversation. We talk about black families, about mental health within the black community, about mothering and how Dr. Leath is currently thinking about that. A lot of her work is inspired by her own journey and because she’s done so much research, she has a lot of resources to share with us, of authors and papers that we can check to learn more about the topic.
The idea of the strong black woman is a common trope within black American culture, and so we spend some time looking at where that comes from and how it can be harmful to women and girls in the community.
Listen to this episode for some ideas of how you can investigate how you are feeling, what areas you are struggling with in terms of self acceptance and what practices and opportunities can you take in order for you to develop your own self acceptance?
Dr. Seanna Leath is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Dr. Leath considers variation in the family and school-based experiences of Black youth and young adults, including how they draw on their race and gender identity beliefs as cultural assets to protect against the negative effects of discrimination on academic and psychological outcomes. Her work focuses on these processes among Black girls and women in particular, and recent projects include topics such as emotional wellness among Black mothers and their daughters, articulations of freedom among Black college women, and how school racial contexts influence Black girls’ friendship choices.
Correction: Sebene Selassie’s Book is called You Belong not You Are Enough as I said in the interview. Also, the quote “the grace of a lady and the grit of a warrior” is by Adams et al. while Cheryl L Woods-Giscombé developed the superwoman schema.
We recorded this episode on April 1, 2021.
Contact and follow Dr. Leath on her site at https://psychology.as.virginia.edu/people/profile/sl4xz.
You can connect with Damianne on the Changes BIG and small website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. You’re also invited to join the Changes BIG and small Facebook community.
Radical self-acceptance involves having to push against narratives. – Seanna LeathTweet
Timeline of the Chat
03:19 – Choosing a Research Area
07:14 – Showing up and Acceptance in Academic Spaces
11:23 – Parenting as a Political Act of Resistance
14:18 – The dangerous archetype of the “strong black woman”
19:03 – Building self acceptance within a culture of unacceptance
27:34 – Beauty as a price
30:49 – Exploring what it means to feel free
34:55 – Raising free black children
37:37 – Invitation/Challenge
41:52 – Fast 5
When do you feel free? – Seanna LeathTweet
- Black Man in a White Coat by Damon Tweedy
- Carrying the World with the Grace of a Lady and the Grit of a Warrior: Deepening Our Understanding of the “Strong Black Woman ” Schema, Abrams et al.
- Gettin’ Grown podcast
- James Baldwin’s books
- Lorraine Hansberry’s books
- Moya Bailey’s website
- Richard Wright’s books
- Salvation: Black People and Love by bell hooks
- Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
- Superwoman schema: African American women’s views on stress, strength, and health, Cheryl L Woods-Giscombé
- The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor
- You Belong by Sebene Selassie
Let them tell you no before you have already told yourself no. – Seanna LeathTweet
Transcript of the Episode
Choosing a Research Area [03:19]
Damianne President: [03:19] I was doing some research into your research, and as I said in the bio, it is focused on black women and black girls and you look at wellness as well as resilience. Did you feel a pull or push to one of these topics in particular, and where did that come from?
Seanna Leath: [03:36] Yeah. So when I first started in graduate school, I went with the idea that I wanted to look at achievement and motivation among black students. And so I’m originally from a small Southern area and I went to public schools that were predominantly black and they didn’t have as many resources. And so you had, you know, the similar narrative of, for instance, black students having lower grades and lower test scores and, you know, not necessarily having college admission rates to the same level of the white students in the school, even though there were so many fewer white students, right? And so initially I was like, Oh, I want to go to grad school and study achievement gap and study why black students aren’t as motivated. That perspective radically shifted in grad school to focus less on this idea of black students’ individual behaviors and to understand much more about context, and understand how schooling systems influence the motivation of black students and the opportunities that we receive and how that can affect other racial and ethnic minoritized groups as well.
And so then when I was reading and learning much more about the literature on black students and how they’re doing in schools, I realized there was less on black girls and less specifically on my experiences as a black girl in these school systems. And so I started thinking more about, you know, what does identity development look like for black men and girls?
A lot of my work has predominantly focused on the U S, the United States of America, and black women and girls in our country, even though more recently that work has looked at more ethnic and national diversity among black women. So I’ve had some samples that have included black woman, Ghanian black women, Rwandan women and that’s definitely expanded how I’m thinking about it.
And I think the wellness piece came in because even as I was doing some of my initial work on academic and school processes, what kept coming up with psychological wellbeing and social wellbeing and how the girls felt connected or felt a sense of belonging or not in school and what lessons they were bringing from home and how important their friends were.
And so then I started getting much more into thinking about how black women and girls are making sense of themselves in the world and in their various contexts, so what they’re told about being a black girl and eventually about the black women they’ll be and how that’s affected by these stereotypes in fact that we have a different groups. And then how some stereotypes trace back and have this historical legacy that’s been passed down for decades and generations. And when you mentioned the resilience piece, part of that is thinking about when do we push back against, I think the common kind of phrasing is like, if they put me in a box about who or what I’m going to be as a black woman, or as a black girl, how do I exist outside of that box? Or how do I decide that doesn’t actually fit my identity and I want to do these other things and where do I find support for that?
And so that’s where a lot of my projects are currently. It’s talking with black women and girls, it’s talking with them about just these various spaces they’re in and, you know, figuring out like, how do you become who you are, in what ways does that feel healthy to you and what ways do you feel whole? And then if you’re not feeling that way, how do you get there, like what changes, you know, do you want to make, or what changes have you implemented in your life, even thinking again, developmentally from the time you’re girl to the time that you’re an adolescent, young adult, and an adult black woman and later life.
Then as you somewhat mentioned, too, I would say a lot of this is probably driven by my own interest and my own life experiences and the stages that I’m at. So more recently I’ve been doing projects around parenting and black mothering and what that means, and I have three little ones at home and one on the way and so that’s heavily inspired by my personal experiences as well.
Showing up and Acceptance in Academic Spaces [07:14]
Damianne President: [07:14] Yeah, there are so many places we could go. But one of the podcasts that I listen to is getting grown and one of the hosts is Tykeia and she talks about being a PhD and being in spaces with colleagues and some of the stereotypes and some of the assumptions that come up in terms of she having to prove her credentials first, before people will take a second look in academic spaces. Is that similar to your own experience?
Seanna Leath: [07:45] Yeah. Oh, as you said so many directions to go with that. So I’m a first-generation students. I’m the first in my family to attend a four year college and to certainly become a doctor. And when I was looking at grad schools, I remember thinking I need to go somewhere where I have mentors who I don’t have to explain the importance of thinking and addressing racism.
I need them to already be doing work with black communities and black families. I don’t want to have to justify being in the space. I need to be able to learn from my mentors. And so I was very blessed. I’ve been formally trained in predominantly white institutions, majority white spaces, but I’ve had black mentors every step of the way who have uplifted me and supported me and guided me and pushed me and challenged me. I even mentioned, you know, having to have this significant paradigm shift from thinking about individuals not being motivated to thinking about our social systems, right? So just again, pushing me to really think about how I’m thinking about black women and girls and black people. But yes, so I wrote a blog piece a couple of years ago when a doctoral student about being a mom and being low income and being poor and being on WIC, which is like a state and federal program to support lower income mothers and children with like food, and being stereotype very negatively when I was in the WIC offices, for instance, and needing to get the formula and they offered some food assistance and the staff there making comments or assumptions about whether the father was involved and how many children I had at home, and the shift that would occur in some of these situations, when I would mention what I did. They’d be like, Oh, well, you’re highly educated, like, why are you here? And I’m like, well, I’m here because graduate student stipends only go so far and we do not have good social support networks in general in the United States for most communities.
And then kind of juxtaposing that with my experience as a doctoral student in my program where assumptions like I was intelligent, especially in my labs and with my mentors right there. They did not question whether I was smart or whether I was capable or competent and my mothering was seen as a beautiful thing, a strength that I had. And so thinking about what it means to be a black woman in different spaces and how that’s also influenced by social class. But then I know again, when I was just on campus, for instance, there were positive assumptions about why I was there, that I was a graduate student, or even now I’m relatively young, I’m 29 going 30 this year. Yay. But a lot of folks don’t necessarily think that I’m a professor or that I’ve been in the professional area for a couple of years or that I’m getting external grants and doing as well as I am in my career.
As I moved into this new position, It’s really thinking about how much time am I willing to devote to challenging others’ negative views, or how much time am I willing to devote to paying so much attention to how I’m dressing or how I’m speaking, if I know that my ideas are important, and I know that I’m out here doing this work and I’m out here doing good work. And I think that it mattered to me more, you know, when I was younger, when I felt like I needed to prove something, but I even think about it when I’m talking to my kids.
I understand the importance and the message behind this idea of you have to be twice as good to get half as far, but I don’t want to be the source of that weight on them. I don’t want that to be a primary socialization message in our household because I think it can be harmful. Although I also recognize why black parents and why other parents stayed in terms of wanting to set their kids up for success in education and jobs and in life. Because there are still, there’s a lot of racism and sexism and classism. But really thinking about how come my parenting be political and how can it be liberatory and how can I also grace myself with that space to be human and to exist as I am, and to be confident and showing up in the world and those ways. So it’s an ongoing journey.
Parenting as a Political Act of Resistance [11:23]
Damianne President: [11:23] I can see that there are many tendrils too, in terms of your own journey, but then setting up your kids for success and helping them develop that confidence, resilience and other skills that will serve them well, all through life.
Seanna Leath: [11:38] It’s so interesting because I think early on and I still use it cause it’s commonly used in psychological literature, for instance, the resilience framework or the importance of for instance, black students, and we can get into the strong black woman stereotype specifically for black women and girls.
But more recently I’ve been talking about resistance. The flip side of that coin is that black folks or black women shouldn’t have to be resilient. These spaces should be safer and they should be more inclusive and they should address, for instance, you know, I know with the recent Atlanta shootings in the United States, down in Georgia, talking about anti-Asian discrimination and anti-Asian bias and how we need to make communities safer. Asian-Americans shouldn’t have to be resilient against gun violence. Or black children shouldn’t have to be resilient in schools because they have discriminatory teachers.
So again, thinking, okay, I know the importance of resilience and like being able to push pass or have academic motivation or persistence, or to be able to get back up when someone pushes you down. But also, and thinking about like anti-racist work or liberatory work, the next day, just saying, no, these structures have to change. I should be safe in my neighborhood. I should be safe if a police officer shows up. I should be safe in my work place and assume that my bosses are looking at the work that I’m producing and not having all these negative assumptions.
And so a bit more of my work now is talking about resistance and and recognizing the ways that black communities and black women have historically, and currently, always been resisting oppression and resisting being put in these boxes and resisting this notion or trying to that they are less than anyone. And so that has been fun to tease out and to be reading works and rereading works for instance, from scholars I read and undergrad and having a different understanding and appreciation for it.
Damianne President: [13:22] I have a book club and we’ve been trying to read books that are more mind expanding, I guess. And our last session, we each chose whatever we wanted to read and came back and talked, but we wanted to look at discrimination and inequality within medicine and within the medical field.
I have one book still checked out Superior to read from a UK author. But what I did read in the meantime was the book Black Man in a White Coat, which is by a black doctor. And he explains his experience of going to Duke for medical school. You’re from the South so this will make much more sense to you than it does to me, but he shares a lot of his own experiences of basically he wanted to just, he didn’t want any special observation, any special treatment.
The dangerous archetype of the “strong black woman” [14:18]
He didn’t want to have to point out anybody’s biases or any of that. He just wanted to be able to be in this space and be a doctor and do his job. But it was very interesting to me because even though he grew up in black communities, he seemed to speak the language of oppression as well. And so he spoke about how he only learned once he was a doctor that black people or people didn’t just not have insurance because they didn’t have a job. They didn’t have medical insurance because they had many jobs and none of those jobs provided medical insurance and there was no support structure for people.
It was so interesting to me, and as you talk about that resistance versus resilience piece, it kind of reminded me of this whole idea of yes, people survive. People get back up, they manage in what sometimes looks like impossible odds, but at what point are you just like, okay, stop knocking me down. Even though I know I can get up, stop knocking me down.
Seanna Leath: [15:29] Exactly. It goes back to the work twice as hard to get half as far kind of ethic, but it’s flipping it on its head and saying like, In fact, we are putting out such good work. We are getting back up so many times from things that we shouldn’t even have to be dealing with. And what toll does that take?
Tony Morrison, who’s one of my favorite authors, and there’ve been others too, who talk about racism as a distraction from the important work that we’re doing, when we’re spending so much time continuing with stereotypes or wondering how our words are being construed or how our actions and behaviors are being judged by others.
It’s a distraction from the important work, for instance, you know, in my work with black women and girls, that I want to do. And I think the grain is in the example that you just offered to is we can also have these beliefs in our head about, Oh, it’s just because they’re not willing to work for instance, with that doctor versus recognizing the inequality in the health care system and how you can be working several part-time jobs and how companies can hire you for fewer hours than when they actually have to provide insurance, and that insurance can be incredibly expensive and kind of having more of that deficit based view of individuals and how hard they’re working to survive versus saying like, Oh, we could overhaul the system and this could be a big change that could have quite an impact on so many folks in the US, for instance, or in other spaces.
And I think that that’s been something like, even with the strength narrative for black women complicating how I think about it. You mentioned in your email, you were like, Oh, I used to take like, Oh, you’re such a strong black woman as a compliment. And I did too. And it’s kind of, even when I talked to women and black women in college, it’s this legacy that they want to step into. They mention, I want to be a strong black woman, like my aunt, or like my mom, or like my grandma. And I think that’s beautiful, right? I love when I asked them about who are their role models? And they mentioned mom and grandma and auntie and Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and all these beautiful black woman.
But when they talk about strength I had a follow-up question, where I just asked, were there ever times when it seemed to be too much for your mom or whoever they mentioned to be strong? And some of them would say, Mrs. I just, I just love, love doing interviews in my research, and some of them would say, I never saw my mom cry. That was a common response. Like, no, I never saw that break in the strength veneer. And some of them would say that that was true while they were children. And then when they were older that they’d seen their mom or their grandma have breakdowns, for instance. Or they would say like, Oh, they’re just a couple of times a year, she just wouldn’t get out of bed for a day or two or a weekend, but then come Monday, she was back up and going.
And then there were a number of who their moms are nurses are in different fields and they were like, yeah, we talked about mental health. And we talked about, you know, not having to be strong all the time. There were fewer of those young women saying that, but there were some. I don’t want to pretend that all black women or black mothers or black grandmas don’t talk about the importance of taking care of yourself because we certainly do. But I think the resounding message was this, and I’m writing about it now, this notion of having to always overcome adversity and wanting to present that image of strength based on how their daughters were interpreting it, wanting to present that image of strength for their daughters. And then their daughters looking up to it and thinking like I’m going to be a strong black woman one day. And for me that means that I’ll take care of my family and, or my career and, or my community with, as Cheryl Giscombé writes with “the grit and the grace of a warrior”.
And so I think that’s beautiful and it’s also this double-edged sword. And I think that folks are doing a much better job of talking more about the double edge nature of what the Black woman stereotype means and the day-to-day context and our lived experiences and our stress.
Building self acceptance within a culture of unacceptance [19:03]
Damianne President: [19:03] I’m thinking about the phrase where can I lay down my burden or something like that. And I think it’s definitely also there in the history of that recognition that sometimes it does get to be too much. But at the same time, you still, at some point got to lift it back up and soldier on if nobody’s there to help you. And I think a lot of people either don’t see people around to help, or sometimes we don’t even give people a chance to help because we don’t trust that there is that opportunity. I’m also wondering how does it relate come back and relate to self acceptance. What’s the link that you see there either for yourself or more broadly?
Seanna Leath: [19:43] Yeah, I read something that resonated quite a bit with me and it said that we need more culturally competent clinicians and social service workers. For one thing, black women and girls who are experiencing anxiety or depression might feel like failures, that understanding strength and the strong black woman as a cultural archetype means that for us, if we feel like we’re not doing enough in our lives, or enough is not perfect enough, we might recognize that as us being failures versus recognizing like, Oh, that could be symptomatic of anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges that are happening. Or for instance recognizing that this kind of supreme independence of like, I’ve got to take care of it all on my own can be a trauma response and being able to have conversations with black women or black girls, for instance, where if you don’t feel like there have been enough folks in your life who can offer support or reliable support, and you kind of grown up with this narrative, like I’m going to handle everything, that that is in fact not healthy.
There needs to be boundaries where you are taking care of yourself and where others can show up for you and you understand where folks can show up for you. But again, this reframing of being like something that has been praised, this notion of me getting back up again and figuring it out for myself, in fact, being maladaptive coping and something that over the long-term can negatively impact my stress and my wellness and have somatic affects.
Thinking about my blood pressure and hypertension and how we carry stress and our bodies. And then, you know, we mentioned briefly kind of the medical field thinking about the under-diagnosis or misdiagnosis of black women and black people for that matter within healthcare institutions in the U S and I would say that this probably exists in other countries as well, even if it has different manifestations where, you know, doctors are less likely to believe that we are in pain or less likely to think that we need the same types of medication or the same care.
There’s a scholar, her name is Moya Bailey, and she termed it back in 2013, misogynoir. We talk about anti-black misogyny or the ways that racism and sexism are set to harm the health of black women and girls. And so that term is taking off a bit. It came up in the conversations around Meghan Markle and it comes up in conversations around Serena Williams when she was delivering her daughter and she told them I have blood clots, I’m a professional athlete. She has all this money so social class isn’t an issue and they weren’t listening to her and trying to treat it for something else. And she almost died after giving birth. So again, thinking about the intersections of racism and sexism and classism, about black women and girls and their wellbeing.
Damianne President: [22:20] I’ve been curious about the interplay between self acceptance and isolation, but we don’t exist in isolation; we always exist within communities and families and circles. And I’ve been wondering how easy it is or how complicated is it to develop any self acceptance within a greater framework that judges and pushes and punishes.
Seanna Leath: [22:46] I love that and you asked that question before and then I forgot about the self-acceptance piece so thank you for bringing that back up. I don’t know if you saw the recent video by Lil NAS X. I might be saying his name wrong, but he’s a rapper based in the U S and
Damianne President: [22:59] The satan video?
Seanna Leath: [23:01] Yeah, the satan … we can call it the Satan video. He had the shoes with supposedly blood, this whole thing. I haven’t fully watched the video, but I’ve loved his posts since then. And I’ve loved the conversation this sparked, because part of what he said was, you know, the message that in the religious communities he was in, being black and being gay was demonized. And he was told he was going to go to hell. And so he chose, you know, to kind of reclaim that narrative and he made this whole video, this artistic representation and kind of called out the church and called out the homophobia. And so when you mentioned self-acceptance I think of that to say I love when I see black folks radically accepting themselves.
And then I think that so often when you mentioned kind of in this broader framework, that radical self-acceptance involves having to push against narratives. It involves having to kind of go through the fire and come out on the other side. I’m reading Salvation: Black People and Love again by bell hooks, and she talks about the importance of this love ethic and how, for instance, Richard Wright, way back in the day, said that black folks were incapable of authentic love because of white supremacy and because of racism, that so much had been taken from us that we were incapable of loving ourselves or loving others. And in the book, she talks about how James Baldwin, for instance, and Lorraine Hansberry and others challenged that and said no. In fact, there is so much joy and self-acceptance and love within black communities and it is from that resilience and resistance that that’s born.
There’s this book by Sonya Renee Taylor, that you might be interested in, and it talks about radical self love. She’s a black, queer, fat, self identifying fat black woman, and she talks about her journey and how it took rejecting these narratives about what her body should look like or how she should show up in the world to get towards this radical self-love, which involves being open with others, and I think she’s like nearly naked on the cover. She’s like laying on a bed of flowers and it even kind of reminds me like for black women and girls, the importance of seeing us rest and the importance of seeing this happy.
I saw these photos the other day, they were like black woman doing brunch on blankets with like tea, and they would just be elaborate food, you know, all these things. It was just frivolous and they were just doing brunch. And I just appreciate those images and those reminders so much, and even to be able to show them to my kids, that self-acceptance hopefully will also involve this, this joy in who we are and finding the things and make us happy. And also being quicker to recognize when a space is unhealthy and leaving it, if we can. And the space could be relationship, a space could be in our own minds about how we think about ourselves and how we talk to ourselves. It could be family members or folks we consider friends. It could be work. It could be media; social media is huge.
Thinking or talking with black girls, scholars have called it kind of having this critical gaze of saying like, Oh, this is what media is telling me I am or who I should be, or how black women and girls are, but I know that’s not true. Or I know there’s more to that story, or I know it’s fine for Meg the stallion and Nicki Minaj and whoever to be out there shaking their bodies and dancing the way they want to and wearing what they want to. And I’m going to take what feels good for me and my own journey to self-acceptance and leave what doesn’t. I’m constantly kind of piecing that together for myself and piecing it together, hopefully for my kids and how I talk with them and love on them and respond to them even with things as small as what they’re wearing or their hair or what they want to do. And just working towards it.
So even like with my daughter, when I was growing up and I’m biracial, my mom is white, my dad’s black and I wasn’t allowed to go out with my hair looking just any type of way. My mom would tell me I look like Don King. It’s braided now, but you know, it was free out there, so being so conscious, right, like when I was going out in it and my hair is not brushed back or it’s not with a headband or something. And my daughter has beautiful curly hair; she doesn’t like getting hidden all the time. But she’s seven and unbothered. And so if she wants to go outside and play with her friends and I just took her braids down and I don’t need to do her hair today, not saying like, Oh, but look what your hair looks like, like, Oh, you look a mess. Just being like, Hey, have fun, look out for cars, love you, and letting her go. I don’t want to be that voice in her head that makes her second guess herself. So small reminders even like that.
Damianne President: [27:09] I love that. I have much younger sisters and one of them is 17 and I was joking with her and telling her that a few years back when I went to visit in Canada, we were going to town and she had her hair back in cornrows, and one of them was like shooting straight back.
And I was like do you want me to tuck it in for you? And she’s like, no, I don’t care. And I was like, all right. And I was like, I love to see it. I love to see that confidence.
Beauty as a price [27:34]
Seanna Leath: [27:34] Pretty is not the price we pay to go out in the world. So, yeah, it’s just that not having again that second guess where it’s like, and it’s fine. If you do; there is nothing wrong wanting to have the style from the head to toe; that is also wonderful. But we’re more accepting of folks depending on how they look.
Damianne President: [27:53] I remember the first time I cut all my hair off. I was in university and. I was just like, why am I spending so much time to in my hair? I could just cut it all off and life would be so great. And I loved it, but everybody else did not love it. And they were just like, your hair is your beauty, the Caribbean background, that was all the messaging. And even now, I still love it but every once in a while I’m like, Oh, maybe I should grow my hair. I still have those urges and I know they’re not coming from my true self, I know they’re coming from representations of what other people say it means to be a woman.
Seanna Leath: [28:31] Exactly, and there’s so much control in that. And we think about like how we socialize gender and how we socialize women or female bodied people. So much of it is around what others think of you or what others value in women. There was one black woman I was talking to and she mentioned that when she was like 10- I think the other important thing is how long these comments can stay with us- so she was like 10. I’m talking to her and she’s like 22 and she says that she fell from her bike, she was out bike riding, skinned her knee and her dad told her that she needed to stop bike riding because her future husband won’t want a woman with skiinned knees.
Damianne President: [29:05] Are you kidding me?
Seanna Leath: [29:08] is a dad who she loves now. And she’s like, he’s a good dad, but that comment stayed with her into her twenties. And she’s like, he was more worried about how my legs looked for this future male partner than he was about the blood running down my leg. And I think, again, when I’m talking to them, I’m just like perfect example of how we often socialize women and girls to think about their male partners in the future, or to think about marriage or their kids. And a lot of the black women in my sample, the black college women, they were kind of pushing back against some of that, where they were like I’m more than the roles that I’m taking on for other people.
And so when you mentioned it’s more the voices in your head from others than your own voice about cutting your hair and whether you want to grow it out, it’s great being able to name that. I had a friend who mentioned that the first thought that comes to our mind sometimes is how we’ve been socialized, what society has told us. And hopefully we have this second thought we say, okay, now what do I think about that or I know that’s wrong. And then we adjust our behaviors accordingly. Maybe we can’t help that first off it pops up because we’ve got these messages over and over. But that second thought that can affect how we operate in the world and how we show up for people and love on people, that’s really critical. And I appreciated that because there are plenty of times when I hear my mom and my grandma, whoever, some random person in the store making comments about me, or I remember we would ride in the car.
I was like 12 and I was riding my mom, she’s white, and they were Black folks too; they yelled out the back of their truck, called us the N word and some other stuff like N lover and all this. And it was jarring for a number of reasons. But then having to rethink the self-consciousness around being out with my mom, or something being wrong with interracial relationships.
Exploring what it means to feel free [30:49]
When I’ve been talking to black women more recently, I asked them the question, when do you feel free? And we’re thinking more about self-acceptance and it’s been riveting to me, how often some of them have been like free, I’ve never thought of that before. What does that mean? The direction, some of my work is heading, where it’s like radical self-acceptance for black women and girls, folks in general, but that’s what my work focuses on, is thinking about freedom. And thinking about what do I want, what feels good to me, thinking about and desires and what we want to do. That’s a privilege than not many or not all black women and girls have .
When you mentioned traveling, I was like, I love it. You’re out there traveling the world and I love to see it. I love to see more black men and girls saying this feels good to me, I liked this, I enjoyed this, I am doing this, and taking that for themselves.
Damianne President: [31:40] One of the previous guests on the podcast is Sebene Selassie and she’s a meditation teacher. She has a book called You Are Enough. When I talked to her, she talked about how she’s in lots of different meditation communities, but she’s been involved in retreats with people of color only and until she went to her first one, she didn’t realize how on edge she was. She has all of these spaces, all of those people that she loves that are not people of color, but still just being in that space that time she realized that there was a way to relax with everybody choosing to be there that she had never experienced before.
And I just thought that was so incredible because I then thought back to what you ask, where do you feel free? I think that’s such a great question that can really help us connect to being able to access that opportunity.
Seanna Leath: [32:38] I read something. I can’t remember what it was but it was from a young woman and she said that it was such a mind shift for her to realize that she could leave a situation. And I think she’d said her parents told her if you’re ever uncomfortable, call us and you can leave. I think actually it was her mom specifically; I think that it was her mom that told her that.
There was a time when she was a child, she was at a slumber party and she was no longer comfortable. She called her mom and she was worried that she was inconveniencing her mom or would make her friends feel sad, but her mom immediately came and picked her up and she left. And she said it was so important for her to learn from a young age and to see it modeled that she would still be loved and she had the ability and the right to leave spaces that weren’t serving her and did not feel good to her.
Maybe she went to the summer party, she was excited, but something happened and she said, I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t feel okay. When I think about that for my sons and my daughter, I think that is something that we can give to children. And I think that that wasn’t necessarily something that I was explicitly taught or modeled as a child. And so then as an adult, having to learn like, Oh, I don’t want to be in this space anymore; actually, this doesn’t feel good. Or when I’m in conversation with this person or this space, I’m really tense and I’m stiff and I’m watching everything that I’m saying and being like, Ooh, is there a way for me to not be in this space anymore? Sometimes that’s not an option, but even being able to recognize it.
And when it is an option to say like, okay, I’m going to honor myself and my experience and know that this is important for my journey to be in spaces where I’m not sensing like, and I don’t have to be there. And I think, again, socialized as a black girl and as a black woman and a lot of the expectations that we just soldier through whether we’re uncomfortable or not, or whether folks are being harmful or not, we stay. And so I love the idea of giving my children the freedom to say I don’t want to be here anymore.
Damianne President: [34:27] Yeah,
Seanna Leath: [34:28] As their mama helping get out of this, then just model that, to where they can have that kind of authentic voice in their head as they get older to learn to do that for themselves.
Damianne President: [34:39] That’s such a big thing that comes up in families too, because for example, in some Caribbean cultures that can be seen as being disrespectful. And so it’s, I think there’s a lot of space growth within the community.
Raising free black children [34:55]
Seanna Leath: [34:55] One of our papers in the lab that’s under review, now we asked the question of black moms and again, they were ethnically more socioeconomically diverse, but they were all based in the US, what does it mean to raise free black children? And then we analyze their responses and this notion of disrespect and socio-emotional development came up quite a bit.
And a lot of it was the mothers talking about having to unpack their own biases and their expectations that they had for their children and recognize what it meant to be raising little people and not raising little versions of themselves and checking their own emotional responses. So my child said no to me, or they don’t want to do something.
And I’m just like, I’m immediately angry, man. We’re like, where did that anger come from? Is it from a place of love? Is this something that actually, maybe they don’t want to do that right now and that’s okay. And we can modify our schedule or I can go do it if I ask them to give me the remote, because when I don’t want something, I tell them. So again, kind of this mutual respect and what that means as you’re raising kids.
And yeah, as I’m talking to the black woman and the college sample that I have, disrespect comes up a lot and what it means for them to say no, and what’s okay in their family. And I think the other important part of that when you were mentioned kind of the self-acceptance on our own versus, but we’re in community, like, yes, we can be are on our own, but we’re in relation to others is then not wanting to sever tie with their families and them loving their parents and wanting to be respectful of their elders and all these things.
And so negotiating these tensions, it’s like, I don’t want to do this. In fact, I don’t plan to get married. Marriage comes up a lot cause they’re like 21, 22. They’re about to finish their degrees. Child-rearing comes up a lot and being like, what does this mean for me? Can I say no, can I do this other path?
Part of the important that came up, which I really appreciated, was the importance of other black women friends in their lives who like were giving them permission. Like maybe at that point in their life, they didn’t feel secure enough to give themselves permission. They, Oh, mom and dad, I’m not going to major in engineering, I’m actually going to go and be like a sociologist or a creative writing major. But there are other black women friends in particular being like Holly, that’s your pathway. You’re so talented, you’re creative, you’re working hard. You’ll figure it out. And again, there was uniqueness in those friendships of other black women that they weren’t getting even from like black male friends, a lot of times, or from women.
For instance, all these women attended white, predominantly white institutions. And so they said, you know when I’m with white women, I’m reminded that I’m black. When I’m with black men, I’m reminded that I’m a woman, but black female friends, they understood their experiences in many ways that that were more resonant and kind of sit with their soul when we’re very affirmative and helpful as though. So, yeah, you’re right, it’s a lot of negotiation.
Damianne President: [37:38] As we think about mental health and wellness, resilience, resistance, all of those things, do you have an invitation for listeners of something that they could do, some practice, some experience that they could do to help with this area?
Seanna Leath: [37:56] If you have access to resources, one is being willing to look into a mental health counselor or to look into if there are free options in your community. I’m in a group counseling session for black women that’s completely free and I love that space. It used to be weekly, but with COVID now it’s biweekly. So every two weeks I’m on Zoom and we’re just chatting it up. And I really love that. There’s also some groups in the area that are focused on exercise, which for me, my exercise and my physical health is very much so tied to my mental health and my emotional wellbeing. And so just being able to get out there with other women of color and walk down some blocks, you know, once a month. I exercise a little bit more than that, but that is really fun and I look forward to it.
So if you’re interested and you feel a stigma around actually looking for resources or spaces, try to get past that and actually see if there’s anything offered. Sometimes there’s not, and that’s really challenging and an issue that I think really is true for black communities and lower income communities and immigrant communities as well.
I would also offer though, like beyond those actual resources, thinking about self-acceptance, to think about where you’re at in your journey yourself. Those can be really hard conversations to have with yourself, like where do I not actually accept who I am? What do I feel uncomfortable about even bringing up or thinking about? What makes me feel tense or tight in my chest? And see what that, maybe with that tenseness, that tightness and think about how can you loosen it? Is there somebody I need to talk to, not in terms of professionally, maybe I need to have this really hard conversation with my mom about this thing that happened when I was a child and can that happen?
And I think that, again, this has come up quite a bit for me in my parenting journey, where I have to think about what triggers come up for me. What happens when I see it in my child or when something out there that maybe I hadn’t acknowledged before. A lot of my journey to self-acceptance and thinking about my wellbeing has been recognizing where I’m at, planning out where do I want to go, what does that look like for me, even as simple as again, I’m wearing something maybe I felt uncomfortable with it before and realizing like I do like it so I do want to start wearing it out and just loving it, or something as big as like maybe this job isn’t a good fit for me and so what plans can I put in place to actually leave this job in two, three, five years. It could be big but feeling as much ownership and control over that as I can.
I mentioned this already a little bit but like feeling your feelings. I think sometimes strength and this notion of invulnerability, particularly for black girls and women, it can seem useful in the moment, but it can mask being able to acknowledge that someone hurt you or that you were angry or that you were upset or that you were embarrassed. And being able to sit with those mixed emotions and be like, okay, now what, where am I going with this? I wrote a blog piece about my daughter, where sometimes when anger comes out, the more important thing I want her to recognize is that I hurt her in some way or that she is hurting. And so I think for black women in particular, that can be important because maybe we’re not given a lot of space for our pain. And so that’s a critical starting point to be able to acknowledge like I’m hurting for this, this, or this reason. So I think that is what I would offer. And then also feeling hopeful.
I love this question I got they asked for a research interview, like what am I feeling hopeful about? And I love that. And so I’ll even kind of say here I love reading fictional works and nonfiction works by black woman and by black authors. I love seeing entertainment stuff like with Lil NAS X, these artistic representation that kind of push us or remind us of maybe some things that came out in the sixties and seventies during our parents’ time. I love seeing black children out there just being and free and just being, and laughing and enjoying themselves. And so I think those things make me hopeful. And I hold onto them deeply in my spirit, as I think about my own well-being.
Fast Five [41:52]
Damianne President: [41:52] Wonderful. Can I ask you a quick five?
If you have a meeting coming up within 12 hours, what are you doing to prepare?
Seanna Leath: [42:00] So it depends on the nature of the meeting. If I’m meeting with students and I’m kind of like the leader in that space, a lot of times I think about, let’s make sure I’m checking in with folks personally, as well as professionally so that they know I care about how they’re doing as well as like how our projects are moving forward. And I think that’s a really important part of just mentorship. So the preparation when I’m kind of in the lead role is thinking about how do I show care for the folks who I’m meeting with and also be productive in that space. And that changes sometimes.
When the pandemic was first hitting and again, when like George Floyd was happening, that care kind of took precedence over maybe some of the assignments and things that I had, or the agenda items I’d set for those meetings because folks were hurting and we need to acknowledge and recognize, and I want it to be a person who acknowledges and recognizes when things are happening that can be harmful.
When I am preparing for a meeting like with my boss, then it much the same way I kind of think I usually have agenda items and I’m thinking about, okay, what do I hope to get accomplished? What questions do I have? Are there some important, like milestones that I want to highlight in that meeting?
If it’s a conference or something with professionals, it depends on the conference again, I guess. So apparently I’m a very context specific person. have done conferences. It ‘m always liike it depends, but I love, for instance, I went to one that was for black folks in higher education and just being in that space, there was actually the research that I was presenting on, but then there were the social aspects. And so my preparation for a meeting like that is like, Ooh, what fun am I going to have and what friends am I going to connect with and what colleagues have and wanting to meet.
And so I guess maybe the overlapping thread in all of these is me thinking about what personally can I gain from whatever meeting is about to happen even if that personal gain is just getting to check in with the colleagues that I care about and hearing something good that happened in their day. And then professionally, like, what does this look like? What do I want to share, what assistance or support do I need that I identified, and then what are next steps, like always thinking forward. So after this meeting, what then am I doing? What are others doing for and with me and planning for that and making it very concrete so everyone is clear on our goals and mission.
Damianne President: [44:04] Do you have a phrase, one sentence pep talk that you give yourself for motivation.
Seanna Leath: [44:10] I honestly don’t think so. I did not. Hmm okay. Actually, that’s not true. So I think one of the things I struggle with with the self-acceptance piece or with kind of going to the next level is this notion of disappointing people or being told no, or not going the way I planned. And so I guess maybe my mantra sometimes when I’m feeling that discomfort is literally like the worst they can say is no.
So I do actually tell myself the worst they can say is no if I’m worried about what someone might say. So then I’ll be like, okay, so if they say no, and then what does that mean? So I guess that it’s not necessarily empowering, but it reminds me like, don’t limit myself. Let them tell you no before you have already told yourself no.
Damianne President: [44:52] Okay, so where do you live now, and if you have guests, what’s the first thing you show them, or the first place you take them to?
Seanna Leath: [44:59] I live in Charlottesville, Virginia in a suburb. If I have guests that come into town and I have kids, I have three kids at home, I probably would take them, and we’ve only lived here since the pandemic happened. We have really good hiking trails and there’s mountains and things. We live near Shenandoah, which is one of the big natural parks, like national parks in the US. I’ve been wanting to go to Shenandoah Valley and walk some of those trails and see the mountain so in theory, that’s where I would go.
Damianne President: [45:25] What’s the thing that’s guaranteed to increase your energy and recharge you.
Seanna Leath: [45:30] Besides coffee, no sleep, sun. Sometimes, I will just go and I will sit. My husband makes fun of me; he’s like are you sunbathing, recharging in the sun? You I am. I’m sitting out here cause I’m overwhelmed or I’m tired or whatever. And I’m just gonna soak it up. My windows are even open now so I can get a little bit of this vitamin D coming in.
You only asked me one thing, but reading also recharges me. So, when I have just time to sit and read something that I’ve been excited about, I love it. I come downstairs, so, so, so excited and so hyped up reading other folks words and thoughts, so yeah.
Damianne President: [46:04] Actually that connects right to my next question, because you’ve just been given the gift of time. Somebody is taking care of your kids and you have a free day. What are you doing with it?
Seanna Leath: [46:13] First, I’m probably like spending what I would call wasting an hour, trying to figure out what to do with the free time, because it happens so rarely. Then I’m planning out at least two places that I want to eat that day even if it’s just Boba tea, like getting something to go because I love food so that I just have to buy myself food, not the whole house, what? I’m probably reading again cause I read for work and so reading for pleasure is something that I have to be intentional about and I usually only get to read at bedtime. And if the weather is good, I’m going to be outdoors, like I’m going to go for a walk, going for a run, something. I’m going to reconnect with friends.
And so that doesn’t sound very exciting, but those are …
Damianne President: [46:51] Hey, it is not too different than my list. Not judge. You’ve been so generous with your time Dr. Leath. Thank for chatting with me.
Seanna Leath: [47:06] Thanks for inviting me. I hope you have a great today’s Thursday. Yesterday I wished somebody had happy Thursday and I was like a dead head, but they’ll be a great rest of your week.
Damianne President: [47:14] You too.
If they put me in a box about who or what I’m going to be as a black woman, or as a black girl, how do I exist outside of that box? – Seanna LeathTweet
Pretty is not the price we pay to go out in the world. – Seanna LeathTweet
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