For Black Girls Who Think They Can't Ask For Help

I hear it all the time, “I didn’t want to burden people with my problems” or “If I asked for help, they would judge me and they already do because I am a Black woman”. These statements are usually the precursor to conversations I have with my girlfriends after they have either a major meltdown or a tense interaction in work or at school. Too often Black women feel as if they can’t ask for help because of the perceived negative consequences either for themselves or loved ones.

The reluctance to ask for help is not unfounded. Black women are as familiar with the repercussions of asking for help as we are with our first names. From the 1970s to 1990s, Black women on public assistance became the face of welfare fraud and abuse. In 1992, the “welfare” program only accounted for 1% of federal spending, yet was a major political issue in the 1992 presidential election. So much so, the Democrats and Republicans passed bipartisan legislation in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, overhauling the welfare system implementing work requirements and time limits.

When Black women asked for help to feed and clothe their families and received resources for it, it was a major issue and had negative implications for the people they loved. Not only did Black women come under public scrutiny and were marginalized. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families, described the effects of the Act:

Thus, cash benefits and health coverage for drug addicts and alcoholics were terminated, most welfare benefits for noncitizens were terminated, the program of cash benefits for disabled children was deeply reformed, child care was reformed and expanded, the food stamp program was trimmed and the child support enforcement program was greatly strengthened.

I could write a 25-page paper on the ways in which the voices of Black women have been silenced and our bodies violated for speaking out and asking for help—whether it comes to topics such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, affirmative action, racial profiling and police brutality (Rest in Peace Sandra Bland and Renisha McBride), transgender violence and other LGBTQ issues, the criminal justice system, entertainment industry to the latest video of police violence against a young Black child at Spring Valley High School. But, I don’t have to justify what Black women and girls already know and feel and this article is for us.

You are entitled to the benefits of everything you have worked for.

You are entitled to the benefits of everything you have worked for.

You are entitled to the same rights and privileges afforded to other citizens and individuals residing in the United States of America.

You are entitled to the same rights and privileges afforded to other citizens and individuals residing in the United States of America.

You deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity granted to every human on this Earth and the freedom to exercise your inalienable rights.

You deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity granted to every human on this Earth and the freedom to exercise your inalienable rights.

I know that it hurts. I know how much we put on a stoic face and carry the burden of our sisters, brothers, lovers and family. I know that we have engrained the idea of personal responsibility more deeply in our hearts than anyone else. We wake up every day and our bodies do not feel like our own, but everyone else’s. Why are we dressed that way? Why do we eat this way? Why do we withhold our sexuality? Why are we too sexual? Why are we so expressive? Why are we loud? Why do we do our hair in that manner?

It can be overbearing—our woman-ness, our blackness, our personhood is much more than what others perceive and identify us as. Nevertheless, Black women have learned to form diamonds underneath the pressure. It is why hashtags such as #BlackGirlMagic exist. It is why a first-generation Black girl can graduate as valedictorian from her high school and get accepted into Top 20 universities. It is why our movements are celebrated and emulated by men and women. It is why Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States. It is why half of all Black women ages 18 – 24 are pursuing higher degrees. It is also why we don’t want to ask for help.

Yes, beloved, we know how to persevere and can excel under pressure, but we can only handle so much before the load becomes too much to bear. Below are some strategies on how you can ask for help while keeping your head held high.

1.    Identify a support network of peers and mentors who you can lean on in times of trouble.

Everyone has times where they need help and advice. Even the most composed and seemingly put together person has weaknesses. The secret is they know who to call when they need help. A sister at Emory told me a story of how she was so cold in her classroom and it was making her work suffer. She was anemic and couldn't concentrate. She wanted to ask the teacher to turn off the air, but didn't want to interrupt class with such a seemingly petty request. Much to her surprise, a non-Black woman got up and turned off the air herself! Often times the best resources are the most obvious ones. Your close friends, your professors, the office specifically created to support you academically and professionally.

2.    Ask for help before you need it the most.

According to the Center for Disease Control, at least 200,000 deaths each year related to heart disease and stroke are preventable. When considering race, Black people are 2x more likely to die from preventable disease. Dramatic? Yes but a harsh reality. As a black woman there are many things which impede our access to help---lack of transportation, wealth, racism, and sexism. Yet, as Black women at Emory, we haven't let us stop that yet. Pre-empt those issues by getting help before you need it. If you already know your teacher has not been receptive to helping you and you have an exam approaching, go to the academic department or office of undergraduate education and ask someone to assist you in communicating with this professor. When you have waited until you failed the test to mention how difficult it was to get ahold of your professor, it will be much harder to reverse the impact.

3.    State exactly what you need and don't leave anything out.

There are times when we ask for help, but the help we receive barely scratches the surface of what we need the most. You may not want to ask for too much for fear the person on the receiving end of your request may say no. You may be embarrassed by how much you need. You may even feel like you don't deserve what you need. Whatever the case, if you only state some of what you need, you may not get what you request or you may not get what you need. It's a lose-lose situation either way, so state exactly what you need.

Write them down. Be specific. Stating you need more financial aid may fall on deaf ears. Stating you can't pay for your books and you haven't been able to study is more impactful. Rather than the financial aid office, the person supporting you may steer you towards a local organization or person who can afford to write a check right away.

4.   Communicate your needs to the people who can meet them.

When your needs are stated and specific, it is even more important you communicate them to the person who can most help you. It can be frustrating and deterring to get the run around.

Be considerate of prior interactions with whom you are speaking to. If the person has not been responsive or timely in their interactions with you and they are the designated person to help you, then communicate to them you would like to seek help elsewhere and consider speaking to their higher ups.

5.   Be gracious and open to feedback. Reciprocate and let others know what works for you and         what doesn't.

If someone has offered you assistance, graciously thank them; however, it is okay to decline if you feel it is necessary. You don't want to waste anyone's time or yours.

It is okay to communicate your feelings and thoughts regarding their feedback. They cannot properly assist you if you are not receptive or welcoming to their feedback. And, it's okay if you are not! If needed, ask to take time to consider your options so you can make the best decision for you.

In case of tense situations or emotional outbursts, if you feel necessary, it is okay to remove yourself from the situation. If you feel unsafe or attacked, calmly ask to revisit the situation later and leave.

 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or visit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Treasure Arthur is a 2013 graduate of Emory Goizueta School of Business. She currently works in consulting for Accenture Federal Services. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Black Star Magazine from January 2010 – August 2011 and currently the President of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Caucus of Emory Black Alumni (CEBA-DC). She is the founder of Next Generation Professional, a professional and business development consulting company. For more information, you can contact her at treasure.arthur@gmail.com.