‘Reclaiming My Time’: Leisure, Black Women, and White Supremacy

With the holidays rapidly approaching, people are looking forward to having some time off from work. Typically, the last few weeks of the year are a time to rest, to reset and to reconnect with friends and loved ones. This year, however, for myriad reasons some people may feel uncomfortable requesting time off from work. Maybe they have been working from home, and their manager likens this to already being “off”. Others may fear that taking vacation will highlight that they are replaceable in their role or may be perceived as a lack of enthusiasm for their job.

It is deeply entrenched in the American culture for employees to work hard, even to the detriment of their own mental and physical health. It is deemed admirable for them to miss sleep or meals in order to complete a project. To this end, Americans take less vacation, work longer days and retire later in life. It is the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave.

Within this workplace culture, stereotypes of Black people’s laziness, their poor work ethic and lack of team spirit have often been perpetuated. Although these assertions have been proven to the contrary, non-Black managers and supervisors often foster these beliefs, resulting in overworked Black employees who forego vacation, as they feel the need to outperform their peers.

The main tenet of a capitalist society is that maximum productivity equals maximum profit. In such a system, there are workers and there are managers. When race, class and workforce intersect, there is a societal understanding that people of color should constantly be at work, overwhelmed and inundated with tasks. Even when Black individuals obtain higher education, having the right to navigate their time is still elusive. The idea remains that Black professionals must work 7 days per week/24 hours per day, to make up for being successful. For professional Black people, the paradigm shifts from the policing of their physical body and space in the work environment, to the policing of their time.

Dr. Rasul Mowatt, professor of American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington states that “Leisure is primarily a tool of capitalism. Leisure is also a tool of white supremacy. It articulates power in society, in a certain way; who has it and who does not, and who has the right to wield it.” A recent episode of the current affairs platform Vox, highlighted the pivotal role that the desegregation of American beaches and pools played in the Civil Rights movement. During these protests, also known as ‘wade ins’, activists swam in White-only pools and beaches, and were confronted by police brutality. In one instance, the owner of a hotel in St. Augustine, Florida threw hydrochloric acid on activists who were staging a protest. These acts of civil disobedience highlighted the unequal access to recreation and leisure. In many cities, the designated Black beaches and pools were inaccessible to the community, and oftentimes polluted.

Unfortunately, decades later, people of color around the globe are still fighting for the right to relax. One Sunday morning, my husband and I decided that we needed a reset. We drove to a day spa in one of the fancier neighborhoods in Hamburg. We exercised, had massages and ventured down to the sauna and steam rooms. Hours later, I emerged from the facility feeling refreshed and invigorated. Yet, in a city with one of the largest Arab and African populations of varying socioeconomic classes, I was the only non-White person in the spa. There were stares, and glares, from the other guests. Lo! The audacity to be young, Black, and enjoying my leisure time, as I deemed fit!

It is important, now more than ever, for Black professionals to take time from work to reap the physical and psychological benefits of rest and leisure. Black women won’t only be confined to other people’s kitchens or nurseries. We will be right there in barre class, holding a plank. We will be in a cabana on a foreign beach. We will be off at 11am on a Tuesday, trying on a pair of shoes. And we will be living well and having leisure, which is in itself a revolutionary act.

*Read more at am taar wellness. https://www.amtaarwellness.com/subscribe