By Romanza McAllister, LCSW
As a young girl, my mother told me being born Black meant I had to be exceptional. I had to be three times as good to receive a fraction of what my white colleagues would get. I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at age ten. Despite my challenges with ADHD, “Be the best because nothing comes easy to black folks in America” remained my mother’s mantra.
“Why do Black people always feel the need to be excellent?” complained the character Slim of the impactful Drama/Movie Queen & Slim. “Why can’t we just be ourselves?” Slim says to Queen, on his date gone wrong; as she proudly proclaims to be an excellent lawyer as opposed to just a good one. Queen is an example that being anything less than “exceptional” is costly in the Black American experience. Slim’s character shows us this way of life strips us our right to be vulnerable and most importantly human. This burden and battle cry is very familiar to African Americans and Blacks in America. Many Americans would argue that affirmative action has cured the above, but life looks very different on the other side.
My Black experience, and the experience of those who look like me, is to be second guessed, or dismissed for opportunities. Alongside widespread stereotypes and structural racism, this creates “The Black Tax”. African American/Blacks more so, and many people of color, pay an “emotional tax” in the work place. We navigate an emotional rollercoaster guarding against racial bias. We often lack support from supervisors. We experience microaggressions and flat out discrimination at times compounded by bias around gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and class.
Over time, this daily battle takes a heavy toll and can affect health, well-being, and the ability to thrive at work. At work, I defended myself against back handed compliments and I braced for insults presented as constructive criticism. I made certain to avoid triggering social interactions. When I saw this unfold in job after job, I chose to speak out against mistreatment knowing they’d label me the “Angry Black Woman.”
I had to choose one set of mental health challenges over the other. ADHD had to once again take a backseat as my humanity came first. I knew disclosure of my diagnosis was not an option. Telling my bosses about my ADHD would only lend itself to ugly historical stereotypes of African Americans as incompetent, problematic, and lazy. Back then, the answer was clear. Hide. I continued to struggle silently in plain sight, suffering through long days of waning attention, unmet deadlines, careless mistakes, and mountains of unfinished paperwork.
I decided to pick up the pieces on my own; as I had been instructed do time and time again. This distorted but truthful message was reinforced through the lived experiences of my elders as well through many ineffective/unequal policies to address disadvantages in the black community. It played like a scratched CD (pun intended) “Black people do not have time, or space to grieve and dwell, we simply have to move on.”
I couldn’t risk making mistakes, in the workplace where I was often one of two minorities. The Catch-22: Speak out on injustice and risk my job, or disclose my ADHD and risk my job. “Decisions, decisions.” We all know ADHD often impacts your access to gainful employment and advancement in pay. Professing my ADHD diagnosis was a luxury I as a black woman couldn’t afford.
I was tired of hiding my symptoms. I was tired too of being dismissed by family, friends, and well-meaning clinicians. I searched for support to mitigate shame, racial trauma, depression and burn-out. After trying a few support groups and meeting several clinicians, I stumbled upon the Attention Deficit Disorder Association’s virtual peer support groups. Joining ADDA has been so validating and affirming. There is a certain indescribable beauty in feeling seen and represented. In the end, I chose to nurture the best parts of my ADHD, and I now work for myself. But everyone’s path will be very different.
Since then I’ve gone on to become the group facilitator for the African American/Black Diaspora+ ADHD Virtual Peer Support Group. I am able to further address specific racial, gendered, and cultural needs, while extending that healing, unity and community to others. It feels good to be present in a safe space where we can all remove “The Mask” and find effective ways to heal from, and push back on the effects of the “Black Tax”. We are reinforcing our resilience and self-advocacy while having the hard, meaningful conversations about ADHD and blackness. This support group and “mental health cook-out” as I like to call it, has been integral to my self-care practice.
Our group is growing stronger in numbers, and support for one another to show up and be seen. Some members have seen improvements at work due to advocating for accommodations. Some are still being supported in navigating the very complicated dance of telling their truth. Through all our adaptability to adversity we have displayed resilience and determination. Be that as it may, we just need a space to simply be “ADHDers” having a very human experience while practicing progress over perfection.
Romanza McAllister, LCSW is a Brooklyn, New York-based psychotherapist and ADHD Coach, and serves as a Board Member with the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. For more information, visit: http://mcallisterpsychotherapy.com/