Forget Calling in Sick. Can We Call in Black, Please?
It’s Monday morning, you wake up, brush your teeth, have your coffee, maybe even get a good workout in! You’re ready to start your day! You pick up your phone for a quick social media scroll and that’s when you see it:
The hashtag. The protests. The video. Another Black man, Black woman, Black child. Murdered by the police.
Suddenly, the day feels like trash and you just want to crawl back into bed. But what excuse can you give to your boss? You’re not exactly sick, but you are sick and tired of having to explain to the world that your life matters.
Evelyn Ngugi, more famously known as Evelyn from the Internets, felt similarly after the death of Sandra Bland in 2015. She came up with the idea of calling in Black and created a now-viral video about how so many Black people need to take some time for themselves when perpetual racism becomes too heavy of a burden to bear.
The YouTube star spoke with ZORA about her viral video, how she’s managing her mental health through ongoing violence against Black bodies, and about whether “calling in Black” should be a real thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: What exactly does it mean to “call in Black?” How does someone do it?
Evelyn Ngugi: “Calling in Black” is needing to take some time away from the demands of life whether you are a child because school is stressful or whether you’re an adult because being an adult and going to work is stressful.
When there are news reports or current events happening that kind of trigger the fight or flight response, where do we put those feelings? At the very least, I feel like we should be able to [take some time off]. Calling in Black is a desire to take some time for yourself and not have to put on a facade of being okay when not only are we not okay, but our society is not okay and they’re perpetuating the harm onto us.
How did you come up with the idea for your video? It’s sooo relatable!
Kimberly Foster of ForHarriet.com reached out to me and was like hey girl love your stuff if you ever want to make a video for us, let me know! I didn’t really have anything to say and then, unfortunately, inspiration came in the form of Sandra Bland’s death. I live two hours away from where it happened and you just know that she could’ve been you. I worked in an office with an open floor plan so you can see everybody and everyone just seems to be fine. And I’m very much not fine. I went to the bathroom and had a full-blown panic attack and I really wanted to go home that day but I didn’t quite know how to approach that topic of “Hey I wanna go home I’m not feeling well.” Later that week, I took some time to discover how I was feeling and I decided to film that video. Because that’s what I wish I could’ve done. I wish I could’ve called in Black but I didn’t have the words at the time to communicate that.
Last summer, your video went viral again as people were protesting the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Did you imagine your creative outlet would become an outlet for so many people?
It’s great and it sucks. I didn’t expect this when I made the video. [The video] sort of became a Bat Signal of trauma. I would see my video [popping up] and be like “Oh hell. Now I got to Google and see what happened or go on Twitter and see what happened.” I love that people have something to watch or listen to that kind of articulates how they might be feeling but it does suck that we continue to feel this way.
“Calling in Black is a desire to take some time for yourself and not have to put on a facade of being okay when we are not okay.”
Why do you think it’s important that Black people have the opportunity to take a break from the responsibilities of life when we’re experiencing racial trauma?
I think it’s important to name it, it’s important to have that language to articulate exactly what’s going on so that people can regulate themselves and educate themselves and maybe preempt some of these things and create a better work environment so that I don’t have to be the one telling you “Hi, I have racial battle fatigue.” The employer or co-worker can be more educated to assist you before it gets to that point. I do think it’s important to name that [you’re exhausted] because of racist events.
Wait, what is “racial battle fatigue?” Can dealing with racism as a Black person really make you sick? Because that seems like a good enough reason to call out of work.
Like many people, I had a desire to call in Black before I even heard of the term racial battle fatigue. Racial battle fatigue is this idea that racial adversity triggers the same physiological response as actual physical violence. Depending on maybe what part of town you live, the high stress that comes with poverty, that adrenaline of being scared or worried all the time, that puts a strain on not only our minds and psyche but also on our body. That’s where the term racial battle fatigue comes from. It comes from that deep sense of exhaustion both mentally and physically from racial and racist events.
Calling in Black is a good idea in theory but for many folks, it’s just not possible to take time away from racial stress either because of where we work or because, hey, we’re Black and there are no breaks from the struggle. How do you suggest we cope?
Resting is the best medicine when it comes to this type of stress. Because we know about the trope of the strong Black woman, how everyone wants you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you know the nuances of Black and queer or Black and trans or your immigration status when you’re Black. What we all should be able to do is sleep properly. Which is something that unfortunately is not everyone gets to do. Community care and solving those rest-related problems in your community can really go a long way in terms of helping people out.
We are not machines. We are people with minds and spirits and souls and stuff and the most sustainable thing is to rest. And when I say rest, I wish that meant sleep for everybody, but it’s even taking five minutes of intentional time to breathe, the time that you’re in the shower to breathe and be present in your body, not thinking too hard about the future or too hard about the past. And reminding your body that you’re here you’re still here.
Especially when it comes to Black people [working] in the media, I was talking about this with my friend who’s a journalist. The race beat doesn’t mean it’s the racism beat.
How are you coping with racial battle fatigue in your own life? Do you still feel the need to call in Black?
I am in therapy and it’s dope because she is a Black lady so I get to talk freely without having to fill in blanks. In therapy, I’ve been learning about trauma and one of the biggest things that trauma says is that no help is coming and no one gets you. What calling in Black would do is show us that help is coming, we help ourselves, we’ll always be there to help each other and we’re not alone. That works to chip away at the lies that trauma tells us.
Do you have any hope that one day your video won’t be the Bat Signal for racial trauma and we won’t need to take a break to deal with racial pain?
I do have hope, it’s not a consistent hope it kind of flip-flops which I think is pretty healthy, I guess. But I think if there’s anything I can count on it’s our creativity. That creativity is what saves us, it’s what soothes us and it’s what really helps us to find each other in these spaces. We flex our creativity in ways that help us survive and different communities throughout history and in the future will continue to do that. That’s what gives me hope.