Now I don’t advocate it, but watch any Tyler Perry movie and at least once, the “strong black woman” will pop up.
Typically the strong black woman has been through the fire, the flood and the broke black man. And the absent baby daddy. And the son who is a drug dealer who gets shot and gives his life to Jesus at the end of the film as he limps down the aisle while the strong black woman (who on top of her many responsibilities, also leads the church choir), sings her heart out.
You’ll often find this phrase circulating in memes round the internet. Black woman are STRONG. We are the originators of human life. The incubators of resilience. Black men ‘need’ a ‘strong black woman’ to lean on. White men who make videos about how much they love black women make various allusions to their ‘strength’. This is seen as a positive thing. After everything we’ve been through, the double oppressions of racism and sexism, the constant invalidation and erasure, still like the phoenix, we manage to rise from the (strong) dark ashes.
Can I be honest? I think the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype/archetype is actually emotionally, spiritually and physically dangerous for black woman.
I’m reading a great book at the moment called ‘Too Heavy a Yoke’ by Chanequa Walker -Barnes. It talks about the history of the StrongBlackWoman archetype and how it is rooted in the desire to discount white stereotypes of inadequacy by erasing vulnerability, but also the historical components that led to black women being stereotyped as less feminine and ‘delicate’ than white women. Black femininity in modern history has always being juxtaposed against an idealistic white femininity (a sexist idealism that confined white women to domesticity) and one of the justifications given during the slavery period for the brutal treatment of black women was that the black woman was more masculine, hypersexual and less emotionally vulnerable than white women.
The truth is that black women are no more strong than anyone else, but that historically we have been forced to develop ‘coping’ mechanisms (and I use the word coping loosely) in order to maintain some semblance of normality.
From a very young age I watched the black women around me busy themselves with a stoicism that almost gave them the facade of superhumanity – until the cracks began to show. (The pressure to be a strong black woman is especially present in the black church). Their ‘strength’ led to emotional trauma, damaged their relationships with men and with each other, and burdened their children.
Black women are the women most likely to have to raise children in a single parent household – which even when the father is present and active as many black men are, is still much more difficult than raising a child in a well functioning two parent household. Black women, especially dark skinned women, are constantly erased from media representation and are both overtly and unconsciously fed the message that we are romantically less appealing than others. Black women enter the workforce butting their heads with the unique combination of racism and sexism that targets black femininity. It is taking a toll on us both mentally and physically. Rates of mental illness and obesity are higher among black women than other groups. We suffer more from high blood pressure and other illnesses that have been shown to have stress as a contributor.
Part of being a ‘strong black woman’, is constantly caring for others whilst denying yourself. It’s minimising symptoms of illness. It’s brushing aside depression and anxiety by telling the church that you prayed about it, and so, it will be fine. It’s pretending that you’re functioning well when in reality, you have learnt to suppress your emotions so much that you lack the ability to cry. It’s noticing that some men treat you with less care than they do your white counterparts because you are ‘strong’, when in fact, you desire to lean on someone else strength sometimes. It’s developing an ‘attitude’ as a mask to pave over the cracks of deep hurt.
I refuse to be a strong black woman. I don’t want to carry the burden of maintaining an illusion of strength that I don’t actually have. I reject the notion that white femininity is delicate, vulnerable and deserves to be treated with care while I snap my neck, click my fingers and brush the abuses of the world off my shoulder because of some inherent kernel of masculinity conferred to me by my melanin. I want a relationship with a man where I am interdependent, not independent. And I love Jesus, but He doesn’t ask me to mask my insecurities, vulnerabilities and desire to be loved with prayer, while continuing neglect to care for myself.
I am not a strong black woman, and you don’t need to be either.