I never quite thought being “strong” could be more belittling than the intention of a general compliment. Black women are often put on the pedestal of strength: a dystopian version of superwomen. Black women are meant to respond to life’s challenges by demonstrating this mass of strength and hiding any trauma they may face.
The question here is: where does this stereotype come from? The majority of this goes back to the mindsets that were created during slavery. When black men were snatched from their families, their wives were left to raise families on their own. Even after slavery ended, the U.S. Government’s “war on drugs” was used as a racist veil way to jail black men for the same non-violent drug offenses that were also by free white men. Throughout several points in American history, black families have systematically been placed in situations where black men were taken away, leaving black women to fend for themselves. The fact black women had to overwork themselves so much stole their feminine softness and instead of being humans, were treated as martyrs.
This “strong black woman” stereotype was embedded into my life from a young age, passed on through generations. My mother made sure I was not to show any weakness in the house; revealing that something upset you made you weak and vulnerable to others. Her response would be: “Is this how you would act if this happened to you in the workplace?” Or “Is this how you’ll always be?” It was not acceptable for me to allow myself to be frustrated or exhausted about work I had been struggling with as that could be seen not having the strength to overcome life’s hardships.
Other people’s opinions added to this stereotype. I always found myself being the strength of the friendship group – the one who had to hold everyone up even when I felt I did not have the strength to. When I did show that point of vulnerability, I was often looked at as if it were unacceptable for me to even begin feeling that way; others had to deal with more than me. So, I was left to silence my vulnerability and act as a pillar of stability for others.
It became a toxic expectation which eventually took a toil on my mental and physical health. By suppressing so much, I found myself neglecting traumatic events of my past as well as overlooking genuine health conditions I had started to develop. In fact, it became apparent that even doctors began to believe that black women could endure more pain than their white counterparts and thus were given less compassionate care or their issues were often overlooked.
I learnt that the “strong black woman” stereotype is not just a fault of social norms adopting this stereotype as a normality, by also us black women for allowing it to define use, and adopting it into our lifestyles subconsciously. It was specifically slavery and systematic racism robbed black women of their humanity. Therefore, it is understandable that the quickest way of reversing these effects is making sure what we ask others and the expectations we have of ourselves always maintains our shared humanity.
It is simple really: aspire to be treated as a human. Remaining bound by this outdated concept only brings more pain. If black women do not break the stereotype, who will make the move? If we are so-called “strong”, should we not have the strength to break a toxic expectation that has been normalised within society?
However, this should not be the sole responsibility of black women. Others must recognise how racism and sexism will continue to impact how black women and girls experience and receive healthcare. We should increase the number of those in the mental health sector who are culturally competent practitioners that are well trained to address and treat the trauma related issue that black women gain. In addition, we should encourage black women to address and perhaps release the burden of strength in some cases. It would be beneficial for both patients and healthcare providers to improve their relationship if the providers knew how to address violence at home, school, on the job and in neighbourhoods that typically influence a black woman’s wellbeing.
We should really be more conscious of how we approach black women. The toxic expectation of black women not only affects our health but also destroys society’s perception of what “strong” is. It stops black women getting the proper treatment they deserve, not only in health care but also in society. No, it is not a compliment to be a “strong black woman”, as if black women are the only demographic that can be strong. Why are these specific words put together in our times of vulnerability? We must not overlook a black woman’s pain for the strength that has been subconsciously associated with the colour of her skin and her gender. It is killing us.
Teenagers With Experience is an organisation created to provide teenagers worldwide with an online platform to share their own experiences to be able to help, inform and educate others on a variety of different topics. We aim to provide a safe space to all young people. You can contact us via email, social media or our contact form found on our home page.