Throwback Thursday: This piece was originally published on 10/27/12.
The phrase “strong black woman” conjures up images of single mothers doing it all, putting up with all manner of social ills from sexist black men to racist white society without flinching.
The “strong black woman” of these images, who seems more superhuman than real, cares for everyone else’s needs before her own and does it all without crying on any shoulders or relying on anyone’s help.
This isn’t to say that I’ve never believed the hype. As a kid I often thought of my mother as the strong black woman, who had famously worked two jobs to support my five siblings, cooked and managed her home, and zealously dedicated her life to her religion.
Growing up and striving to emulate her meant realizing that she is not invincible—sometimes when I thought she was fine she’d been tired, she’d been anxious, she’d been at the end of her rope.
The myth of the strong black woman, who is distinct from the strong black women that really walk this earth, reminds me of the myth that black wet nurses enjoyed breast feeding their masters’ children.
This was a myth designed to make slave owners feel less guilty about the socioeconomic circumstances that forced black women to be mammies and nannies and housekeepers and maids back in “those” days.
This was a myth that survived in black communities when mammies and nannies and housekeepers and maids came home to their families and still tended to their own.
It’s time for us to debunk these myths.
1. Strong Black Women Rarely Need Support
This myth is one of the most damaging. As in Stephanie Covington Armstrong’s story, black women feel pressure to handle their own problems in silence, possibly even concluding that things like mental illness do not affect black women, especially not the strong ones.
In Stephanie Covington Armstrong’s case, the pressure to be strong led to silence in the face of an eating disorder. The fear of being shamed not only for having an eating disorder but also for publically acknowledging delayed her final decision to seek help.
All people need support. This is not a sign of weakness. Saying that black women are “strong” and therefore independent or invulnerable is not a compliment. Black women are not emotionless machines of people. They need space to be vulnerable, get support, and if needed seek therapy.
2. Strong Black Women Support Everyone Else
The mythological strong black woman is a domestic powerhouse – able to work two jobs and care for kids, please the men in her life, and give white people in movies tough love advice with a touch of sass.
She supports everyone around her, but neglects herself.
My mother, the two job holding domestic powerhouse mentioned at the outset, always seemed like she was only helping everyone else.
But as I get to know her habits, I see the things she’s always done to take care of herself—exercise and strict eating, foot soaks, natural medicine, sleep (italicized because you do not want to interrupt her sleep).
As children of black mothers, sometimes you see the powerhouse and not the power source. And so the myth of the magical woman who never rests is reinforced.
The problem of this myth is that no one can constantly give and give without taking care of themselves first. Girls who are pressured to become this all giving woman will be lead to believe that “strong” women have no real control in their own well-being—their strength is only for the benefit of the people around them.
Strength means understanding what you need and knowing your limitations.
3. Strong Black Women Can Make the Best of Unfair Circumstances
Historically speaking, black women have done what they needed to survive, but this myth is sometimes used as an excuse to overlook problems of violence and discrimination against black women.
“Oh, black women are strong, they can handle inequality.”
The problem with this myth is that when black women are facing serious abuse, they are expected to put on a bold face and power through it. This is damaging to young black girls who believe they should just accept social injustices because they are “strong” enough to handle them.
To be black and strong should involve fighting these injustices, not shrugging, concluding “life isn’t fair,” and shouldering on. Of course we have to deal with the world as it is in the meantime, but black strength is not an invitation for discrimination from others.
4. Strong Black Women are Always Strong All the Time
Another facet of this myth is that black women should never let their guard down. They are somehow invulnerable to break downs when under stress. They rarely cry or allow themselves to be vulnerable.
Why is the mythical black woman so jaded? Because the assumption is that she has been or will be hurt — by men, by the absence of men (another stereotype), and by other black women. So in response, she becomes callous and guarded.
Real black women do have to deal with a certain amount of pain in their lives, but the myth that being a woman and being black invite neglect and self-hatred is damaging.
Furthermore, black women going through a hard time may feel that they are failing to live up to this standard of invulnerability.
This can lead to feelings of shame among black women who feel as if they are breaking under the stress of the lives — because the myth is that strong black women can’t be broken.
5. Strong Black Women are Undesirable Partners
Ironically, there is a backlash against black women by some men because they are perceived as too strong, too angry, or too independent to be desirable, feminine partners.
Black women who were raised to be self-sufficient enter the dating world only to be rejected by those who believe that black women aren’t vulnerable enough to date.
This puts black girls in a double bind — can they live up to the strong black woman archetype without having to face the attacks on their femininity that result from being labeled too independent?
Yes, black women have strength. But time and time again, the word “strong” has been used to dehumanize black women, to trivialize their pain, to create an impossible standard for young black girls to strive towards.
For black women, taking that strength back means calling out the ways in which their strength is used against them.
Jarune Uwujaren is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Nigerian-American recent graduate who’s stumbling towards a career in writing, Jarune can currently be found drifting around the DC metro area with a phone or a laptop nearby. When not writing for fun or profit, Jarune enjoys food, fresh air, good books, drawing, poetry, and sci-fi. Read their articles here.