When Maxine Waters told Bill O’Reilly that she was a strong Black woman that couldn’t be intimidated, Black women across the country rejoiced and applauded her words. We understood exactly what she meant, and precisely what Bill O’Reilly represented: the intersection of racism, sexism, and patriarchy.
We face this unique and particularly oppressive combination each day, in every facet of our lives, and have done so for as long as any of us can remember. Even as little girls, we’re taught that we’ve got to be strong enough to endure the tribulations that will inevitably come our way because of our skin and gender. And like many little Black girls, I grew into a Black woman who internalized these beliefs. I embraced them. I took pride in the fact that I could handle any crisis that came my way, without so much as batting an eye. I could endure any abuse or pain inflicted upon me and never let anyone see me shed a tear. I was able to compartmentalize my own feelings so that I could tend to the needs of others. Why? Because I was a strong Black woman, I was indestructible, and I could do it all without missing a beat.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized the title that I believed empowered me, was actually suffocating me.
The modern concept of the “indestructible Black woman” isn’t rooted in pride or reverence…it is rooted in dehumanization. Female slaves–and then ‘Mammies,’ post-slavery–were expected to perform laborious tasks, nurture their masters’ children (many had to breastfeed white children, leaving little or no milk to feed their own babies), tend to the masters’ houses, then return home and somehow muster the energy to take care of their own families.
And these burdens were easily placed on them because they were perceived as incapable of suffering in the same way as white women, ultimately reinforcing the narrative that Black women were less than human.
This standard has been explored throughout literature:
In The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (one of my favorite books), a Black woman is giving birth, and recounts how the doctors minimized her pain during childbirth:
“A little old doctor come to examine me…more doctors come. The old one was learning the young ones about babies. Showing them how to do. When he got to me he said ‘now these here women you don’t have any trouble with. They deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses.’…I had to let them know that having a baby was more than a bowel movement. I hurt just like them white women.”
And in Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (another one of my favorites), the main character’s grandmother has a “coming of age” talk with her, to let her know her place in society:
“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything fur as Ah been able tuh find out…de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world fur as Ah can see.“
That’s what we’ve all learned from our own mothers, grandmothers, and aunts: that Black women are essentially society’s workhorse: getting it done at work, at home, in other people’s homes, in our communities, in school, EVERYWHERE. And today we’re conditioned to wear it as a badge of honor. We’re magical, we’re superheroes, we’re powerhouses. We get to be anything but…human.
You can see how this easily gives way to the fallacy that Black women are too difficult, too angry, or too independent to love.
This restrictive line of thinking not only strips us of our humanity, but simultaneously strips us of our femininity as well. As society continues to portray us as hard, castrating, and insubordinate, we are denied the privilege of being considered “delicate,” and deserving of reverence.
Far too often, by reinforcing and perpetuating this stereotype, the men in our lives create a caricature of Black women–one that doesn’t feel pain and can withstand any abuse. And when they (accidentally or purposely) inflict pain upon us, they feel less guilt, because they’ve convinced themselves that “we can handle it.” Now, not only are we society’s workhorse, we become its emotional punching bag as well.
I can’t tell you how many times a man (whether the relationship be romantic, platonic, or familial) has done something extremely damaging to me, then doubled back to commend me on my “strength” when handling his mistreatment. It’s absolutely insane.
The word “strong” in this context becomes a knife held to our throats, threatening to silence us should we even think about breaking down, needing support, or declaring ourselves overwhelmed. The word creates a standard that is completely unrealistic and unattainable, but nevertheless we continue to break our backs to achieve such a status, because we believe that “the women before us did it”. We forget to remind ourselves that Black women endured those hardships as a matter of survival.
The result? We hide our pain, stifle our cries, and keep it moving, even when we’re in desperate need of support. Sometimes the we feel that our distress will be burdensome to others, we feel silly for being overwhelmed and are ashamed to admit it, we think we don’t have anyone that will understand, or we flat out don’t know how to express these feelings/needs, because we’ve been taught to suppress them our entire lives.
I’ve experienced this in my own life, both personally and professionally. Taking on the role as the quintessential multifaceted woman, I’ve noticed that when I’m feeling terribly overwhelmed or stressed, I still won’t accept assistance, even if someone volunteers to help me. It’s hard to explain (sorry, I’m still unpacking these feelings), but when I start drowning in responsibilities and feeling like I can’t handle them, I immediately feel ashamed, guilty, and as though I’ve failed in some way. I know it’s because I’ve convinced myself I can do anything and everything, even if that mindset proves damaging.
Many other women try to emulate this distortion of “strong Black womanhood,” and it manifests in our physical and mental health. Black women are disproportionately affected by diseases caused or exacerbated by stress, such as: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, and fibroids. Black women are also more likely to experience depression than women of other racial groups, but less likely to report or seek treatment for it. We quite literally drive ourselves to an early grave, as evidenced by the fact that Black women have the shortest life expectancies when compared to our racial counterparts.
This Myth Isn’t Just Damaging, It’s Deadly
This depiction of indestructibility has evolved into a far more sinister tale, one with life-threatening consequences. Let’s be clear: America’s portrayal of Black women does not just hurt our feelings, deprive us of healthy romantic partnerships, stress us out, and stunt our emotional growth–it’s literally costing us our bodies and OUR LIVES.
Due to the “strong Black woman” stereotype, Black women being in pain, in need of assistance, or in anyway vulnerable seems counterintuitive, which effectively erases everyone’s ability to see our suffering. This is why over a dozen Black girls can go missing in Washington D.C. and no one bats an eye. And why the outrage against police brutality was (until recently) very focused on Black male death, and neglected to prioritize the deaths of Black females (Aiyana Jones and Trayvon Martin were killed a year and a half apart, and no one really talks about Aiyana, but Trayvon sparked national outrage). And more recently, is why the nation’s sudden attention to sexual assault is focused on white women, despite statistics that tell us Black girls and women experience higher rates of sexual assault than Asian, non-Black Latinas, and white women.
We all know the stories of Natalee Holloway and Laci Peterson, but how many of us have heard of Tamika Hurston and LaToyia Figueroa, who both disappeared under nearly identical circumstances, with no media coverage (and zero sympathy from the public)?
In America’s patriarchal society (which is another topic altogether, and I’m not even going to get started on it, lest this post become a novel), a woman’s life is only holds value if she is heralded as both soft and vulnerable, and thus worthy of placement on a pedestal of femininity. But there is no room for Black girls or women on this pedestal, because as children, we are essentially stripped of the privilege to be soft or vulnerable, and subsequently become unworthy of sympathy or concern.
In 2012, the car of a Black mother named Glenda Moore stalled in rising waters as she attempted to flee Hurricane Sandy with her two sons (ages 2 and 4) in tow. As the waters rose, Moore was able to release the boys from their car seats, only to have them pulled away by strong currents. She then ran to TWO different neighbor’s houses for help; The first neighbor quickly stated “I don’t know you, I’m not going to help” before callously closing the door in her face. The second simply turned out the their porch lights, never even bothering to open the door. Both of Glenda’s sons drowned in the floodwaters, and their bodies were recovered days later.
In 2013, 19-year-old Renisha McBride’s car broke down late at night, and when she knocked on a homeowner’s door for assistance, she was promptly shot in the face and killed.
What could make people so apathetic and cruel to us? As discussed in a 2013 TIME article, it’s because people don’t feel compelled to offer the same compassion to us as they do other women–because they don’t see us as actual women. My own ascertainment is that we aren’t even seen as human beings, much less as women.
The “Strong Black Women” in Our Lives
Writing about this stereotype, and seeing it here, in black and white, is causing me to reflect on the Black women in my life. I hope you do the same. How often do we project these expectations and unrealistic standards onto our grandmothers, mothers, friends, girlfriends/wives, aunts, etc.? How many times have we laid those burdens upon someone who was already up to their neck in problems and worries?
When you hear the title “Strong Black Woman,” what do you envision? Perhaps Harriet Tubman. Maya Angelou. Maybe even your mother or grandmother. In any case, you likely imagine a woman that is tough, can somehow perform miracles, and is able to handle any disaster that is thrown her way. It’s important to note that while all these women can be extraordinary, they would very much like (or would have liked) the chance to just be ordinary sometimes. Don’t burden them with the expectation of consistently being strong.
Being a Black woman is already hard enough without the arbitrary and dehumanizing requirement of never-ending strength. We already have to be particularly tenacious to resist the pressure to buckle under the weight of racism, sexism, colorism, patriarchy, and every other form of oppression you can imagine…please remember to give us permission to be entirely human as well.
Please remember to give us permission to be entirely human as well.