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Why the “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype Is Bad for Black Mental Health

Girl I know sometimes it’s hard
And we can’t let go
Oh when someone hurts you oh so bad inside
You can’t deny it you can’t stop crying
If you start breathin’
Then you won’t believe it
You’ll feel so much better
Let it go, let it go, let it go, let it go—Erykah Badu 

It is admirable to be deemed a strong woman amidst an unfavorable society that operates according to an unconscious code riddled with inequity and misogyny, not to mention unrelenting beauty standards, sexual double standards, and nearly impossible work/home responsibilities. There is much to be said about being a strong woman who is also Black in America. Enter the strong Black woman stereotype. This centuries-old cultural trope cuts as deep as a double-edge sword for most Black women in our country. Black women have been taught to internalize this persona, as if it were some sort of cultural badge of honor. Despite being discriminated against in employment, education, and healthcare sectors alike, Black women are expected to just “toughen up” and “keep it pushing.” 

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Routinely devalued and overlooked, being a strong brown-skinned girl or woman results in harsh criticisms from majority groups or even being vilified for seeming too angry or acting too masculine when in essence, they are doing the very thing they oftentimes have no choice but to do, which is to be strong. 

In most cases, Black women typically wear multiple hats and are forced to shoulder multiple roles and responsibilities in the household and within the community at large. They naturally assume the position as the familial matriarch. Due to broken family systems and structural discrimination that has been pervasive for decades, the sister to your left or right always has to just keep going. Most Black women are not accustomed with stressing over frivolous matters or what some might refer to as, ‘first world problems.’ For Black women, if something does not work out or there does not appear to be a viable solution to a problem, they will pray, work hard, probably pray some more, and hustle until there is a way! 

For most of their lives, Black women have seen this awe-inspiring, seemingly supernatural strength and indefatigable fortitude eloquently carried out across generations. This dates back to the survival methods of grandmothers, or incomparable work ethic of mothers, aunties, and women in the church. Black women can unflinchingly hold down the household by working 3-4 jobs, raise their children, and handle their business—all with a radiant smile on their face. This is not because they want to carry the world and those around them on their shoulders and backs, but it is because they have to

Phrases like, “If I don’t do it; it won’t get done,” “I will figure it out,” or “If I don’t take care of everything, who will?” are used too frequently within the Black woman’s nomenclature—the cost is detrimental. But beyond the undeniable strength and beneath the superhero cape lay millions of women who are emotionally exhausted, mentally drained, and enormously burnt out. Black women are tired of having to do everything with a smile draped across their faces while doing it. That smile is often a mask and the only thing keeping them from crying and falling apart. Black women are sick of being misunderstood as self-sacrificing superheroes that are free of emotion and do not mind suffering. The strong Black woman stereotype not only perpetuates gender-based discrimination, but it also fuels an ongoing racial stress burden experienced by countless Black women.

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Dr. Amani M. Allen (University of California, Berkeley) suggests that the superwoman schema that gets attached to Black women is harmful because the intense drive to succeed coupled with ongoing obligations to others exacerbates deleterious health effects tied to racial discrimination (Manke, 2019). Statistically speaking, 58.2% of Black adults with serious mental illness will not receive mental health treatment. While Black women are twice as likely to experience an episode of major depression in comparison to men, sadly only half of those women will actually seek help (MHA, 2021). 

 According to Dr. Allen’s research, the superwoman schema is comprised of the following five elements: 1) an obligation to present an image of strength, 2) feeling an obligation to suppress emotions, 3) resistance to being vulnerable, 4) a drive to succeed despite limited resources, and 5) constantly feeling an obligation to help others (Manke, 2019). Occurring more frequently than health maladies such as, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, psychological distress continues to plague Black women at alarming rates. Mental illness is a great equalizer that does not discriminate based on gender, age, ethnicity, or income. Anxiety, stress, depression, and trauma can effect any woman at any time. 

The good news is that there are various ways for Black women to stop being such strong, superwomen and to start taking better care of their mental health.

The Path to Liberation: Ways to Shed the Myth 

Physicians and clinicians of the psychology and psychiatry fields can work on the following initiatives in order to implement systemic change that is beneficial and helpful for their Black female patients. 

  • Seek out and regularly partake in professional and/or continuing education trainings that focus on cultural competency.
  • Research and implement interventions that promote emotional health for Black women who are burdened and taxed with racial discrimination in schools and the workplace.
  • Become familiarized with multicultural-based counseling orientations that address the state of the Black family and social justice. 
  • Promote self-efficacy and self-advocacy so patients can normalize their mental health as total health (mind, body, spirit).
  • Encourage vulnerability and highlight ways in which excessive selflessness can become an emotional liability. 

Black women must start getting in touch with their emotions and reflect on how they are truly feeling inside. Acknowledging and leaning into the discomfort of common stressors and mental health is life changing. The following guideposts can lead to a lifetime of change and tranquility. 

  • Start squashing the stigma of mental illness by looking within. Black women have taken care of everyone but themselves for far too long. Prioritize your emotional wellness the same way you would for your parents and children.
  • Realize that attending to your emotional health and talking to a professional does not make you “weak,” “broken,” or “crazy.” In fact it actually means the exact opposite. In taking care of your mental health, you are being “strong,” “healthy,” and “sane.” 
  • By taking care of your mental health, you are putting yourself in the position to take better care of your loved ones in the long haul. 
  • Understand that millions of people address mental illness and carry on fulfilling and successful lives and so can you.
  • You have the power! Take the first step by assessing how you are feeling before reaching out to a trusted friend or confidant. Seek out a mental health consultation by contacting your primary care physician or OBGY-N, who can assist you in selecting the appropriate mental health professional. 

Instead of Black women buying into the oppressive narrative of being a strong Black woman, its time to speak up about what is really going on and stop suffering in silence. Women across the globe owe it to themselves to adopt more and more help-seeking behaviors and to embrace a “by any means necessary” approach when it comes to prioritizing their mental and emotional health. Today is a new day. No longer must Black women adhere to impossible expectations and look the part while deteriorating on the inside. It is time to lessen that load, learn to say ‘no,’ and get the help and support that has been much deserved. Laying aside the superwoman cape in exchange for a therapy session or a tangible self-care routine can serve as vital steps to ending this harmful myth, one beautiful Black woman at a time. 


References

Manke, K. (2019, December 5). How the “strong black woman” identity both helps and hurts. Mind & Body. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_the_strong_black_woman_identity_both_helps_and_hurts 

Mental Health America. (2021, March 17). Black and african american communities and mental health. https://www.mhanational.org/issues/black-and-african-american-communities-and-mental-health