We produced the following article as part of our annual Therapy for Black Girls campaign in honor of Minority Mental Health Month. This year Therapy for Black Girls focuses on “Hanging Up Our Capes.” Join us as we release ourselves from the externally and internally imposed pressures of showing up as “superwoman” in order to prioritize our well-being and foster healthier, more authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love.
Weaponized (or strategic; they are used mutually) incompetence is one of those human behaviors that has ultimately existed for eras. A recent buzzword that began trending on TikTok some months back, the concept has sparked meaningful conversations about platonic and romantic relationships and where imbalances may exist in them.
So, what exactly is weaponized incompetence?
Weaponized incompetence is when someone pretends (key word here) not to know how to do something that they know how to do or are capable of doing/learning. On social media, the behavior is most commonly exemplified through heterosexual relationships, highlighting how women take on more domestic and familial responsibilities, like changing diapers or cooking. However, this can exist between any set or group of people in various ways. When someone acts like they are unable to do something or not do it well/to others’ expectations, this can make the other party feel obligated to take over. If the behavior turns into a pattern, this can look like the affected party always completing said task and not expecting assistance from the other. Experts suggest that this behavior can be learned from a young age when using it repeatedly to get out of responsibilities. Weaponized incompetence can happen on a conscious or subliminal level, either with the specific intention to get out of doing something or in a way that is almost automatic and less thought out. Either way, this can leave people feeling manipulated, gaslit, and uncomfortable addressing the behavior. Especially if someone recognizes that they are being used and the pattern continues, the cognitive dissonance between enabling and setting boundaries can be frustrating.
What does weaponized incompetence have to do with Black women?
Everything. Black women, in particular, have been subjected to wearing capes larger than them since the birth of this country. From the plantation house where they essentially raised the white enslavers’ children to the downtown corporate office where they are commonly asked to do “Office Housework,” they have kept up with duties, roles, and responsibilities that others would not – chose not to – fulfill for centuries. Think of the women’s suffrage movement, from then to now: though largely left out and actively discriminated against by their white counterparts, they are at the forefront of a movement to make voting easier and equitable. The term Strong Black Woman (SBW) was coined recently, a relative of the term Superwoman Schema (SWS). It recognizes the black woman’s general feeling of obligation always to be strong, suppress or minimize their emotional experiences, help others, reduce vulnerability or dependence, and succeed despite odds stacked against them. Inherently these attributes are not negative, but excessively exemplifying these characteristics can become detrimental when the self is neglected. As it relates to weaponized incompetence, black women may naturally fall prey at home, in relationships, at work, and in their sex lives. The result? Burnout, depletion, and overall physical and psychological overwhelm. The data and research are beyond clear: black women suffer more from ailments like hypertension, chronic pain, somatic complaints, stress, and anxiety than other groups. Racial, economic, and gender oppression are all primary contributors.
So, how can we turn this train around?
Call it out.
The first step to solving any problem is identifying and naming it. Calling the behavior out is crucial if you’ve concluded that weaponized incompetence is occurring. There are ways to confront an issue without accusing or creating an environment that breeds defensiveness rather than collaboration. Being as specific as possible is helpful; naming examples and explaining what you felt from the action is an excellent recipe for clarity. The approach may look something like, “When I don’t receive any help getting the kids ready for bed, it makes me feel really alone in the process,” or “If I am the only person on the team creating the presentation for staff meetings, I feel overwhelmed and am unable to get to other tasks.” Whether in your personal life or the workplace, emphasizing that you’re only looking for help creating a solution and best efforts can go a long way. Suppose the issue seems to be a concern from the other party that they aren’t doing a task well. In that case, this can be an opportunity to learn from one another and figure out the best way to move forward together.
What’s the “why” here?
Equally as important as identifying the problem is understanding the root. If you’re noticing a behavior recurring, it may be necessary to ask why it’s frequently happening. Maybe there is some natural anxiety or worry about a particular task or a feeling of incapacity. Because of this, maybe stepping aside is a way of avoiding a potential argument. Is there a way to help the other person feel more capable or encouraged to have an open dialogue? Maybe there are tasks your partner is uncomfortable with, for example. Could chores and household tasks be divided between your likes and dislikes or comfortability levels? To most problems, there are viable solutions. The challenge is less about the presence of solutions and more about the determination to seek them out.
Create expectations that are clear + systemic.
This tool, like the others, can be used in personal and professional spaces. It also is helpful for accountability purposes – when there are clear expectations and agreements about tasks, there is little room left for confusion or claims of miscommunication. In the workplace, this may look like a created schedule where team members alternate between executing staff meeting presentations. Another example of this in the workplace is ensuring that whoever has a specific task written in their job description sticks to it, not anyone else. In your relationship, maybe this looks like a chore chart or coming up with negotiations that work for everyone. Prioritizing being a team above all makes the importance of sharing tasks understood as an ingredient to success in the relationship.
It’s summer, sisters – hang that oversized cape up and have a rest. You’ve earned it.