by Raina J. Johnson
At times I am strong, but I am not, and never will be, a ‘strong Black woman.’ As a queer Black single mother, I feel pressure to be superhuman even though it can be hard sometimes for me to meet my basic needs. I cannot be a ‘strong Black woman’ (SBW) because it requires that I never show signs of weakness or vulnerability. It means I would have to have endless energy and thick skin.
The SBW is seen everywhere in the media. She’s smart and quick like Olivia Pope on Scandal, she’s resilient and competitive like the Williams sisters, she’s a perfectionist like principal ballerina Misty Copeland, and she’s graceful like Michelle Obama when she flexes her lean arms in a sleeveless gown. While these portrayals of Black women as powerful and steady are inspirational, they can also be harmful because they offer unrealistic standards of Black womanhood to measure ourselves against.
I worry that this idealized version of Black womanhood does not give us space to recognize that not all Black women feel strong all the time.
I thought I learned everything I knew about Black womanhood at a young age. My mother, grandmother and aunts would always carry on, even when the lights and gas were turned off. When the food stamps were running low, we’d just eat peanut butter sandwiches. When their boyfriends and husbands left, they wouldn’t blink an eye. At night, when they thought nobody was awake, they’d go into the bathroom and cry. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what it was that I saw, but it was Black women suffering in silence. Because SBW prioritize everyone else in their lives before themselves, they handle their toughest and most painful times quietly.
Black women are expected to be resilient. We are supposed to raise a (heteronormative) family, work both inside and outside of the home, and rise above all types of oppression. Because people believe the unrealistic standards of the SBW, there’s a lot of stigma around Black women who do not always act strong. A Black woman who isn’t ‘strong’ is seen as a failure of Black womanhood.
I have been so affected by the idea of the SBW that it has stunted my ability and confidence to be open about how I really feel. It means I haven’t asked for help in the toughest of times because I was terrified of not being taken seriously by family members or doctors or being seen as a failure.
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Many Black folks see mental health concerns as a ‘white people problem’ which makes dealing with mental health issues particularly hard for Black women. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only about one-quarter of Black people seek mental health treatment, compared to 40% of whites. On top of the barriers of reaching out to a provider, it’s also very difficult to ask for help when even health providers may expect Black women to be SBW.
But the barriers of stigma and fear are not the only obstacles on the path towards seeking help. Getting care is immensely hard without the proper access to resources. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 20% of Black people had no form of health insurance. Mental health services can be expensive, even with the extra aid of insurance.
It isn’t enough to say #BlackLivesMatter and dismiss the fact that mental health problems plague our communities. Our movements need to address more than questions of life and death, but also issues of quality of life such as access to health care and mental health services. Many people of color have bought into the stigma and fear of admitting that they struggle with their mental health.
Feeling the need to subscribe to an idealized cis-hetero strong Black womanhood has some dangerous side effects, especially in the way it intersects with my identities. As a queer Black woman and single mother, I already feel on the outside of society (and let’s be real, on the outside of many Black circles as well). I am never really sure if, where, and when I can be myself.
As Zora Neale Hurston put it, black women are “de mule uh de world.” Like the mule that carries heavy weight, Black women don’t get credit or respect for our large scale burdens and labors of carrying the world on their shoulders. But while we recognize Black women for our strengths, we have to remember that our fortitude and evidence of survival are only a portion of our truths.
Now I know that stereotypes about the SBW make us believe that Black women can handle more burden and pain than anyone else. Even when we are not feeling our best, many of us know how to carry on, adopting an unsustainable lifestyle.
I want to be allowed to be a Black woman in my own way that makes it ok to not be strong. I want it to be acceptable for me to take care of my health without feeling shame, guilt or strange looks for getting the help I need. I no longer want to hide behind the armor of being a strong Black woman, a mask that only serves to hold me back from truly being free.
Raina J. Johnson is a bookworm and a freelance writer who calls Milwaukee home. Her work has been featured on MyBrownBaby and For Harriet. Usually she’s daydreaming about international travel. Discover more on Twitter and IG @RainaWrites.