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The Problem with the “Strong Black Woman” Narrative

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Portrait of Kerry Washington

The “Strong Black Woman” has been standing tall for many decades. She’s unbreakable, resilient, almost superhuman. She’s selfless strength personified. The type of woman that can stand all kinds of tribulations and come out even stronger. The human embodiment of the maxim that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

So what’s the problem with this seemingly empowering depiction of Black women?

Prior to the “Strong Black Woman” trope, there were negative stereotypes of Black women: the “Mammy”, a nurturing, friendly, always smiling Black woman, generally, a slave or servant who functioned solely to serve the needs of white families; the “Jezebel”, which portrays Black women as sexually insatiable and animalistic in their desires; and the “Sapphire”, also known as the “angry Black woman”, depicting Black women as irrational, quick-tempered and impossible to work with.

The “Strong Black Woman” was initially conceived by Black women to subvert these negative stereotypes, however its popularity in tv and film has created a stereotype just as dangerous as those it intended to replace.

Stereotypes are important to reflect upon, and to challenge, because they are powerful tools used to shape how Black women are seen in society and how we see ourselves. They are social mechanisms used for perpetuating inequality. Some are used out of ignorance, whilst others are meant as a compliment. But when it comes to inequality, oppression and exclusion, intent has nothing to do with impact. And impact is what actually counts.

“Strong” is a loaded word when used to describe Black women. It’s beautiful but also dangerous. It both buoys and burdens Black women with the myth that we are perpetually tough and uniquely indestructible. It can be a double edged sword.

Many women find undeniable truth, liberation, and empowerment in the “Strong Black woman” trope. There are times when we assume that Black woman resilience—the kind that allows us to face racism and sexism on a daily basis and still maintain our sanity and our health. We walk out of our houses everyday, putting on our ‘armor’ in anticipation of experiencing racial discrimination in some form. We evoke the historical strength of our foremothers to tell each other “You can do it.” That strength is real and should in no way be diminished.

But the reality is that the preparation and anticipation of navigating daily microaggressions is a persistent and significant stressor that adds to our overall stress burden. We know from research that stress impacts health, both physical and mental. Not only do Black women continue to have higher rates of physical illness with poorer quality of care, we also experience higher rates of depression than our White counterparts. And we are more likely to receive lower rates of mental health treatment.

Giving Black women superhero qualities is an overcorrection that's simply limiting in a different way. It’s a loaded label that promotes the perception of unwavering strength, while simultaneously dismissing the presence of pain or struggle for Black women who are strong and resilient. Ultimately, the “Strong Black woman” stereotype is an albatross, at odds with our very survival. Too often, we ourselves bend to the pressure and dare not give in to our vulnerability, even as we’re breaking, emotionally and physically.

It just so happens that I consider myself to be an emotionally resilient person and I just so happen to be a Black woman but, I must stress, the two are not related. If Black women are better equipped at dealing with stressful situations or crises it is only because we are forced to through social conditioning.

“Strong Black women'' are strong because society demands that of us every. single. day. We are taught to push through, keep going, and endure difficult times in a world that doesn’t afford us the luxury of showing signs of weakness and vulnerability. We are denied the right to fluctuating emotions and a multifaceted personality. Black women are expected to persist and embody self-confidence that doesn’t resemble the treatment that we receive. Our silence and invisibility shape the stereotype and the expectation that Black women remain strong at any cost. As a result, Black women are paying the price for this myth.

It’s a complicated and dehumanizing stereotype — and its debunking seems somehow at odds with feminism. No one wants to project the message that Black women are weak and helpless. We are not. But it is important to remember that Black women are not strong because of some innate superhuman power.

We’re multidimensional beings. Human, you might say. We’re emotional. We cry. We’re vulnerable. We can still feel defeated and at times need people to hold us up. We feel the weight of the burden we carry. If you prick us, we will bleed.

The danger of the “Strong Black Woman” is that it excuses everybody else from responsibility by minimising the severity of the issues we face, living in the intersection of two marginalised groups. It suggests that we don’t need help; that we don't require support; that we not only can but should be able to handle it all. It makes it harder for others to see Black women and the full spectrum of our lived experience. The expectation to perform like superhumans while being treated as subhuman, also makes it difficult for Black women to see themselves.

It’s time to stop expecting Black women to be strong and to start allowing us to be human. “Strong” is not the rent we pay to exist as Black women in this world. We don't owe the world our spirit if it means breaking it.

The most radical thing society can do for Black women is to throw off the shackles forged by the “Strong Black woman” stereotype and afford us a full and complex humanity that allows us to be capable, strong, and independent but also to be carried and cared for.

We need a world in which Black women can truly accept that allowing for physical and emotional vulnerability is not weakness, but humanness. A world in which Black women don’t need to be so strong. A world in which we can be celebrated for everything else we can be. A world that sees us as fully human.

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