‘The Strong Black Woman’ and How We Change Our Narrative
Black women are strong. We can look to our mothers, grandmothers, historical figures, and role models to witness unwavering displays of strength. And we can even look to ourselves as we navigate a current climate of heightened racism and sexism with decided resilience.
The strength harnessed in the bones of Black women and seemingly harvested in our DNA through generations has contributed largely to the survival and improvement of our communities. Black women have consistently broken through barriers of access to improve our socioeconomic status. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the academic year between 2013 and 2014, Black women received 64% of all bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students. As we earn a greater share of degrees compared to our Black male counterparts, we still earn significantly less money than them. There is no mystery as to how these factors can compound our experience of stress and depression when dealing with increased economic and social discrimination.
Black men have systematically been removed from the Black nuclear family through any number of means— slave trade, war, lynching, Jim Crow laws, higher risk of disease and lack of healthcare access, drugs, gangs, imprisonment, and police violence. Out of pure necessity, Black women have found ways to persevere and support their family in the absence of their husbands, fathers, and sons. We have heavily leaned on and taken pride in the idea of the innately ‘Strong Black Woman’ and pulled from an imaginary well of strength to keep our families and communities together. Often not discussed is what comes at the expense of clinging proudly to the notion of being strong and Black and woman. What are we silently losing in its trail?
When we value our ability to be strong in a way that is imbalanced, we stifle our ability to allow a full range of emotional response to life’s stressors. Our emotional responses are often impaired by the expectation to first, be strong, and second, express ourselves in a way that does not reinforce stereotypes of being angry and bitter. How often have we heard a girlfriend or relative say things like, “I don’t have time to cry about it” or even offer advice like, “you’ve just got to move on.” We try to push past or ignore our feelings without any real resolution, thus subconsciously becoming a participant in our own dehumanization.
It is important that we begin to shift the narrative of the ‘Strong Black Woman’ to one that allows us to fully realize and express our feelings in a healthy manner. Don’t get me wrong— the strength and resilience of Black women should absolutely be celebrated because that strength has propelled our people and communities forward. It has held our families together and brought up generations to achieve more than the previous. But, what does a healthy balance of strength look like now? How does strength manifest through the lens of self-care and self-love?
Let’s try to redefine strength.
- Strength does not require the absence or suppression of emotion to move forward. You are not always obligated to present as strong. It applies unfair and unnecessary emotional strain and pressure. It is okay to express fear, anxiety, defeat, and depression. Find safe spaces to express yourself fully, whether you have a trusted loved one who will not judge, or you grab a journal to make sense of how you feel. But I urge Black women to allow themselves to fully feel and examine every emotion that comes to the surface. Process it at your own pace. You don’t have to rush through your pain, the same way you wouldn’t rush through your joy. Sitting with your feelings, when done so constructively, does not make you weak.
- Strength also looks like vocalizing your limitations and boundaries. Communicate your hard no’s when you already have enough on your plate. Empower your loved ones and community to tap into other resources to be more self-sufficient. Black women are so accustomed to being the caregiver, backbone, and everything else that we often do not recognize our role as enabler. Encourage people to do their own work and be accountable for their own journey. You can offer support but be mindful of your limits and how far you extend yourself.
- Strength is being conscious of your mental, emotional, and physical health as well as how significantly they intertwine. Stress lives in the body. Emotional pain manifests in the body. Ignoring your feelings, instead of working through them, triggers a stress and anxiety response. We often suffer through stress and anxiety because the root feelings of fear or shame go unaddressed. The disregarded pain and manifested stress begin to reveal themselves in our bodies. So, we suffer from high blood pressure and several other health issues disproportionate to other groups. Try taking a holistic approach to your health. Cultivate your emotional and mental well-being while proactively improving your physical health.
Self-care is strength, which I define as any practice or action that both honors and nurtures your best self. It is not simplified to pampering, although that is a wonderful practice of appreciating our bodies. Self-care does call us to be fully present for whatever we may be experiencing and loving ourselves through it. Self-care asks us to establish boundaries and redefine what can hold space in our lives. Self-care begs the question, what layers of conditioning can I peel away to become the best version of myself? Let that be your measure of strength. You are strong because you care for and love yourself first, and that practice allows you to do the same for your friends, family, and community.