"Oh, girl, get up. You got this": Why the “strong black woman” stereotype is an albatross

"People perceive you as not completely human--you don’t have vulnerabilities, you don’t hurt, you just soldier on"

Published July 3, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Michelle Obama, Angela Davis   (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Mark Blinch)
Michelle Obama, Angela Davis (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Mark Blinch)

Excerpted from "The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America"

In the summer 2014 issue of Bitch magazine, I wrote about a stereotype that both buoys and burdens black women. With shades of Sapphire’s hardness, the myth embodies the idea of African American women as perpetually tough and uniquely indestructible.

Strong. Black. Woman.

The words fit together like Blue Magic, sizzling hot combs, and Sunday afternoon.

We are the fighters and the women who don’t take shit from no man. We are the sassy women with the sharp tongues and hands firmly on our hips. We are the ride-or-die chicks. We are the women who have, like Sojourner Truth, “plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me.” We are the mothers who make a way out of no way. On TV, we are the no-nonsense police chiefs and judges. We are the First Ladies with the impressive biceps.

But there is a dirty side to the perceived uncommon strength of black women. Ultimately, the “strong black woman” stereotype is an albatross, at odds with African American women’s very survival. Because, according to pop culture and media, we are also the workhorses. We are the cold, overeducated, career-obsessed sisters who will never marry. We are the indefatigable mamas who don’t need help, the castrating harpies. We are the brawling World Star “hood rats.” We are the women and girls who are unrapeable, whom no one need worry about when we go missing. We are the scary bogeywomen on America’s doorstep in the middle of the night. And, too often, we are the women who dare not give in to our vulnerability, even as we’re breaking, emotionally and physically.

Many women find undeniable truth, liberation, and empowerment in the “strong black woman” meme. Heidi Renée Lewis says, “There are times when I assume that black woman resilience—the kind that allows you to face racism and sexism and heterosexism on a daily basis and still maintain your sanity and your health. I love that part of the strength that black women have had to have. That strength is real.”

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Moments in Alright

Black women have a strong work ethic. Among all women, they have the highest rate of workforce participation.

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Black (Woman) Power

Sixty-year-old Deborah Latham-White remembers embracing the idea of black female strength as a teen at the dawn of the Black Power movement. “Black women were disrupting American beauty culture. We were starting to wear our hair natural as a political statement of acceptance and self-love.” But the currency of cultural strength wasn’t just halos of kinky hair and Afro-chic sartorial tastes. “We were also throwing up our fists in a sign of solidarity with the Black Power movement, as well as being actively engaged in struggle,” she says. Who would not want to be Angela Davis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ruby Dee, Audre Lorde, Shirley Chisholm?

Today, loving profiles of First Lady Michelle Obama often focus on her personal and professional strength, particularly her exceptional education and career achievements, her egalitarian marriage, and her athleticism. An online search for “Michelle Obama and strong” reveals a host of images with America’s First Lady flexing her impressively toned biceps. FLOTUS is positioned as a “strong black woman,” both literally and figuratively, making her not just a modern role model and icon to other black women and girls but to other Americans as well.

Black women look to strong female figures for motivation. They evoke the historical strength of their foremothers to tell each other “You can do it.” Adrianne Traylor says she is moved by the strength of her late grandmother, a devoutly religious, rural Texan who farmed alongside her husband while working other jobs and raising nine children. She left school after the eighth grade, but seven of her children would go on to receive college degrees. “Her example transferred a desire for aspiration and achievement to succeeding generations. She is the embodiment of the best of what ‘strong black woman’ can mean.”

Blogger Erika Nicole Kendall has found many black women unwilling to let go of the idea of strength as part of their identity. When she challenges the myth, it is nearly always met with debate.

“[Some women say], ‘I actually take pride in being strong, why would you want to take that from me?’”

The key, Kendall says, is realizing “I am strong and I am powerful, but I am also vulnerable and I am also able to break and because of that I should be very careful with myself and expect the people around me to be careful with me as well—to support me, help me, provide encouragement, and provide some kind of relief.”

And that is the problem—at least part of it. It is easy to forget that people who are strong need support and relief. It is sometimes depressingly hard for even black women to remember that they are not, indeed, superwomen.

“I’ve had to be a strong black woman since I was seven,” Fatima Thomas says, “Even when I didn’t want to be, I’ve always had to be.

“I had a mom who was an alcoholic. She was on drugs. She was left by her husband and she checked out of life. She partied and had fun. I had to take care of my siblings—I mean feeding, getting [them] dressed for school, the whole situation. I’ve always been that.”

For Fatima, surviving her childhood required remarkable strength. But one can survive and still be in pain, broken. A survivor can still need help.

One night, Fatima found herself perched in the middle of a highway wearing all black—a strong girl at the end of her rope. “I tried to commit suicide. I remember sitting in the middle of the highway just kind of daring something to hit me so that I wouldn’t have to live anymore. I’m so young that I don’t realize that if you’re sitting in the middle of the highway, neither side is going to hit you. I sat in the middle of the highway, so traffic is veering around me. I’m like, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll go home and deal with that again.’”

She tried again in college. “I took every pill between my room and my cheating boyfriend’s dorm room. Every pill I could find, I took it and I lived through it—barely, but I did. I lived through it. Years later, I had a botched abortion and I lived through that. I was on life support. It seemed like no matter what, God wasn’t going to let me die, so I had to endure stuff.

“Within the last three or four years, I have had walking pneumonia three times. I’ve had kidney stones. I’m convinced I have had depression, even though I haven’t been diagnosed. I thoroughly attribute all that to strong black womanhood.

“I’m convinced that because [black women] persevere and make it through, nobody’s paying attention to what we’re going through when it’s happening. I don’t think the idea of the strong black woman is just a burden, I think it is killing us.

“Once you become a mother, you will survive for that kid. If you love that kid, and especially if you love that kid more than you love yourself, it doesn’t matter what it takes. There have been days where, except for getting my children fed and dressed and out the door, I was not out of the bed. My children didn’t even realize it, because while they were gone, I was in the bed, depressed, on and off sleep, couldn’t get up. Here comes the bus. I drag myself out of the bed, go cook dinner, get back in the bed.

“There are moments when everything around here’s going good. I’m getting awards. I’m getting praise. And I feel like, ‘When are they going to realize I’m a complete phony?’ I just want to go back to bed. I don’t want to do this, because what if I’m not strong? What if I want to cry? What if I want to admit that things hurt? Who do I admit that to? When you’ve been so strong so long, even when you do break down and someone is there, you’re on the floor saying, ‘Somebody help me’ and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, girl, get up. You got this.’ No I don’t. That’s why I’m on the floor. . . I don’t got this.”

* * *

Moments in Alright

Tired of taking her children to Philadelphia or Manhattan for cultural activities, Taneshia Nash Laird founded the Baker Street Social Club to support and promote artists, writers, and performers and bring the arts and cultures of the African diaspora to her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey.

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Built Black Girl Tough

Lisa Patton, fifty, says, "When people perceive you as the strong black woman, they don’t think of you as being a complete human being. They think that you don’t have vulnerabilities, that you don’t hurt, you just kind of soldier on. Everyone expects that out of you. It is what society expects out of you. It is what your family has basically raised you to be, because in many African American families, the girls are raised to basically do what they need to do.”

Deborah Latham-White agrees that black women often pass down the idea of strength at all costs to younger generations out of a love that is perhaps misguided.

“Lots of times, our own mothers get that geared up in their heads: ‘I’ve got to make my daughter tough, because it’s a tough world out there.’”

For centuries, the notion of black female strength has also been used to challenge our humanity and femininity. Long after the era of the cult of true womanhood, by the age of the Equal Rights Amendment, when middle-class white women fought to come down off the pedestal of idealized womanhood and progressive folks celebrated the strength of various marginalized peoples, black women were still seen as uniquely tough.

“Black Woman Power,” an interesting but flawed article by second-wave feminist Caroline Bird in the March 10, 1969, issue of New York magazine, deems black women capable and independent (read: strong) by necessity. Black women fight, Bird says, because they have no one to fight for them, unlike women with proximity to white, patriarchal power. “Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Negro women in America have escaped some of the psyche-crippling education of white girls. They haven’t been carefully taught how not to fight. On the contrary, some of them fight hard and develop a personal style of fighting that suggests that ‘grace under pressure’ which is supposed to be the essence of courage.”

Bird’s piece spins allegedly distinctive black female strength as a powerful weapon, giving African American women an edge over white women and black men—a dubious message. It also paints black women as possessing a durability that is nearly inhuman. For instance, Bird asserts that the “absence of Negro fathers hurts growing boys more than girls, and saved Negro girls from some of the dissatisfactions with their sex that have brought many white women to psychoanalysis.” Abandoning black girls does not hurt them, this view suggests; instead, it improbably makes them stronger. Bird also pits black female achievement against black male success (“Without half trying, Negro women are better able than their men to cope”), unintentionally illustrating the double bind that strong black women face: in a society where strength and power are reserved for white people and men most of all, black women are always at the precipice of overstepping their bounds.

Society remains uneasy with female strength of any stripe and still prefers and champions delicate damsels—an outdated sentiment that limits all women. But because the damsel’s face is still viewed as unequivocally white and female, it is a particular problem for black women. As long as vulnerability and softness are the basis for acceptable femininity (and acceptable femininity is a requirement for a woman’s life to have value), women who are perpetually framed because of their race as supernaturally indestructible will not be viewed with regard.

This may be why we so rarely see the black women who are victims of violence on true-crime television, despite the fact that black women are more likely to be victims of sexual violence and domestic homicidal violence. Instead, we overwhelmingly see young white women who fit the picture of idealized true womanhood (journalist Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome” to describe this disparate media attention). Young, blond Natalee Holloway and mommy-to-be Laci Peterson are damsels, beneficiaries of sympathetic national media attention and a drive for justice; Tamika Huston and Latoyia Figueroa, black women who disappeared under identical circumstances, are not.

Sheri Parks, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, described the significance of this reporting bias in a 2006 appearance on CNN, explaining that stories about missing women capture the national attention, “uniting people to save a soul.” The woman “becomes a symbol, and if we save her for a few days, we’re okay.” If lack of media coverage is any indication, the media does not believe strong black women need saving.

But lack of empathy for black women has other serious implications. When Staten Island mother Glenda Moore’s car became submerged by water during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, she was able to free her children, little boys ages two and four, from their car seats only to have the rushing water sweep them away. When the distraught Moore attempted to garner help from her neighbors—to simply convince them to call 911—she found only closed doors. Said one neighbor, before shutting the door in Moore’s face, “I don’t know you.”

In response to news coverage of the tragedy, a commenter at the Christian Post defended Moore’s neighbors, asking “How many people are going to let a muscular, screaming black woman into their house? How would you know whether it was just a trick and you were about to be the victim of home invasion, robbery, rape. . . . That is the problem, you just don’t know.”

Lest this comment sound like just your average Internet troll, consider what happened when nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride knocked on Theodore Wafer’s door in the early morning of November 2, 2013. McBride was seeking help at Wafer’s suburban Detroit home after a car accident, but instead of receiving aid she was shot in the face.

On her blog, writer DJ Freedom Fighter responded to the transformation of five-foot-three-inch, 130-pound Moore from distraught mother to a burly, duplicitous beast, calling it “optic whiteness.” The blogger could also have been discussing Renisha McBride. Optic whiteness allowed Moore’s neighbor (and Wafer) to “permissibly deny her help that he would have certainly offered to someone who embodies a picturesque version of the standards of womanhood and motherhood.”

Following the Moore and McBride tragedies, a 2013 article in Time asked “Why are black women seen as more threatening, more masculine and less in need of help?” UCLA historian Sarah Haley answered, “Black women have been seen as different than black men, certainly, but they have not always been seen as women either; to be a woman is to be seen as deserving of protection, and black women are not always seen that way.”

Black women’s vulnerability is often overlooked even within the black community, where battling racial violence against black men is given preference and threats to black women are ignored. Few in America don’t know the names Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, while Tarika Wilson and Aiyana Stanley Jones remain anonymous victims of police brutality. And in 2014, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, a program designed to uplift the black community by helping boys and men through “cradle to college and career” strategies. The move by the White House prompted open letters from black feminists and their allies. One letter, signed by more than fourteen hundred women, including Anita Hill and Alice Walker, said:

The need to acknowledge the crisis facing boys should not come at the expense of addressing the stunted opportunities for girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same schools, and struggle to overcome a common history of limited opportunities caused by various forms of discrimination.

We simply cannot agree that the effects of these conditions on women and girls should pale to the point of invisibility, and are of such little significance that they warrant zero attention in the messaging, research and resourcing of this unprecedented Initiative.

Of course, black women’s strength is also blamed for the black marriage crisis. Singer Robin Thicke shared more unasked-for advice in a late 2011 Essence article, when he told black women to take better care of their men: “Maybe you’re being too stubborn. Maybe you’re not saying you’re sorry. You have to take good care of him, too. You have to give love to get love.” Maybe we’re being too damned strong for our own good. The consensus seems to be that black women are too tough to love or be loved.

Many African American women are increasingly ambivalent about the “strong” label and not solely because of how they look through society’s eyes. The label also distorts how they view themselves and, more importantly, how they take care of themselves (or do not).

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Moments in Alright

Black women do camp, climb, and hike—just ask Rue Mapp, whose love of nature was sparked growing up in Northern California. Rue was dismayed to see few other black people on her forays into the great outdoors, so she founded Outdoor Afro, a social organization that connects African Americans nationwide with outdoor activities such as birding, fishing, gardening, and skiing.

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Stories of black families are filled with sacrificing ma’dears and mamas, whose ability to nurture and work was seemingly limitless. Too often black families lose sight of these women as human beings, and in efforts to emulate them, black women dash their own health and well-being on the rocks. They come to believe, to their detriment, that preternatural strength means that black women can and should bear any physical and emotional burden without complaint.

Finding the Balance

Heidi Renée Lewis says, “I am raising a daughter. The reality is, a certain kind of strength will be required for her to make it through this life with her sanity and health—to not let racism and sexism kill her. But I have to be very careful about telling her to be strong, because I also want her to be fully human.”

Sofia Quintero, creator of the Feminist Love Project, a tele-summit on feminism and love, concurs, saying that there are times when she embraces the idea of strong black womanhood “as a way to practice resiliency and protect myself. But the flip side is that it allows little space for me to be vulnerable, seek support, and otherwise be fully human.”

And that is what the enduring meme of the “strong black woman” obscures: it makes it harder for others to see black women as complex beings. Worse, the myth of black women’s extraordinary strength makes it difficult for black women to see themselves.

The most radical thing African American women can do is to throw off the shackles forged by the strong black woman meme and regain a full and complex humanity that allows them to be capable, strong, and independent but also to be carried and cared for. Allowing for physical and emotional vulnerability is not weakness; it is humanness. More, it is the revolutionary act in the face of a society eager to mold black women into hard, unbreakable things.

“Understanding that being strong and being the only one to manage everything—we do that out of necessity and maybe we do want to be proud of that,” Erika Nicole Kendall says. “But we have to monitor what we allow that to mean in terms of how we care for ourselves. It’s not, ‘Oh, I can handle anything so I’m going to handle everything.’ It’s, ‘I can do this, but I also need to be realistic about how it’s going to affect me in the end and I need to plan and prepare for that.’”

Excerpted from "The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America" by Tamara Winfrey Harris. Copyright © 2015 by Tamara Winfrey Harris. Reprinted courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

By Tamara Winfrey Harris

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