The Strong Black Woman trope is the expectation that the ideal Black woman should act with emotional restraint, independence, and in caretaking roles. When we do not meet this standard, we are met with harsh judgment and estrangement from our community and family. Families will go as far as belittling and shaming the Black woman to fall in line and meet her “responsibilities” as a strong Black woman.
I was on a Zoom call support group for people with one of my illnesses, with eight Black women. They have a specific group for Black folks and last night it became clear why. Someone posed the topic of how to deal with the Black culture and society's expectation that Black women must be strong and always make sacrifices for community and family. There was a pause amongst the women. It was clear we knew what she was talking about. The fact that all our role models of Black women are always coming off as resilient and incapable of weakness. These women hold themselves to a higher standard and try to hold other Black women to the same standard. Even our children and partners expect us to sacrifice at the expense of our own mental and physical health.
Now what about women like me? We are profoundly ill and cannot possibly meet this standard. We are no longer the strong Black woman in the communities and our families’ eyes and this is not tolerated well. I have been told “Nothing is wrong with you girl, you are just stressed out,” as if being stressed out is not reason enough to need support and get out of the duty to personify strength.
We have also been told, “You need to go to church,” “You are not praying enough,” “You are just looking for attention,” “Only white people get mentally ill,” “Only white people get eating disorders,” “You are stronger than any illness,” “You can still take care of your kids,” “You better get better or you are going to lose your partner,” “Nobody can possibly be that sick,” “You look good today,” “I told you that you're not sick” and so on. I am not even mentioning what the medical professionals do and say to us and assume about us. I could go on about that, and the women in the group did.
I work so hard to look like I am OK, so I do not present as weak and not meeting up to the strong Black woman ideal. This pretending is exacerbating my symptoms. I am using all my spoons to appease others. I am losing perspective about what is going on with me and I am working all day to make others happy and to keep up with this trope of the strong Black woman.
I am tired. I am sick and tired of all of this, and I am done. I should no longer have to hide my illness and pretend that I am OK. I went to visit my 85-year-old aunt. She was active and very busy shopping every day. I could not keep up. My back pain and near fainting and fatigue were killing me. I did not bring my cane or walker because I did not want her to know how sick I was and that I could not keep up with her. My cousins, who are almost 70 years old, kept saying “What is wrong with you?” One even pointed out that my aunt and they were outpacing me (I am 50 years old). By the time I got back to my house, I was exhausted and in so much pain. I now need a rollator (a walker with wheels). I have not told my aunt how bad off I am. I just say I am fine when she calls. She knows I am on disability for my mental illness but she still cannot fathom that would affect me that badly.
The reality is, I am a strong Black woman. I am able with all this emotional and physical pain I still face every day. I still love on my friends, care the best I can for my family, and advocate for myself with sometimes racist and inept doctors. No, I cannot do what I used to do. Yes, I am disabled and need more sympathy and care than I did before. No, I am not malingering or telling stories for attention. No, I am not pretending to need help so I can get out of chores. I know how this affects my children and I still need you to step up and help. Yes, I am trying my best, but I cannot do this to the detriment of my mental and physical health.
I need from my support team:
- The room to rest
- A ride to the doctor
- Someone to sort my medications
- Hot meals
- House cleaning support
- A place to stay
- Help getting to work
- Someone to care for my children
- Time to heal (if that is even possible).
The strong Black woman trope is literally killing us and must end. We are not superhuman. We are not so strong that we do not fall ill and need support. The weight of the community and family is not ours to bear alone. It really takes a village.
What Black women can do to cope:
- Remember you are worthy of help
- Ask for what you need
- Seek professional therapeutic help
- Have your loved ones come into a doctor's appointment and let the doctor explain what is going on with you and your limitations
- Research your ADA rights and communicate the accommodations you need at work
- Put your boss on notice that you need time to heal
- Take mental health days off from work (if you can afford to)
- Ask for help with the children. Maybe swap and care for their kids on the days you are better
- Ask your spouse/partner to step up and do more of their fair share
- Seek out support groups (some free) (many are online now so you can access them without leaving home)
- Seek spiritual help (if you are inclined to this kind of help)
- Find a confidant who believes in and supports you
- Seek out professional medical help that will believe you and support you in getting to the bottom of what is wrong with you
This is my list. What would you add?
We know what we need; we just must be brave enough to ask for it. You are strong because you wake up every morning, and in the scheme of things that is all that should be required when you are dealing with health problems.
Photo by White Gold Photography
I am Black, lesbian, disabled, mentally ill, fat, a birth mom, mom and grandmom (grand ma Coco to be exact) and Funny. I am a woman who is constantly fighting for my and your liberation.
I have a history of working for those living at the margins mostly in activist and nonprofit spaces. I currently work in the mental health field serving those who have been convicted of felonies and are in mental heath court. I am also a writer. I write about disabilities, chronic illness, mental health, racial trauma, sexual violence and disordered eating. I am also a public community speaker on the same topics. Hit me up if you need my writing or speaking skills.
Please use she or her pronouns when referring to or about me.