A group of Black women.

Let Go of the Idea of the ‘Strong Black Woman’

    One of the biggest lies I ever believed was that Black girls were immune to depression. I believed that we all had some sort of superpower that allowed us to overcome sadness before it was turned into mental poison, a special bone in the body that prevented us from being subject to undesirable emotion. I had so desperately believed in the narrative of the strong Black woman because I wanted her to be real and for her to be me.

    As much as I understood, or thought I understood, about mental health, the concept of it seemed so far away from Blackness. It seemed odd to me that Black women would harbour those feelings because I was unable to comprehend what it would look like for us. But at some point during my teenage years, this belief started to fall apart, and I could finally see how far away from the truth that was.

    The truth is that expression is not something Black women are afforded, meaning our mental health is rarely considered. Being inexpressive is something many of us learn to be early in our lives and carry with us as we grow. When we do make an attempt, we’re branded as “angry”, “emotional,” and “sensitive,” as if being any of those things is something to be ashamed of. We are used to suppressing and stashing away feelings into a tiny box until it is filled and on the verge of bursting open, leaving a confusing, sentimental mess.

    Looking back, I started to believe in that superpower because of how little concern for our well-being I saw from others in our community and outside of it; therefore, I interpreted the lack of attention as meaning we aren’t given the support because, unlike others, we don’t need it. It’s also possible that a large part of my ignorance is due to my family’s cultural impact. Caribbean families tend to avoid divulging adverse, personal feelings to one another. I have never seen my family members talk about sadness or anger regarding mental health and well-being. Any conversation I have observed from them or that came close to a discussion on the topic was filled with judgment or ill-will for the person in question. 

    In Black communities, topics involving mental health are wrapped tightly in this idea of strength, something that disproportionately affects Black women. Too often, societal structures are founded and maintained on our backs. We are the pillars of home we hardly get to rest in. We are often reminded of our role as if it is something to be thankful for, something that our youth should aspire to be. 

    It is a common misunderstanding that admitting one needs help or has a problem is weak, which is unfavourable for people who pride themselves on being strong mentally. This deeply ingrained misconception of weakness works to misconstrue our ideas of strength and ability.

    The strong Black woman is hard-working, well-mannered, and emotionless. She is the foundation of the church, the family, and the community. She works to please and doesn’t complain or cry, for she is grateful for her position. If she cries she is unworthy of praise and exaggerating her pain. If she expresses her anger she is, aggressive, inimical, something to be afraid of. A Black woman who tends to overreact tends to be a threat. If she is allowed to express, she can shake and bend the systems that are reliant on her emotional suppression.

    Single mothers are most often the targets of these fallacious projections. They are expected to work indecent hours, attempt to obtain higher education if they have not already done so, and take care of their children, all while trying to maintain their sanity. They’re not supposed to ask for help, and when they do, it is seen as a parental failing rather than a societal one. Single mothers are swiftly demonized when they begin to seek any means of support. They’re branded as unfit, unloving, and uncaring when they are no longer able to contribute to a system that does nothing for them. 

    The strength narrative also hinders our ability to cope in a healthy manner. Inaccessibility to resources, communal assistance, and information keeps us from understanding the problems that ourselves and others may face as well as finding appropriate solutions to those problems.

    I have seen too many of us who wanted to be a “strong Black woman” so badly that we denied ourselves the pleasure of emotional acknowledgment, refusing to accept we needed help in the name of such “strength.” This fallacy of strength attached to Blackness diminishes our well-being and hurts us more than it empowers us.

    I have learned that true vigour is found by addressing our emotions and not treating them as an idea from which we are invincible. Our virtue and power have been generally defined by those who aren’t us, and we must createour own definitions. As much as I have seen our women falling into the strength trap, I have seen them making an effort to come out of it, and this gives me hope. We should be bold in our fervour, choosing when and how we voice ourselves, and we should encourage others to do the same. We should also listen to learn and teach in regard to emotional intelligence. It is time to rid ourselves of those tiny, mental boxes and shake and bend the structure, for there is no foundation without us.

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Shae De Pass is a post-graduate research student and writer from Toronto, Canada passionate about the intersections of race, gender and culture.