(Black women ARE cis-gendered, trans, and gender expansive)
Over a decade ago I left the field of psychology because it simply did not care about Black women. As a Black woman studying psychology, I struggled to see myself reflected in the readings and assignments of my undergraduate and graduate courses. Black women have largely been ignored and/or excluded in research and readings regarding mental health, its manifestations, and interventions. Even in the rare cases where Black women were included in studies and research, the framework and lens were too often not made for us or even by us. To me, the numerous diagnoses from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM-5), the manual mental health professionals and students use to treat clients, never fully aligned with what I have seen in many of the Black women that I have encountered, myself included. Our unique intersections between race and gender have yet to be fully recognized in their impact on our well-being by the industry as a whole, leaving us at the hands of those who exclude our lived reality and its complexities. Recognizing that the mental health and wellness industry is in some limited ways trying to catch up, it is still greatly lacking in addressing the specific needs and conditions of Black women.
About a week ago, I was sitting in the student office of my psychotherapy clinic, having only recently re-entered the field and finding myself halfway through my practicum, when I felt the jolt of validation that ran throughout my body. It was towards the final minutes of our bi-weekly psychoeducational workshops as my supervisor was responding to a question about depression that I had asked at the beginning of the discussion on the topic. I noted to her the trend of “high” functioning depression amongst the Black women I was building a therapeutic relationship with. I found that the impossible situation that many Black women find themselves in creates an environment where “no” is often not an option. It was then that my supervisor concluded for me that when no alternatives are seen, depression substitutes a “no”. Across their socio-historical positioning and amongst the current gender-race climate, many Black women are unable or unwilling to say “no”, leaving us primed and vulnerable to depression.
What is depression?
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), [c]clinical depression, sometimes called major depression, is a complex mood disorder caused by various factors, including genetic predisposition, personality, stress, and brain chemistry. While it can suddenly go into remission, depression is not something that people can “get over” by their own effort. The main symptom of depression is a sad, despairing mood that:
- is present most days, and
- lasts most of the day lasts for more than two weeks
- impairs the person’s performance at work, at school, or in social relationships.
This last point, the impairment of performance at work, school, or social relationships is where I want to focus on: What happens when, generation after generation, a group is battered and conditioned to believe that they simply do not matter? That their needs, experiences, emotions, and values are inconsequential? That they MUST remain strong and unbreakable; that they can never break from that strength? And then that same group absorbs that strength labeling into their being; and over time the message that they MUST endure all becomes so engrained into their own identity that asking for help or even rest becomes points of guilt and shame? What happens then? What I have seen with my clients, friends, family, and even within myself is that depression within our cohort can sometimes look very different from what I am being taught at school and from what the typical expectations are. This variation of how depression manifests does not take away the physical and psychological toll of untreated depression.
What is the Strong Black Woman/Black Superwoman Schema?
In 2019, Kara Manke, a science communications writer at the University of California Berkeley (UCB) explained that:
The stereotype of the “strong black woman” is more than just a cultural trope: Many black women in America report feeling pressured to act like superwomen, projecting themselves as strong, self-sacrificing, and free of emotion to cope with the stress of race- and gender-based discrimination in their daily lives.
Throughout my life, I was praised for being a “strong Black woman/superwoman” who could carry on regardless of what life threw at her; who would fight her way through any barrier brought before her. My lack of physical and public displays of emotions was interpreted as me not needing help or support, and often led me to be isolated and have to care for myself during my struggles. From a young age, I helped to raise my siblings, I financially provided for myself in my early teens, and I was my own caretaker, support system, tutor, coach, shoulder to cry on, and motivator. This then created a cycle where I did not only become the only one I could rely on but also added an expectation of how I would navigate through life. While this “strong black woman” troupe served to protect me from racial discrimination and harm, it came at the expense of my mental health and wellbeing. Even when in crisis, I struggled to make it known and somehow found a way to show up to the things I needed to tend to — even if that meant it was poorly done, at least it was done. It wasn’t until later in my life that I began to understand how much I had internalized this necessary but harmful schema and its roots. In her book ‘Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism’ bell hooks explains that: Black women are one of the most devalued female groups in American society, and thus they have been the recipients of male abuse and cruelty that has known no bounds or limits. Since the black woman has been stereotyped by both White and Black men as the “bad” woman, she has not been able to ally herself with men from either group to get protection from the other. Neither group feels that she deserves protection.
This is not to say the individuals have not come to the aid of Black women or spent much of their life protecting them, but rather this is a critique of the cohorts. When I did, with great effort, ask for help or support, I was most often met with minimization of my request or left completely ignored. In general, Black women have time and time again been denied the ability to safely and effectively express their concerns. Through the past 400 years here in North America, we have been stripped of our humanity, enslaved, raped, tortured, murdered, experimented on, violated, forced to breed, and have had our children taken away from us. We have also been largely ignored by the woman’s movement and mainstream feminism, in particular those who through sexist-racist social orders were allocated privileges made inaccessible to Black women, and who have yet to show up for, defend, uplift, and support us. This same dynamic is still in effect today. In her article ‘Why Aren’t We All Talking About Breonna Taylor?’ Alisha Haridasani Gupta goes into the conditions of Black women today, stating:
“…her (Breonna Taylor’s) exclusion, and that of other black women, is the latest iteration of a longstanding issue: Black women’s experiences of police brutality and their tireless contributions to mass social justice movements have almost always been left out of the picture, receiving far fewer media or political attention. For years, black women have faced a double bind of racial and gender discrimination. According to a 2017 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, black women remain underrepresented in the political system, black women are more likely to work jobs that lack crucial benefits and protections, more black women live in poverty than any other group, black women experience higher rates of intimate partner violence, and the gender barriers in access to health care are higher for black women than white women.”
The messaging from society as a whole remains the same: Black women don’t matter. Black women are persistently asked to show up and defend gender and racial justice. Yet, our calls for help are seldom returned and are most often deemed as secondary. A few examples come to mind. The suffragettes’ movement largely ignored Black women, focusing instead on elevating white women in the middle and upper classes to be on equal footing with men. In the Black power movements of the 60s and 70s, a racial callout for equality was at the forefront of the movement with little to no mention of challenging the social constructs that left Black women as the most vulnerable for abuse, even when they were a larger part of that movement. Today, our cries of pain and symptoms are ignored by the medical industry, leading to higher infant mortality rates and deaths during labour than any other group.
Statistics show that Black women are 3–4 times more likely to die during labour, and that Black babies are 2–3 times more likely to die within their first year of life when compared to their white counterparts. Our faces and names are consistently ignored or trivialized when police brutality takes our lives. We continue to be one of the most underpaid members of the workforce along with Latinas and Indigenous women. We are under-represented in every professional field, are afforded fewer opportunities, and consistently have to demand that our work be acknowledged. We are demonized and targeted when playing roles on TV and in movies whenever society believes we are unworthy of representing non stereotypical character roles. Our features, style, and culture are praised when manufactured or surgically placed on white bodies, and vilified on our natural bodies. The list goes on and on about how society continues to marginalize and oppress Black women. Often we are overlooked for a multitude of reasons, but one that I would like to highlight is that “we are strong”, and so all hands are washed of needing to protect us. bell hook explains: When feminists acknowledge in one breath that black women are victimized and in the same breath emphasize their strength, they imply that though black women are oppressed they manage to circumvent the damaging impact of oppression by being strong — and that is simply not the case. Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, and that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.
We have continuously strived to do what has to be done because there is no other option. This labeling of “strong Black woman” was first imposed upon us to make sense of the inhuman brutalization we/Black women suffer/experience, and to assist in explaining away our womanhood and in this way maintain the patriarchy that remains to this day. Our labeling of being “strong” has, by many of us, been internalized and we have even prized that labeling at the expense of ourselves and our well-being.
“The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon Black women’s psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist.” – The Combahee River Collective Black Feminist Statement
What are the costs of being a Black superwoman?
In the necessary fight for self-preservation, family and community preservation, and through the conditioning that has been programmed by our experiences and gender-race issues, we are slowly and quietly killing ourselves. Assistant Professor Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé, Ph.D., RN examines the negative impact and toll of the Black superwoman schema in her article titled ‘Superwoman Schema: African American Omen’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health’, published in the Qualitative Health Research Trusted Source Journal. She highlights the stress of gender and race on Black women and the negative impact they create on our health and well-being: researchers have suggested that health disparities in African American women, including adverse birth outcomes, lupus, obesity, and untreated depression, can be explained by stress and coping. The Strong Black Woman/Superwoman role has been highlighted as a phenomenon influencing African American women’s experiences and reports of stress. The untreated depression Woods-Giscombé, Ph.D. notes above can lead to damaging psychological and physiological symptoms such as:
- chronic pain
- chronic inflammation
- headaches or migraines
- nausea and vomiting
- chronic fatigue that doesn’t go away after resting
- changes in sleep patterns/weight/appetite
- suicidal ideation and attempts
- decreased sex drive or dyspareunia (pain during sex)
- increased chance of autoimmune disorders
- persistent anxiety or sadness that’s not necessarily connected to a specific event
- feeling helpless, vulnerable, guilty, or worthless
- having a pessimistic or hopeless outlook on your life
While the symptomology of untreated depression crosses racial and gender barriers, little to no research has been done specifically on Black women whose presentation of depression may differ from what is currently viewed as signs of depression. Black women who have internalized the “strong Black woman” schema display a high functioning level of depression due to their inability and unwillingness to say “no”, and due to society’s stereotypes that they are undeserving or unaffected. The fact remains that Black women are tired. And because of the gender-racial social construct, many of us remain caught between the Black Superwoman schema and sacrificing our well-being and lives. This impossible situation that many of us find ourselves in deserves to be highlighted and addressed. And NOT just by us alone.
What can we do?
We need change! I am reminded of a quote from bell hooks where she reminds us that, “neither passive acceptance nor stoic endurance lead to change. Change occurs only when there is action, movement, revolution.” We can’t wait for society to make the necessary changes, we need to create change in our lives, with our families, and in our communities. At present, the intergenerational traumas and lived traumas of our being as Black women have led many of us to passively accept or stoically endure. But what if we individually and collectively started saying no to “what currently is” and started taking the small but necessary actions to radically transform our lives and those of the generations to follow? Steps that we as individual Black women can start with are:
- learning to ask for help prioritizing our health and wellbeing
- redefining strength to incorporate vulnerability
- support each other and build community care networks
- see one another wholly
- recognize that self-care for us is a radical political act
- work through our intergenerational trauma and break the cycle
As a society, radical reform is needed, and the patriarchy along with ALL other systems of oppression must be dismantled. Ashè.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde
Instagram accounts to follow
https://www.instagram.com/redmaat_collective/ https://www.instagram.com/alex/ https://www.instagram.com/blackwomensyogaco/ https://www.instagram.com/blackgirlinom/ https://www.instagram.com/therapyforblackgirls/ https://www.instagram.com/decolonizingtherapy/ https://www.instagram.com/blkwomenshealth/ https://www.instagram.com/sisterhoodheals/
Authors to check out:
Tamara Winfrey Harris