The Hidden Dangers of Being a ‘Strong Black Woman’

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by Dana L. Stringer

Whenever an African American woman displays qualities synonymous with strength, she is characterized as a “strong Black woman.”

The popular phrase is one of the most highly coveted compliments bestowed upon Black women, yielding a deep sense of pride and validation.

By most accounts, it is considered a virtue to be strong, garnering respect for a race of women whose journey has often been one of struggle and hardship.

The fight to be heard, respected, and regarded as equal, while contending with derogatory images and stereotypes that narrowly define our existence has been a long and arduous one.  Our capacity to overcome adversity, opposition, injustice and inequality certainly justifies being regarded as strong—a label that we welcome and relish, possibly more so than our White, Asian, Indian and Hispanic counterparts.

But is this label merely another stereotype that is often perceived as a positive attribute, forcing us to keep an appearance and a performance at the expense of our own health?  And does the aspiration or expectation to be a “strong Black woman” pose potential dangers to our emotional, mental, spiritual and physical well-being?

Well, our resilience dates back to the institution of slavery, when female slaves were subjected to abuse, violation and exploitation.  The female slave learned to survive dehumanizing conditions by becoming skilled in a balancing act of appeasing her owner by complying with his demands while still making sacrifices to meet the needs of those who were dependent upon her.

I would even venture to say that her emotional outlet most likely consisted of quietly retreating to her slave quarters where she would cry in secrecy after being mandated to remain silent about the degrading experiences she was faced with.

Obviously, the humiliation of those experiences would create a poor self-image and a degree of self-loathing within those ostensibly 'strong' African American women of that period, setting the stage for the profile they are characterized by today.  Such feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability would understandably create the need to become self-protective, guarded, invulnerable, stubborn, even defensive—qualities that could easily be masked as strength.

So, what was the African American woman to do if she was not permitted to be transparent about her personal suffering?  If her emotions were not already numbed, she had to at least conceal them, ignore her pain, minimize her needs, and succumb to the pressure of becoming that “strong Black woman.”

She had to smile in public while she cried in private with a secret plea as simple as, “Help.”  And until this day, it is this silent suffering, internalizing of pain and disappointment, and unmet needs that have been the primary sources of:  anxiety, stress, fatigue, anger, uptightness, irrititability, insomnia, overeating, addiction, shame, guilt, and depression that pose the greatest threats to our health and
overall quality of life.

One of my concerns with being characterized as “strong” is that it creates the notion that those of us perceived as such don’t necessarily need anything.  It’s assumed that we can hold it all together and keep it all under control, thus, relieving others from the responsibility of being genuinely concerned, or at least considerate about what we may need or might be going through.   So, where does the strong go when they don’t feel so strong?  We’re not left with many choices.

In essence, exemplifying strength outwardly isn’t necessarily a true indication of what we may be experiencing inwardly.  Something as simple as a warm hug, a personal gesture of complete acceptance, can generate feelings of affirmation more so than being praised for our strength.  Such an open gesture like a hug conveys support, acceptance and appreciation—something we all need more than we probably care to admit.  Yet, we keep pressing on with our personas of strength and independence, either too proud or too embarrassed to expose ourselves and disclose our real needs.  We also fall into the trap of simply ignoring ourselves and our needs altogether while we tend to the needs and demands of others, seemingly unaffected by the effects of overextending ourselves, managing crises, and shouldering the burdens of our families, friends, churches and communities without respite.

Granted, by society’s conventions, the woman is helpmate, nurturer, and caregiver who naturally makes sacrifices that call for a certain degree of strength.  And it certainly doesn’t help that we have to also work and compete in what has been deemed “a man’s world” which reinforces the need for us to be strong and in control lest we be perceived as weak and helpless in a society that requires us to prove ourselves in order to earn the same level of respect freely given to men.

So, necessity dictates and almost justifies our approach, but it doesn’t, I believe, tell the whole story of who we are.

I certainly realize that most of our situations have not afforded us the opportunity to be anything other than strong.  We haven’t been able to fall back on a support system that would relieve of us some of life’s daily demands, because we are that support system.  We’ve had to step up and do what others would not do— defaulting to a kind of independence that doesn’t ask anybody for anything.

On the other hand, I realize that a lot of our self-worth and value stems from what we do for others.  We either can’t or don’t say “no” because doing is tied into our sense of self-worth. So, to avoid feeling inadequate or having others think less of us, we say “yes” to everything and everybody.

Unfortunately, the Superwoman syndrome – where we attempt to handle it all and be it all – can leave us feeling overwhelmed, which leads to stress, anxiety, overeating, exhaustion and depression.  But contrary to what many of us might believe, the world does not end, our families don’t fall apart, and people – with all of their needs and demands – will not be neglected if we periodically pull away to tend to the things that have gone unaddressed within ourselves.

This doesn’t imply that we are faithless and without power.  But the caregiver must be cared for.  The nurturer must be nurtured.  And the “strong Black woman” must be permitted to reveal that she does indeed have a heart of flesh that carries unhealed wounds, unmet needs, aches, longings, fears, doubts, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and a certain fragility that still needs to be considered and handled with care.

We must embrace the fullness of who we are as Black women and not allow ourselves to be pigeonholed into a performance of a “strong Black woman,” and end up hurting ourselves by neglecting our more vulnerable needs. H

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