“All my life, I had to fight.” If you’re like me and eleventy million other black women, you recognize that quote as the immortal words of Sophia from The Color Purple. Depending on our mood, the line can hit us as funny, sad, or thought-provoking. But it’s always relatable. Sophia was a strong black woman, something most of us are raised to be and held out as the most aspirational form of our humanity. She could take a punch as well as she could give one. She could out-sass anyone without fear of words cutting her back. She could raise children with little or no help from the father of said children. She could even tolerate her husband’s mistress Squeak confronting her as if she were the side chick.
It’s ingrained in us from the time we are little girls that we have to be strong black women, because the world is so cruel, and we need to be able to endure. But being a strong black woman is setting us up for failure, and in some cases, it’s literally killing us. We can’t afford to do it anymore. The strong black woman trope has us out here lowering our expectations, killing our dreams, and suffering in silence.
Every one of us knows a “strong black woman” who is raising kids alone, or working herself to the bone for a boyfriend or adult son who can’t be bothered to get off the couch. We even know “strong black women” who are sadly suffering in silence while they protect an abuser.
Strength is often a character trait that we develop out of necessity and trauma. We build up our strength as a thick barrier to protect ourselves, but often that barrier is built at the expense of other parts of our humanity. And we’re often guilted into thinking that our strength is only for everyone else to lean on.
Many of us spend years getting educations or developing our careers, but are afraid to ask for parity in mates because we don’t want to come off as snobbish or materialistic. Because heaven forbid that a black woman should ask a potential mate to come to the table with the same thing she does! We have all seen (or been) that sister who’s got it all together–attractive, smart, funny, kind, great job, education, and credit–but she’s with some bum who’s on his third baby mama, still trying to make it as a rapper at 40, or fresh out of prison. Yet she lets him use her credit card or lay up in her house without paying rent because she’s trying to be “supportive.”
We know the “strong black woman” who shows up to church every Sunday, volunteers as an usher, and donates generously to every project the church undergoes, but doesn’t tell anyone that her lights are about to be shut off or that she hasn’t seen a doctor in years and the lump in her breast is suspicious. At her funeral, she’s eulogized as a virtual angel, but the room would fall silent if one were to ask if the pastor or the deacon board ever checked in on her when they noticed she stopped coming to service months ago.
We know the “strong black woman” who is a single mom and bends over backwards to take care of her kids. She proudly (and often counterintuitively) proclaims that she “don’t need a man for anything.” When she finds herself pregnant and the child’s father uninterested in being a parent, she marches on without missing a beat, even though such a life is incredibly thankless and frustrating.
We also know the “strong black woman” who works tirelessly at her job. Perhaps she’s trained her last three supervisors or she put together the presentation that landed the big account and never got credit for it. When she’s passed over for promotions in favor of lesser qualified, white or male colleagues, she just works harder and adopts Olivia Pope’s “twice as good” mantra, hoping for a sliver of recognition the next time around.
Sometimes the strong black woman trope literally kills us. According to the CDC, black women are twice as likely to be killed by intimate partner violence than white, Asian, and Hispanic women. Black women in abusive relationships often stay with their abusers for years. They put on a brave face and suffer in silence, not telling anyone what they are going through. They are afraid to call the police not only because of fear of retribution from their abusive partner, but because there is pressure from within the black community to protect black men from exposure to the criminal justice system. This is rooted in the very real knowledge that black men are over-prosecuted and over-penalized for offenses in the criminal justice system. But, this also means that black men who are predators can operate with impunity for years. Malcolm X once said, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” The reflex in the black community is often to protect men before women and children. Think I’m lying? Ask yourself how many black girls and women have accused R. Kelly of rape and other abuses over the last 20 years. Then ask yourself why so many people think that all those black women and girls are making it up.
I want us to challenge ourselves to abandon the toxic trope of being a strong black woman. We are strong, yes, but we are also fragile, vulnerable, feminine, and deserving of support, joy, and a soft place to land when we face life’s challenges. What would our lives look like if we simply said no to people who drained us of our time, money, and energy, but gave nothing in return? How much better would we sleep if we knew we didn’t have to be all things to all people, all the time? How much easier would life be if we could simply tell someone that we were hurting and have that matter to them?
Black women, we cry, we break down, we suffer, and we hurt just like everyone else. We have to stop letting others deny us the fullness of our humanity under the guise of being a strong black woman. That phrase isn’t a compliment and shouldn’t be a goal. It’s a trick–and we should stop falling for it.