I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been called a strong black woman. It’s a lot of times. Like, so many times that if people handed my five dollar bills every time they said it I wouldn’t have to buy my own coffee for year - and I always order a venti with soy milk. I know that people generally mean it as a compliment, so I grin and bear it and say thank you, and quickly try and change the conversation. The fact of the matter is, calling myself a strong black woman feels like fraud. The strong black woman is a myth. She’s a stereotype. She’s an immeasurable goal. She’s something that was created and is now used in the oppression of myself and my sisters, and as I write this I am becoming more convinced I am done accepting her as a compliment.
The strong black woman ideal has been used for centuries to strip the black woman of her femininity, her humanity, and ultimately her empathy. The strong black woman has replaced the myth of the mammy. Mammy was a poisonous rhetorical/ideological/archetypical device previously used to control black women. Mammy was not used to build up the black community, but to bolster the white one. She was a maternal ideal who cared and gave her emotional labor to white women and their children. She was patient, devoted, and comfortable in her inferiority to whites. Furthermore, she was infinitely desexualized and hostile towards towards men, in order to keep her that way. This stereotype allowed the belief that black female bodies are less than human and ultimately unattractive. The mammy was the yin to the Jezebel stereotype’s yang. The Jezebel was the young, promiscuous, and conniving black woman. Because of societal changes mammy and Jezebel can no longer hold the same culture relevance and have been amalgamated and replaced by the strong black woman. The strong black woman is capable and independent. She doesn’t need your or anyone else’s help. She doesn’t need support. She supports (mammies) for anyone and everyone else. She can make the best of her unfair circumstances. She is the ultimate. This woman does all of this and extra, and ultimately ends up becoming the angry black woman, the shrew, the harpy, the woman who is the least desirable dating match because she’s too much. The strong black woman who Steve Harvey said is scaring men away because having your own means there’s no need for a man to come around. The strong black woman that Dylann Roof murdered six of, because black people were taking his country and raping his women, even though black women are more likely to be victims of sexual violence and domestic homicidal violence (because their bodies are sexualized if they’re seen as desirable at all) and least likely to report because they’re so strong. The strong black woman who was really just a 14 year old girl trying to enjoy a pool on a hot summer day and was manhandled by a white police officer and then further brutalized by the media for being defiant.
I am not this woman. I am so not this woman. I am a hot mess at best. Yes, I am educated. Yes, I work hard. Yes, I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of bullshit over the 27 times I’ve circled the sun. And because of all of that I am fragile, I am sensitive, and I am not your stereotype. I have struggled with depression and anxiety since I hit puberty (The anxiety probably started before then. I have always been a ‘worst-case-scenario’ person, and I literally threw up the morning before a math test in the third grade. My mom took me to Six Flags Magic Mountain instead of school that day and spent the day explaining to me about how I needed to chill the eff out or I was in for a long haul). I was suicidal at 15. I was a regular in my counselor’s office or an empty kind teacher’s class room in high school. I was so depressed at 20 that I stopped eating. Because I stopped eating, I developed a protein deficiency. That made me even more depressed, and eventually, I wound up being pumped with fluids in the emergency room. I was sent home with prescription for I-don't-even-know-what to even out my system and that was that. I had special post graduation depression after receiving both of my degrees. I entered weekly therapy at 24 because I was having a complete quarter-life crisis breakdown. I have mistaken abuse for love, attention for friendship, and the only reason I wasn’t shamelessly bullied in school is because I know how to throw a nice right hook.
The myth of the strong black woman and her intersection with the angry black woman has haunted me my whole life. I have always chased the idea that I had to do more, be more, and never complain about it. I have always been told I was too loud, too opinionated, and just plain too much. The acting coach who told me never to believe a man when he said I was “too ____”, because he was trying to control me, was the same acting coach who told me I’d have a hard time directing because no one would take me seriously as a black woman in charge. In my former career as a computer technician, any time I disagreed with a customer or tried to assert my rights as a human (customers are the worst!), my manager was asked to come over because of my 'bad attitude'. Meanwhile, my white male counterparts got away with saying the most ridiculous bullshit every day." (Sidebar; as Amandla Stenberg tweeted, the “angry black girl” narrative needs to be ended as well. “It's just another attempt to undermine certain perspectives. I have strong opinions. I am not angry.”) This is why when I ended up crying in the bathroom because a customer had been particularly nasty to me, my coworkers were shocked. I was such a strong black woman. I’ve been active in my local queer community for over ten years and I know first hand that the strong black woman has become the spirit animal of gay men. I just want to shake them and scream “She’s not real! It’s a fucking trap!” It’s seen as a powerful image to be emulated, however it’s a horrifically damaging narrative when it’s not a narrative you can choose. Black women don’t have our white male privilege to hide behind when people laugh at our use of African-American Vernacular English and call us uneducated. We can’t stop being black when someone points out our neck rolling and finger waving.
This compliment is one that hinges on politically correct racism and sexism. It denies black women the ability to be multi-faceted and unique human beings. It is destructive and dangerous. Women are more prone to depression than men, and blacks seek treatment at half the rate that whites do. Are you following my math? Black women are suffering, silently, because they are being strong. Because this awful stereotype - which is guised as a compliment while functioning as oppression - is fooling people, including black women. Following the suicide of Karyn Washington, the brilliant founder of ForBrownGirls and #DarkSkinRedLip Project, combined with the recent study done by JAMA Psychiatry about black women denying their depression, a five second dialogue started. Then it got pushed aside for something else more hashtagable. This dialogue can’t end. I can’t afford for this dialogue to end. I know that I am not the only one. I can hold my own, I can stand up for myself, I can walk through fire. But, that shouldn’t be the expectation for me. I should be able to break. I should be able to ask for help. I should be able to cry openly. I should be considered desirable and dateable, not in spite of my success, but because of it. I cried during Jurassic World, if I pay my bills on time it’s worth texting my friends to celebrate, and if I disappeared I would deserve just as much news coverage as my white sisters. I have the capability of being strong, but that doesn’t have to be default and I’m done diminishing myself because of it. There is a national conversation surrounding the importance of black lives, of course. As we fight for black lives—especially the lives of black women—we must remember to fight not merely for existence, but for quality.
I will no longer accept the strong black woman as a compliment. Compliment my fragility, my vulnerability, my humor, my fashion sense. Call me out if I could have done something better, I can live with that. I implore you though, whether you’re complimenting or criticizing, make sure that you’re talking to me. Not a stereotype and not an ideal. I also implore that you do the same for all of the other women in your life.
Hey, for less personality based preaching and more science and fact, look at this awesome info graph!
Other resources I checked out before writing this are found below!