I have been wanting to write about this topic for a while but it is a challenging topic for me to write about.
I want to explore the myth of the ‘strong Black woman’ and call it out as a myth because the possible foundations and consequences of this myth are both tragic and brutal.
The origins of the ‘strong Black woman’
I think back to the suffering that Black people endured as slaves. The list looks a little something like this:
rape, torture, separation from homes and families, beatings, babies being forcibly taken from them, having to carry, deliver and then love a baby born as a result of rape, forced labour, abuse and constant dehumanisation…
Listing it like this does no justice to the reality of what Black people and in particular, Black women must have endured. All those crimes were inflicted because the perpetrators were able to cast Blacks as sub-human/savages and Black women as mere sexual objects.
In all the above cases, save for committing suicide (which some would have done – I highly recommend the fictional book, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan) Black women had no choice but to endure. There was no chance of escaping these brutal conditions and even when Black people were eventually ‘set free’, they were set free oftentimes with nothing but the clothes on their back.
Imagine if you can, what it would be like to endure 30/40 or more years of slavery and then to be released with no home, no money, no assets, maybe a couple of children in tow. What would your answer be? Breakdown, cry, say you cannot do it anymore?
For many Black women, strength has been and is nothing more than the result of the fact it feels like there is no other choice than to ‘get on with it’. You either give up and die (starve, kill oneself) or you keep going irrespective of the difficulties.
Maybe I am simplifying this? Maybe some will wonder why I am talking about something that happened ‘so long ago’. What I am trying to do is show that strength is not so much in our DNA as it is in our story. We are strong because we have had no choice but to be strong.
But let me take this away from slavery and come to more recent times.
The search for a better life/answering the call of the ‘motherland’
There is no doubt that one of the consequences of mothers and fathers leaving homes in the Caribbean and West Africa in search of a better life was the widespread separation of families. Even temporary separations resulted in permanent damage. Children would be separated from their mothers/fathers.
It happened to me and it has happened to countless other Black people. The shock of going from a two-parent family to suddenly being in a one parent-family and having to carry the load of so many children, certainly took its toll on my mother.
Sometimes, temporary separations became permanent. Oftentimes it was the mother or grandmother who was left raising children. Sometimes the woman would come to the UK to work and the kids would later follow. At other times the man would come to the UK to work and later send for his wife and kids. Whatever the equation, the result is that families were left battered and bruised by separation.
Children and parents reunite after may years but are now strangers. None truly aware of what the other has gone through during that period of separation.
The culture of Black children being fostered was prevalent in the 70s and 80s. Some, including me at one point, were sent to live with White nannies outside of London and this also affected the relationship that these children would subsequently have with their own parents.
Imagine being separated from your child and seeing them perhaps monthly or fortnightly because you felt you had no option but to put the need to earn over the need to nurture.
This is about truth not judgement.
Again, if so, private tears might be an option but the need to just get on with it prevails.
I know many Black women, of my mother’s generation who worked numerous jobs to provide for their families and never took a day off.
They were ‘strong’ because they had no choice but to be strong. Provide or your children suffer. It’s a false choice. It was a necessity, not a choice.
In popular culture too, there is sometimes a myth of Black people being superhuman or more able to endure. The Kenyans can run longer and faster than others, Blacks are stronger, more built, our heavy bones given as the reason for our supposed inability to swim etc.
This super-humanisation does the Black race no favours in the long run. Kenyan top athletes are just that – Kenyan top athletes. Not every Kenyan is a top athlete, not every Black person is fast and not every Black person is built.
Sometimes, what betrays us are not popular theories but our own skin colour.
I remember when my mum was ill in hospital and a doctor coming up to her and telling her that she looked a lot better. What this man seemed unable to see was that my mother’s skin was a funny purple-black colour. If she had been white, the changes in her skin would have been more visible and he would have realised the severity of her condition.
This doctor did not think to ask what her skin normally looked like because he likely had no idea that this funny shade of black was not at all normal for her or for Black people in general.
Sometimes, we betray ourselves as Black women by saying we are okay when we are not okay because we have learnt that it is not okay to say that we are not okay. Sometimes, this is about religion. I know that words are considered powerful in Christianity. Many a time have I heard a Black women say ‘praise the Lord’ when they are struggling or suffering. I heard my own mother say she was okay when she was far from it. I too in the past spent years saying I was okay and in the meantime deteriorating mentally and physically,
Dealing with double-invisibility: you’re not visible until you’re visible
As a Black woman who is familiar with being in majority or wholly white spaces, and having experienced both overt and covert racism, I sometimes, have no choice but to get on with it. What I would rather do at times is scream and shout in the room and rail against blatant biases or the fact that human beings have a tendency to embrace the known rather than the supposedly ‘unknown’.
For those of you who do not believe that racism or prejudice exists, consider the work colleague who told me that ‘Croydon was okay until the Blacks came in’. Consider the kids who thought that it was perfectly fine to throw stones at me because of my race. Consider the university worker in France who told me that I was entered for an easier exam (which I then aced) because they thought my level was not up to the standard to pass the exam which the other white students were taking.
These are more obvious examples. Now consider the fact that the White woman in the Croydon example had worked with me for over a year and had shown no evidence up to then of bias or prejudice. Consider that those boys who threw those stones on another day may just have passed me by and smiled. Consider that the lady in the university may just have kept her reasons to herself and I would have been none the wiser.
Now consider that as a Black woman and person, if you cannot give proof of racism or bias then you are considered to be just making something out of nothing or ‘always going on about racism’.
Consider that last week in Twickenham, myself and a white woman were approaching the start of an alleyway. She looked at me briefly and began walking down the alleyway. I walked behind her. Consider that it was broad daylight and that after about 30 seconds, she stopped walking, waited for me to pass and then resumed her journey with me now ahead and her behind.
Now consider why sometimes, I wonder if my paranoia or hyper-vigilance is well-founded and why I oftentimes feel like I just need to get on with it. Consider that at times, the weight of all these small acts of racism or bias or prejudice begin to weigh on me physically or mentally and that I no longer feel as comfortable in all white spaces as I once may have.
Consider that I have no option if I am to make it in the UK than to ‘get on with it’ and challenge the obvious and sometimes play down the less obvious so I can get on with my day.
It is not that I am strong. It is just that sometimes, I just want to get on with my day without having to consider whether certain acts are based on my race or not. Or maybe I am strong but I don’t see it as strength because it is just my normal.
The consequences of the myth of the ‘strong Black woman’
I recently read that there is limited research in the area of Black mental health in the UK (Fundamental Facts About Mental Health 2016 by the Mental Health Foundation) and I am oftentimes wary of stats. I have never taken part in a survey. Have you? So I will use stats only once.
a) There is sometimes an assumption that we have a greater capacity to endure pain and there is sometimes an inability to recognise when a Black woman is in pain. Sometimes because we do not use our voices enough and sometimes because those treating us do not believe or recognise the depths of our pain.
Black women in America are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than white women. A clinician in the article I took this stat from said, “The common thread is that when black women expressed concern about their symptoms, clinicians were more delayed and seemed to believe them less.” Serena Williams’ experience is also mentioned in the article (please click the link).
b) I come from a long line of ‘strong Black women’ and at times, I too have felt that I have no other option but to be ‘strong’. In the long term, it meant that I struggled with my mental health for almost two decades before I ever admitted how bad things were. In fact, I only admitted how bad things were mentally when my emaciated body began to betray me. There comes a time when denial is no longer an option.
c) It means that sometimes, we do not reach outside for help. Sometimes we are loath to get professional help. We feel we need to keep it together.
d) When we bear our burdens alone or with very limited supported, it eventually takes a toll on our physical and mental health. This means working oneself into an early grave, speaking in coded language about our mental health and never receiving help.
e) What some consider hardship, we consider normal.
The way forward
I truly believe that we as Black women need to stop perpetuating this myth of the ‘strong Black women’ by:
a) allowing our vulnerability (with the right people, in spaces where we feel able to be) to be our superpower.
b) not telling one another to ‘be strong’.
c) not allowing those who deprive us of help because of their own ideas about us, get away with it. This means stating our needs and demanding it.
d) not taking it as a complement when are told we are strong. I have to my memory no knowledge of being told I am strong by a Black person but I know it is possible for a person of any race to tell a Black woman they are strong as a complement. Perhaps it is not linked to race but and whilst I know it may sound like a complement, I have seen the damage done by this image, I would much rather not be called strong thank you very much. I am human. Fullstop. I bleed, shit, cry, love, hate and have desires like every human being. I feel pain too like every human being. My threshold is no higher though I may have been conditioned to or learnt to endure pain.
e) we as Black women ought to speak more about our pain in a purposeful way. As a way of opening up the conversation and letting one another know that we are not alone.
If you got to the end, well done. You made it.
The final thing to say is, I can only speak about my experience as a Black woman. Sometimes I will speak generally about Black women but this is not done with the intention of stating that there is a universal ‘Black female’ experience. We are unique individuals who have shared and diverse experiences of life.
Sometimes, my race and therefore my culture is the least interesting thing about me and at times, it is the most interesting thing about me.
I’d love to hear your comments/thoughts.