You’ve probably heard about a mythical being popularly known as the strong black woman. She’s tough, independent, indestructible and shoulders burdens on her own like no one else can. Chances are you will have come across someone like her – maybe your mum, your neighbor, auntie, partner or colleague? Or perhaps you recognize this superwoman in yourself?
Like the ‘angry’ or ‘sassy’ black woman, the strong black woman is a stereotype, a narrow representation of black femininity that has been reinforced through societal and popular culture. It’s also harmful in that it sets an unrealistic standard where the vulnerabilities, complexities, and welfare of black women are ignored.
Recent years have seen a growing chorus of black women actively challenging and deconstructing this myth. Among them, Tamara Winfrey-Harris, author of The Sister’s Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America who joins us to explore the socio-historical and cultural contexts and to reflect on the reclamation and redefinition of the black feminine experience.
The strength and resilience of women is usually something to be celebrated. What is it about the strong black woman trope that has become so problematic for black women?
The stereotype of the uncommonly strong black woman originates in antebellum America. Enslaved black women’s alleged inhuman strength was used to explain why they were so ill-treated physically and emotionally at a time when women were thought to be fragile, pure and in need of protection. This stereotype has followed us out of slavery. It affects how people see us. We are perceived as more threatening and masculine. We are treated less gingerly than our white counterparts. Think of how Sandra Bland was manhandled by a Texas police officer. And it affects how we see ourselves. Many black women feel pressure to be strong when they are breaking physically and emotionally, because generations of their foremothers withstood unthinkable pressures through slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The problem is that the strong black woman meme too often obscures our humanity.
In June 2017, Georgetown Law Centre on Poverty and Inequality released some findings from their research “Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of black girls’ girlhood” which found that young black girls were perceived as less innocent than white girls. How do you think these findings fit into the strong black woman narrative?
Black girls are sadly burdened with the same stereotypes as black women. Think of 19-year-old Renisha McBride who was shot in the face when she knocked on a door in a Detroit suburb looking for help. It is unthinkable to imagine that a young white girl would have evoked the same fearful, violent response.
The problem is that the strong black woman meme too often obscures our humanity
Even though attempts have been made to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, the number of black women seeking help remains low. How much of this resistance to reaching out do you believe is rooted in the expectation of black women to be and to do it all?
Black women are often inclined to keep their pain to themselves, having learned not to show vulnerability. But they also may be wary of white therapists who lack cultural competency—sadly, there are not enough black therapists. Black families and friends often encourage women to seek help from the church rather than a licensed therapist or psychiatrist. Of course, we know that there are many mental illnesses that cannot be cured by religious counseling. All of this means black women can be left with fewer resources to address their emotional pain.
Despite their achievements, popular culture remains awash with negative stereotypes of black women – sassy, angry and aggressive are just a few. Why is there such an unwillingness to portray black women as multidimensional beings with a range of emotions? And who ultimately benefits from this?
It is simply this—we live in a racist and sexist society and every woman (and man) is viewed through that lens. When black women walk into a room, we sadly carry age-old stereotypes with us. Our fellow citizens have been acculturated to see us in a very narrow way. It keeps black women at a disadvantage, forcing us to work harder just to get through the day, and it keeps the privileged in power.
When we tell our own stories, the picture that emerges is more nuanced and human
When you see the likes of Michelle Obama facing repeated attempts to label her with one of these racial stereotypes, how optimistic do you feel about black women being able to dismantle and redefine the current narrow representations of black womanhood and strength?
I am optimistic because we are hearing black women’s voices like never before. We have women like Ava Duvernay, Shonda Rhimes and Issa Rae telling our stories in Hollywood; Angela Rye and Joy Reid on the political beat; writers like Angela Flournoy and Samantha Irby. And we have activists like Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, the founders of Black Lives Matter, fighting for our liberation. When we tell our own stories, the picture that emerges is more nuanced and human.
The contours of womanhood are too varied to be served by anything but an intersectional feminism
What are your thoughts on the intersectional feminist movement? Do you think it will be more effective than mainstream feminism at addressing the challenges facing black women and why?
Flavia Dzodan wrote a seminal essay called, ”My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” She is right. All women experience sexism; how we experience it is influenced by our identities. The contours of womanhood are too varied to be served by anything but an intersectional feminism. I am gratified that third wave feminists are acknowledging this fact more than their foremothers did. But what I have faith in most of all is the capacity of black feminists to speak up and ensure our voices aren’t erased in the feminist movement.