Written by Penelope Farthing
My most recent article, discussing my thoughts on Karine Jean-Pierre jumping to the defense of inadequately secured Senator Kamala Harris when a protestor rushed the stage, has been getting quite a lot of feedback on the Beyond Black and White Facebook page. There have been opposing viewpoints, and it’s a very touchy topic, so I must commend the posters for all being pretty civil in these Internet streets. Subjects like these can easily devolve into a flame war, so I am happy to see that a dialogue could be had without resorting to attacking the messenger.
A common theme amongst the posts, both on the BB&W Facebook page and in other spaces surrounded the archetype of the Strong Black Woman. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it instinctive? Is it necessary?
In order to understand the Strong Black Woman archetype, and why it is damaging, we have to look at why and how came to be. Delicate discussions like this one need some context and I will try to provide some as succinctly as possible.
The Strong Black Woman archetype developed centuries ago in times of slavery where black female slaves were viewed as subhuman, utterly removing their femininity and reducing them to property. It has been carried through history, and internalized, now seen as a point of pride for women who struggled on their own to get where they are, or made a dollar out of fifteen cents, etc. This strength puts black women in the role of the backbone of the race, to constantly give of ourselves with little to no reciprocity, and be the scapegoat of the race if things don’t go to plan.
Despite the ancient origins of this trope, it has modern day implications. Black women have high maternal mortality rates. Even if you’re rich or famous (like Serena Williams), if you are pregnant while black, you are at higher risks of complications. Doctors don’t believe our pain levels so we can be inadequately medicated. Look around your circle of black female friends. Contrary to all the #blackgirlmagic and #levelup memes they post, chances are, there’s some depression or anxiety lingering in there, untreated or unmentioned, because the stigma of getting some much needed therapy is stronger than mental health.
There is nothing wrong with being strong. Modern civilization was built off the backs of the strength of black women, and I believe we are imbued with that strength, even today. Our position in the world requires us to be strong; more often than not, there’s no knight in shining armor coming to rescue us. We’re basically on our own. But the way that strength is displayed is where there is a problem, especially when it comes to darker-skinned women. Dark skin is seen as being masculine, so dark skinned women are thus seen as masculine because of it. It is doubly so when dark skinned women act in an aggressive way, since the image of the dark skinned woman in the role of aggressor is more promoted than the dark skinned princess or damsel in distress. It is this uneven promotion that perpetuates problems even further. Note how the strength we have is never qualified; it’s not “strength of will” or “strength of character”, it’s just strong.
Consider this: how many times have you heard these sentences?
“I’m a strong white woman who don’t need no man!”
“I’m a strong Latina woman, I can do bad all by myself!”
(Or, a slightly different tack) A film series entitled “Diary of a Mad Asian Woman”
If it sounds crazy when you substitute black for any other race, there’s something amiss there.
Strength doesn’t have to be taking off earrings and bracelets in preparation to throw them hands; there is strength in knowing when to sit down. There is strength in knowing that you are strong, but not leading with it, and defusing tensions delicately and creatively, while maintaining safety first.
We can be strong, but we don’t have to broadcast it in the most hoodrat, basest of ways for all to see, for others to use as an excuse to dehumanize us, to defeminize us, to demonize us.
We can be strong, but we need to acknowledge the fact that men are physically stronger than us, and we have zero business getting involved in physical altercations with them unless there’s no other option, like Karine almost did.
I know and understand why we have to be strong, and how difficult it can be to rely on other things like our femininity to rescue us (especially when femininity and things like crying, being vulnerable, or asking for help are seen as weaknesses, or conversely, used to take advantage of us). Black women proclaim their strong independent status as if it is a defining part of their very being, their identity, their core. So many women glorify this that it gets applied to the collective of us. I don’t want that designation, I like being soft and pretty and my unchipped nails show that. In the words of Sunshine Green, “fuck a struggle!”
What is this so-called strength getting us? Nonblack women like Kamala take advantage of that strength and get to sit pretty with a Mona Lisa smirk in times of turmoil. Other black people will use you as their perpetual mule until your out of control high blood pressure manifests as a stroke just shy of your 61st birthday, before you even get to enjoy retirement. For all our strength, the community is in shambles. We aren’t wielding this so-called strength to prevent out of wedlock pregnancies, or to call out treacherous, abusive relatives, or to protect the children already living in the community. We aren’t using this strength to call black men to task for their role in the downfall of our community. In fact, all that strength goes out the window when it comes to him. He gets the fluffy pillows and velvet-gloved, perpetually coddled approach, when we all know good and well we need some dynamite and bulldozers to start this shit over.
Strength is necessary, and can be a tool in the arsenal of a black woman navigating the world. However, being classified as the strong black woman isn’t a compliment. That strength will wear down your neck, knees, and arteries. If you’re tired of being strong, try a different approach; as they say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.