If you have ever read, watched, or listened to any form of media or discourse depicting Black women, you have likely heard or seen controlling images and stereotypes of the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire tropes. Not only are these images harmful and dehumanizing, but they also create false narratives of Black women in a patriarchal, white supremacist society, and undermine the complexity of the lived experiences of Black women.
Although our current society seems less tolerant of these images, there are still various ideas regarding how Black women should and should not act embedded in discourse and expectations.
Partially developed as a way to counter stereotypes such as the Welfare Queen and Mammy, the Strong Black Woman trope glorifies the resilience and self-sacrifice of Black women, creating ideas that they are “so strong they do not need help, protection, care, or concern.” While it is important to recognize the strengths and sacrifices of Black women, this narrative reinforces racialized ideas of respectable behavior and creates another dimension of stressors for people already facing intersecting oppressions.
Defined by some scholars as the Superwoman Schema, the feelings of obligation to present an image of strength, suppress one’s emotions, care for others, and strive for success despite limited access to resources and opportunities, all while facing race and gender-based discrimination, may lead to chronic stress and long-term health effects.
A 2010 study exploring women’s descriptions of the Superwoman role, their perceptions of contextual factors, benefits, liabilities, and beliefs regarding how it influences health highlights both the positive and negative outcomes associated with the Superwoman Schema.
Many of the women who participated in the study described feelings of pride and self-preservation when asked about the superwoman role. However, there were also discussions centered around feeling the need to produce images of strength as a result of all the women before them who have endeavored the same, or more difficult challenges. Some of the women also spoke of feeling the need to be successful and overcome obstacles in both their private and public lives. These feelings may be attributed to their own goals, but also the pressure from family, peers, and a society that continuously places them at a disadvantage.
Similarly, women who felt the need to suppress their emotions to portray images of fortitude felt they could not openly talk about their emotions due to long-term suppression and feeling that others will not understand, or will disregard the validity of their experiences. Additionally, many women described feeling resistant to vulnerability or dependence on others as a result of not wanting to have their “kindness taken for weakness,” or being perceived as incapable of doing something if they asked for assistance.
Why does this matter?
Black women are systemically placed in conditions where they commonly have to work harder than their white counterparts to achieve the same goal, position, status, and recognition. Black daughters are taught to expect to work and strive for success so they can support themselves, their families, and their communities. The expectation for Black women to sacrifice their own needs to transcend stereotypes, societal boundaries, and care for others can cause a build-up of stress in these women’s lives. These factors, along with the weight of facing racial and gender discrimination every day, can leave Black women more susceptible to health risks, including cardiovascular diseases.
Depicting Black women as strong women is not a bad thing. But utilizing this narrative to invalidate and police Black women and their choices is. That is not feminism, nor human decency.