The Strong Black Woman Trope is an ideology used to represent and reflect black women’s resilience in the face of adversity. Although this notion has the potential to be empowering, it equally has the potential to marginalize women and negatively impact their mental health.
This is not to say that black women can’t be strong and resilient. Rather, what I am problematizing and calling out, is when that strength is evoked as a means to keep intact a system of violence and exploitation. The premises of capitalist patriarchy are underpinned by the separation of production and reproduction where women are expected to participate in the latter without their time being unaccounted for, thus not monetized. In such a world, women are expected to carry the triple burden of being active members in these two areas and this has paved the way for the Black Strong Woman Trope.
For so long, the black woman has remained a hidden figure, relegated in moments within history where there was a crucial platform to amplify the experiences, work and voices of women. That’s why I no longer buy into the strong black woman trope. So where does this narrative come from and what does it mean; who is it directed to and why is it problematic?
Who is affected by this trope?
Responding to notions of embodying strength, representations and the socialization of the strong black woman, Carter and Rossi note that “stereotyping Black woman as a servant, “the mammy” is a well-known racial and gender stereotype” that has paved way for notions of the Strong Black Woman (SWB) and SuperWoman narratives. I assert that this trope is toxic as it continues to concretize the marginalisation of black women which strategically safeguards the interests of capitalist patriarchy. Black women remain the subaltern figure in the struggle for liberation as they always have to sacrifice for the greater good and be strong for everyone. Perhaps the discourse of ‘isms’ reflects the multiplicity of promises yet to be fulfilled in as society gives black women the run-around, gaslighting her within movements where she sometimes takes up space as a token or checkbox if you will.
Why is the Strong Black Woman Trope a toxic trap?
- It socially conditions individuals to accept abuse
In my culture, there is a Setswana saying that goes “ Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka fa bogaleng” which loosely translates to ‘the woman holds the sharpest side of the knife’. I know some cultures within Southern Africa have a similar framing of women being these ‘strong’ figures. I grew up hearing that a lot and it would be the ideal advice given when women were discussing marriage life.
For me, one of the many instances where we see the conditioning of women to shoulder on issues, and in some cases so they can keep intact an institution- whether this is keeping the family together or doing it for their marriage. If the black woman, from a young age or when they get married are conditioned to be expected to shoulder burdens, to hold intact the ‘home’, it paves way for the psychology of performing this ‘strength’ based on the amount of pain and hurt one can take on. This mentality of performing and embodying strength leads to the romanticization and fetishisation of pain which is reflected by statements like you don’t know how strong you are till that’s the only option you have’ or put the teabag in hot water and witness its strength. We cannot have a society that uses pain as a currency for growth.
Honestly, the ‘hot water’ that black women swim in is unnecessary and toxic. A black woman could be suffering mentally and not able to cope with the burdens imposed by capitalist patriarchy, but she will still do the most. There is no medal awarded for the Strong Black Women of the world, you can’t come and kill yourself! No really, people will cry for a week and move on because the world does not stop for you. Prioritize yourself.
- It allows women’s issues to be deprioritized
When Femicides and gender-based violence occur, they are deprioritised by evoking this toxic trope as women have to be the bigger persons and ‘bekezela’ (continue/endure). This might hit a nerve but bear with me as I play the devil’s advocate. Why did George Floyd’s case evoke a greater level of empathy and transnational solidarity? Do not get me wrong, I am not saying a Black man’s life does not matter, but why was there a different affect towards Breonna Taylor’s case? Do you know another version of Breonna in Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana? Do you know their names of any of the black women and girls who were raped, murdered or died at the hands of various modes of brutality in your context?
When the black woman’s anger is needed in the streets, for her to protest, to stand in between the barrel off a gun and a black man’s body- society welcomes her with open arms up and puts her on a pedestal. Is only right that the same energy exists when the violence against black women needs to be addressed and called out. No need to ask them to be strong. I was planning to move on to my third point but I don’t want to drag on. Must black women be posited as these tea bags, who don’t know they’re strong until immersed in hot water? Who is busy boiling the hot water? Are you a tea flavour and who gets to be the best one? Let us continue the discussion in the comments and remember, prioritize yourself! There is no medal for suffering.