By the age of 23, I had been raped three times and sexually assaulted once. I have been verbally abused, discriminated against, and neglected. After a recent event with my family, I found myself trying to convince myself, yet again, emotion could not be shared during this incredibly traumatic moment. Even as I cried and my legs couldn’t hold my weight, I scolded myself inwardly for not being “strong.” Even reaching out for prayers seemed like a weakness.
We are blessed, as a family, that everything is working itself out and I am blessed as an individual that the severity of my experiences did not lead to lasting physical injury. Still, this most recent experience got me thinking about the practice of grief and emotion in today’s society, particularly among women of color. I began to wonder about our need to narrate the pain we feel, from a break-up to the loss of a loved one, we love to try and control the uncontrollable. Considering all of my experiences, I’ve never had more people ask how I’m doing, knowing what they’re looking for is for me to finally say I’m doing well. I’ve never heard the words “what can I do” more, as if situations outside of human control can be fixed by the human hand. I know, for some, it comes from a place of nosiness and curiosity and that for most it comes from a place of care and sympathy, but it all just feels like micromanaging.
I think for Black women there is this extra pressure placed on us, as a matriarch in training. We must stay “strong” and centered. We must be the pillar that holds up the home. Some people don’t even realize they’re leaning on us until we start to fall. The most crushing part is being labeled as erratic or irrational when we finally let emotion show; emotions that are a normative response to an unnatural circumstance. Sometimes we don’t even speak on our feelings, we express physically how our bodies are responding (e.g., not eating, not sleeping, etc.) in hopes they can fill in the emotional blank.
This piece goes out to all my women of color struggling emotionally and standing so tall. We don’t have to be “strong” all the time. We don’t have to be reserved, restricted, or restrained. The world looks at us as superhuman. Research states that women of color are seen by the world as this unbreakable force, not just by other people of color (POC), but by the world at large. We are supposed to be everything to everyone and wear that badge with a smile. But women, sisters, please don’t fall for this ploy. This mask of strength they’ve forced us to wear, it’s killing us slowly (see link below). I write this in total vulnerability, in hopes that at least one woman reads it and decides to feel what needs to be felt. Say what needs to be said. Do what needs to be done, and stops apologizing for any of it!
Although I put a lot of myself out there, knowing my story is like so many others, it’s still hard for me to feel supported when I don’t feel like I should be feeling down or stressed in the first place. It’s hard for me to let people help me when at times I still think I should be able to handle everything on my own. We go through a lot as women of color: being disrespected, discriminated against, sexualized, and that’s just the start. What I want to make perfectly clear to all readers is that we don’t need pity. What we do need is respect and the space to be human, with a full human range of emotions. We are an impermeable force, AND we are worthy of healing and feeling. Once we allow that in ourselves, we can help change the beliefs of society; support each other, accept each other, and love one another without believing only one of us deserves or can be at the top.
We must stop teaching this pattern to our young women, encouraging them to suffer in silence. We must want more for them than to live unhealthy, restricted, lives. We must show them that true love of self and others comes from acknowledging and loving ourselves, disregarding anyone that tries to get in the way of that. Lastly, we must stop using the word “strong” as if holding in our emotions makes us impenetrable. True strength is feeling emotions and not being controlled by them. It is accepting emotion and using it as a pillar for growth, not a sign of weakness. We must redefine strength for this next generation…and it starts with us.
Brief Article giving a general outline of how the Strong Black Woman Schema negatively affects physical and mental health: “Being an African American ‘superwoman’ might come with a price.”
Statistics on sexual assault and rape among Black women: “Black Women and Sexual Violence“