Help Wanted: The Crisis of the Strong Black Woman
The Strong Black Woman is in crisis. Her survival mechanisms, capacity for care, making a way out of no way capabilities, and being one the most educated group in the United States; place her in an interesting yet complex paradox.
The side affects of such a paradox show up in various aspects of her life. Whether it be motherhood, dating, sex, friendships, or intimate relationships; the myth of the strong black woman is a unwanted honor for many of us.
As an educated, divorced, co-parenting black woman — who works more than one job while parenting and pursuing an advanced degree; I am often hailed as the ideal image of the strong black woman. While I smile on the surface behind the mask of agreement I am quietly mumbling to myself — “I don’t want to be”.
As easy as it looks, juggling two jobs, raising children, and pursuing one’s passion — is not only a desire — it’s a demand. Black women over the course of history have not been left with much of a choice. By virtue of the black experience in America, she has always had to take notice, take care, and take responsibility for others — most of the time it is at the expense of herself.
But who takes care, takes responsibility, and takes notice of her?
The answer is an intimate truth that we do not discuss. The answer is evident and quite simple. In most cases, it is no one. The strong black woman is in crisis, because she is a resource that is constantly being tapped, but a resource which is not receiving the right amount of attention and care.
The demand for the strong black woman started when she was first brought to these shores as the primary producers of labor which built this “great” America we keep hearing about. She has been violated emotionally, sexually, and psychologically; yet she prevails and has since become, as the National Center of Education Statistics found, the most educated group in the United States. Yet her labor worth doesn’t reflect such an investment or achievement. According to Black Women in the Labor Force, a report done by the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, “on average, Black women tend to have less favorable outcomes than their White, non-Hispanic counterparts. Black women still face a stark wage gap and are less likely to work in higher-paid occupations”.
So what does this have to do with the myth of the strong black woman today?
Her entire existence has demanded that she be the help rather than be helped.
As a result, she has always had to put her “need for help” not just last— she must make sure her needs don’t exist at all. If she exercises a moment of vulnerability — by expressing a need — she will undoubtedly be seen as “needy” in an undeserving way. Even in the circle of sisterhood, her vulnerability and demand for care — will be seen as failure and deficit on her part. Making her the antithesis to the strong black woman image. Not only does she face a demand to complicity endure and survive with grace from a culture of white supremacy; within her own culture the myth has been celebrated and hailed as a badge of success. For her to admit that she is tired and needs someone to be strong for her — is just not a welcomed vulnerability. Not telling the truth about the pressures of being “the help” vs “needing help” — further silences this intimate truth.
Sarah Haley, a historian at UCLA, was asked for the article Renisha McBride and Evolution of Black-Female Stereotype, to share her thoughts on why McBride’s request for help were met as a perceived threat and ultimately ended her life, Haley stated, “that black women are more often viewed as “the help” than in need of help…..Black women have been seen as different than black men, certainly, but they have not always been seen as women either; to be a woman is to be seen as deserving of protection, and black women are not always seen that way.”
Haley’s argument summed up hundreds of years of the black women’s experience in a simple paragraph. Over the course of history, black women have either been helping the United States become a great nation by producing labor, laboring herself, been the help in many affluent homes and communities, caring for others’ and her own babies, helping to maintain stable households after their husband or partners have been killed or institutionalized, and helping take care of her family while simultaneously expanding her professional capital to do so. Her journey has demanded this resilience at no desire of her own and it has come at the high cost of her needs.
The myth needs to be discussed honestly so that we can start expanding the the black woman’s capacity for care by attending to her needs as well. No resource can be tapped without adding the necessary ingredients for the resource to continue to produce. As I stated at the beginning of this article, the strong black woman is in crisis. And this crisis is leading to consequences that affect her ability to produce the natural resource of care. If we don’t start providing care and stop expecting her to “self-care”, then the resource will ultimately be depleted.