I was meeting with a white woman who I’ve known for about six months – a lovely girl with whom I had a nascent friendship and several interests in common, but with whom ultimately I was little more than acquaintances.
It all came to an abrupt end when then she said this: “You’re so strong. Really, you are.”
She was utterly earnest in her assessment, and the statement was undoubtedly well-intentioned with no ill will behind it, I was sure.
Yet there I was, left with a feeling of unease, of being ever so slightly patronised, and wholly misunderstood.
Being called “strong” is, of course, not the worst thing I’ve been called, as a black woman in Britain; but the term never fails to trigger this reaction in me. Why?
Well, I must have heard myself described as ‘strong’ hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times over the years. Indeed, if I had a pound for every time it happened, I’d be a very wealthy woman by now.
“Even as a little girl, I was constantly reminded how 'strong' I was – but now I know that this label actually has very little to do with me”
I see my white counterparts – women in their early to mid-forties – who skilfully orchestrate the daily comings and goings of a family of five or six (including the husband), yet I’ve never thought to label them as being ‘strong’. Likewise, I’ve never thought to characterise as “strong” the white women who have smashed through the glass ceiling to achieve board-level positions, although that sort of achievement must demand strengths untold.
Why, then, is the “strong black woman” badge so prevalent? Even as a little girl, I was constantly reminded how ‘strong’ I was – but now I know that this label actually has very little to do with me. In fact, the answer lies in our colonial past, and still lurks in the subconscious of today’s society.
I remember, while studying my A-Levels, reading William Blake’s The Little Black Boy. I’ll never forget the delight of one of the more overtly racist teachers I had the pleasure of knowing, as he asked us to discuss the epic poem. In it, the aforementioned little boy – who is “black as if bereaved of light” – learns that he can use this “affliction” to shade the little English boy from the heat and help him to come closer to God; thus earning the white boy’s love. (This teacher had a talent for digging out all of the racist literature of the 17th and 18th centuries.)
Nor will I forget my visceral response that kicked in as we read: a combination of red-hot shame and outright indignation at the portrayal of a little boy as being somehow less innocent than another; who must accept that his role on earth is as protector of the unwitting little white boy – to help the English boy reach his potential.
Years later, I realise that use of the term “strong” in reference to black women is as primal as is my reaction to hearing it. It originates from subconscious programming dating back to Blake’s extraordinary (for its time) poem, which insists that being black is an aberration made tolerable by the fact that we’re… so… strong.
“We’re emotional. We cry. We’re vulnerable, and we’re sometimes weak – although this often goes unnoticed.”
Let’s be clear here. Black or white, we’re all equally culpable of using – and indeed being at the mercy of – these unconscious caricatures.
We black women have wholeheartedly embraced the “strong black woman” mantle. We’re exceptionally good at pretending – why, sometimes I even fool myself. You might ask then, what’s the issue with being called “strong”? It’s a compliment. Isn’t it?
Well, there’s a serious side: being labelled as strong renders us less able to show our true emotions and therefore to treat ourselves with the self-compassion that goes hand-in-hand with sound mental health and wellbeing.
To put the problem into context, consider the fact that black women are much more likely than white women in the UK to suffer a common mental health issue such as depression or anxiety. In reality, behind closed doors some of us are crumbling under the weight of this bald generalisation. We’re constantly expected to present to the world a superhuman-like strength when in reality our “game face” is no more indicative of our authentic self as anyone else’s.
And it’s not just about mental health. It’s also about the long-held perception of black women as less nurturing and somehow less feminine than white women, and the everyday aggressions and micro-aggressions we face as a result of this misperception.
Yes, we’re surviving – in spite of the growing swell of racism that has become a worrying feature of Britain, other European countries and the U.S. amidst a surge of nationalism and white supremacy. And, yes, being a black woman often takes a whole lot of strength.
But we’re multidimensional beings. Human, you might say. We’re emotional. We cry. We’re vulnerable, and we’re sometimes weak – although this often goes unnoticed by the wider world.
So next time you’re bursting with admiration for a black woman who’s basically just getting on with the business of living, same as the next person, please stop for a moment before you spew out the well-worn adage and fawn over our supposed Samsonesque strength.
It’s more irritating, and more harmful, than you realise.
Shirley McLellan is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on LinkedIn here.
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