How This Swedish Proverb Is Shining A Light On Black Women's Mental Wellbeing

I’m a staunch advocate for taking care of our mental wellbeing and creating spaces where Black women can feel fully seen, heard, and acknowledged.
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If there is one stereotype of Black women that is the most damaging, and dare I say, the most dangerous to our collective mental wellbeing, it is the image of the “Strong Black Woman”.

I’ve felt this trope deeply. In the hyper-aggressive way a dentist poked my gums, so I had to switch dentists. In the way gynaecologists prod too hard when examining me. In the way doctors talk over me because my self-advocacy is seen as belligerence. In the way I’m constantly seen as “strong” by non-Black friends and colleagues.

The “Strong Black Woman” denotes someone who is impervious to both physical and emotional pain. A woman who can take sustained daily stress from societal microaggressions.

A woman who is seen as aggressive when she’s simply being assertive. A woman who isn’t treated with the same tenderness as others. One who was already treated like an adult as teenager. A woman more likely to die during childbirth because medical professionals don’t believe her threshold for pain. A woman who is one of the least protected in society because we’re seen as strong enough to protect ourselves.

In 2017 while doing research for my nonfiction book on the Swedish ethos of lagom, I stumbled across a beautiful Swedish proverb that immediately arrested me. That proverb says, “the deepest well can also be drained” and directly talks about mental health. It inadvertently highlights the importance of creating safe spaces for women of colour – who are some of society’s deepest wells – so we can replenish ourselves.

Through my fiction, I wanted to show just what it’s like when those wells start to metaphorically dry out. The dedication in my new book EVERYTHING IS NOT ENOUGH reads “For the strong, looking for safe spaces to be weak”. According to one reviewer, it sums up the intent behind my words in “one beautiful, succinct sentence.”

The underlying goal of both my novels is to highlight the importance of providing holistic support to women of colour and normalising our full range of emotions so we’re not constantly boxed into a dangerous trope. When I use the word “to normalise”, it means giving whatever or whoever we’re referring to the full space to actualise. This may mean allowing people to feel and express their range of emotions without reducing them to stereotypes. In essence, allowing us to be completely human in the way we each emote.

I remember watching one of my eleven-year-old daughter’s basketball games where the opposing team was made up of mostly Brown and Black girls. Her team was already down by several points. Then one parent leaned over to me and whispered that the other team was “aggressive”. I pointedly told the parent that the other team was simply better. It was very clear that they’d trained more and as such, were more confident on the court.

This made me wonder about the attributes and stereotypes that were already being ascribed to those eleven-year-olds – kids - simply because they were Brown and Black.

If every time a Black woman exudes confidence or stands up for herself, she is seen as aggressive, then when would she ever be taken seriously and fully heard? When every time you try to advocate for yourself and your needs, you’re seen as combative, unyielding, and difficult?

Imagine the mental toll that takes on women of colour who are already marginalised within society and pulling from deep wells of emotional strength to battle stereotypes every single day.

This is why I’m a staunch advocate for taking care of our mental wellbeing and creating spaces where Black women can feel fully seen, heard, and acknowledged.

Whether it’s through my fiction or in real life through meetups where we can simply exhale. This is also why communities such as Therapy for Black Girls is essential. Beyond regular therapy, I support start-ups like Tala Thrive, which is striving to connect people with culturally competent therapists and coaches who fully understand them and their backgrounds so they can move from simply surviving to fully thriving.

As an author who centres Black women protagonists in predominantly white spaces, I am slowly dismantling that dangerous stereotype through my work. As one of my characters Kemi says in EVERYTHING IS NOT ENOUGH, she’s tired of being strong and simply wants to be selfish, even if it’s just for a moment. She hates it. That unfair cape she has to wear on behalf of her kind. She savagely rips it off, tears it into invisible shreds, and decides she wants to be weak.

I am creating deeply messy characters who are muddling through life, making mistakes, trying to thrive, and giving them grace to be weak because Black women are not bottomless sources of strength.

We too can be drained.

Everything is Not Enough by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom, published by Head of Zeus, is out now.