The Strong Black Woman Syndrome / by Lauren Rascoe

As black women, we are always committed to holding up this image of being strong and invincible. Being independent and not needing anyone to help us because we can just carry our own. This is an image we have been holding up for years. From generation to generation, we have made the label of being a strong black woman something to be cherished and strived for. But this appealing image we’ve created over the years of overcoming so much adversity as a group has become a mask many of us use. A strong black woman image causes us to neglect the reality that this image is quite heavy to hold, because we strive to never be seen weak.

I came across a post on one of my favorite blogs, For Harriet entitled, We Are All Survivors: How Systemic Inequality Traumatizes Black Women. After reading this, I wanted to share my reality with holding up this mask and how I’ve made strides to break this misconceived notion of always being strong.

Growing up I recognized that I had two unspoken strikes against me; one for being African-American and another for being a woman. I understood that I had to work twice as hard to prove my worth and three times as hard to break any stereotype that came before me. Surviving in the world meant I had to be able to adapt, speak properly and behave in way that was non-threatening to the rest of society. As negative as it may sound, it benefitted me with various opportunities to lead and portray myself in an “acceptable” light that others would be comfortable with, while at the same time benefitting my professional gains as a leader.

Growing up around so many men also contributed to my aspiration to not, “act like a girl,” and a conscious decision to behave with masculine tendencies. I was strong, confident, loyal, dependable, and always on top of my game. I was very good at keeping all my ducks in a row, and it was very rare to see me misstep. Even if that did occur, I was able to make it seem as if I didn’t know how to be anything else but flawless. Aiming to be the epitome of what a “strong black woman” represented, I found myself walking in this façade that I soon came to know as my identity and a mask that became quite heavy to hold up.

Although this mask to many people was a positive image and many encouraged this behavior, it came with its burdens and its downfalls. I found I wasn’t doing things for me anymore, but for other people, my reputation, and my image. I couldn’t stand to really let anyone see what I felt. I believed my emotions were evil essentially and made me seem weak. I hated crying, still do really, and I had a very hard time expressing myself efficiently. Writing was really my only outlet. The need to be accepted consumed me and sometimes made me feel as if I was losing myself. I made strategic and calculated decisions to cultivate my “image,” to never be seen as weak, and was unable to break away from this habit until life finally broke me.

When my only family member in Boston passed away in March [2015], I had to really deal with death for the first time. I realized for that truly being strong is knowing how to be weak. Sitting in that hospital room by myself, staring at his cold and still body, I recognized saving face and being strong wasn’t helping me. I felt as if I was stuck in a limbo that even when I looked in the mirror I could not recognize myself. I was so sad and depressed, but I felt like I had to look strong for his daughter, his girlfriend and his sister. It took a toll on me, quite negatively. I didn’t know how to respond and lashed out people who didn’t deserve it. When I recognized I couldn’t bottle up the pain the same way I dealt with any other situation, I knew I had to let the emotions out. No matter how many people were around, I knew I owed it to myself to be free. I felt lost, because I no longer wanted this “identity” I’d created for myself. It was too heavy to hold and way too lonely, because when we get caught up in walking in strong black womanhood, nobody ever thinks to ask if you’re ok. I got tired of running from everything that made me, me and I was ready to face everything in life I’d been fleeing.

[In June 2015,] I started seeing a therapist and started taking myself through different exercises and reflections to understand me better. It’s not an easy journey, but I know that being myself is better than trying to be a “strong black woman.” I recognize it takes a strong person, to know when to be weak. It take courage to acknowledge your emotions and let them take their course. (As long as you don’t allow them to overpower you.) It’s good to feel. To allow yourself the opportunity to be human, for it does not degrade your level of strength. Figure out what your outlets are and allow yourself the opportunity to release before you break. It’s the healthy thing to do for your mind, body, and soul. And I’m glad that I’ve made progress on this journey to me.

I told you all this because being a strong black woman is a grand thing to do, as long as you don’t let it consume and cause you to lose you. Always being perceived as strong translates most times as if you don’t need anything, which isn’t true. I don’t want anyone to ever get to the point of breaking because they can’t hold themselves anymore. Make sure you are handling your emotions in a healthy manner. Support your fellow women. You never know what someone is growing through.

Don’t forget we’re all human and everybody needs someone eventually in the end.