The Strong Black Woman: A Persona That Harms

Updated: Aug 3

There are many health conditions that disproportionately affect African-American women such as heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, and fibroids. For years, many doctors and other health professionals have advised Black women to be aware of these issues, and have given suggestions on how to prevent them from developing. However, there’s something else that’s putting the health of African-American women at risk that is less talked about—a phenomenon called “The Strong Black Woman” (SBW).

Also known as the Superwoman Schema, “The Strong Black Woman” stereotype is a racial-gender schema that suggests Black women are naturally strong and resilient beings. These women work hard, and their performance is high. They are perceived to be nurturers and self-sacrificing individuals who often put others’ needs before theirs. They are seen as tough and independent—they can handle their own. Giving up is never an option because there are too many people who are depending on them. The Strong Black Woman is one who's admired and desired by many in the African-American community.

The History of the SBW Stereotype

The Strong Black Woman stereotype originated during the time of slavery in the United States. The female slaves had the “capability” to work in the fields just like the males, while also caring for the slave owner’s house and family, so this gave the impression that enslaved women were insanely resilient. If the partners of enslaved women were sold or killed, the women were left to raise their children by themselves. We see this trend continuing during the era of mass incarceration in the 70s, where Black men were disproportionately imprisoned, resulting in broken homes that left Black women to care for the children and household alone. With the responsibility of being the provider and breadwinner as single mothers, Black women had to be strong in order to survive, even if it meant neglecting their own physical and emotional needs. In the African-American community, being a strong black woman is something that has been taught to girls at a young age, and it’s passed on to their children—a cycle that continues from generation to generation. It’s past time that we break this cycle because it has the potential to cause more harm than good.

The Damaging Effects of the SBW Persona

Though many Black women perceive the SBW persona to be a positive thing, as it may promote self-efficacy and a positive self-image for them, research suggests that there are negative health outcomes associated with the stereotype such as cardiovascular disease, depression, and mental health issues. Having to carry the weight of being strong at all times can cause a tremendous amount of stress on your physical and mental health, especially when you’re expected to handle it all on your own, with no help. This is why we as Black women need to let go of this SBW persona—our successes mean nothing if our health is too poor to enjoy them.

How to Break Away From the SBW Persona

If you’ve internalized the Strong Black Woman stereotype and you’re ready to make a change to a more peaceful and less stressful life, here are three things that can help:

See a therapist to help you work out any internal conflicts that you may have

As Black women, we are told to not tell anyone our business, so when we’re dealing with pain, stress, and trauma, we keep it ourselves instead of confiding in a trusted friend or medical professional. I want you to know that it’s okay to open up to someone and share your experiences with them. I suggest seeing a therapist, specifically someone who is African-American, as they have tools to help you work through any issues, including how to let go of the SBW persona. If you need help with finding a Black therapist, check out Melanin and Mental Health’s website for a list of providers.

Start journaling

Writing in a journal has many benefits, including helping you to accept your emotions and manage the stress in your life. Try journaling your thoughts on a daily basis, and write down what you’ve learned in your therapy sessions so that you can have something to reflect back on.

Regularly practice self-care

It’s so easy to neglect self-care when you work all of the time and have the responsibility of caring for others, but finding time to take care of yourself is imperative. If you don’t, you risk being burnt out and stressed out. Focus on your physical, mental, and emotional needs and make sure they are being taken care of first. Remember, self-care is not selfish.

Bottom line:

There’s nothing wrong with being a strong, independent, and nurturing Black woman, however, it's not okay when you overwork or self-sacrifice so much that you have nothing left for yourself. It's also not okay to mask your emotions or to avoid seeking professional help for the sake of keeping up a "strong" image. Forget what the SBW stereotype says is strong and define it in your own terms.

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