Strong, Black, and Tired! The destructive myths of the "Strong Black Woman"

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Sis, can we be real for a moment?

Is it okay if I take my cape and mask off for a second?

Can I tell you that I am tired!

I know we talk a lot about being strong as Black women, and while I am humbled by the seemingly super human fierceness and resilience that has gotten us through, I can also honestly say that it has come at a great cost.

We are often lauded for having saved America during the elections, and we are counted on by family, friends, co-workers, and even bosses to save them from themselves or from whatever crisis du jour. I guess in some ways, I carry a sense of pride knowing that we can show up and show out at the drop of a dime, are reliable, dependable, and steadfast— but my question is, “what about us?”

So often in my work in therapy, I hear a recurring theme, that we are empty, spent, exhausted, tired. We are good at showing up for everyone else but realize late in the game that we ourselves are burnt. out. Am I preaching yet?

What’s ironic and confusing however, is that even when we are barely getting by, we still carry this deep rooted tension or angst about not being able to do more, about not being able to accomplish all the things that are stressing us out (as if there is an actual end).

From my vantage point, it looks as if we have centered our complete identity around being the Strong Black Woman that society defines (or perhaps demands). Secretly, I think some of us even fear that if we don’t keep up and meet everyone’s expectations, we will become inconsequential. Sorry if I just tap danced on a nerve… but stick with me to the end, sis! I like know know (for real know) what a bind we find ourselves in and am no stranger to the unique ways that we struggle.

Social health psychologist, nurse, and researcher, Dr. Cheryl Woods Giscombe, author of the Superwoman Schema study, outlines five characteristics of women who strongly relate to being a Strong Black Woman. Any of these sound familiar?

  1. An obligation to manifest strength

  2. An obligation to suppress emotions

  3. A resistance to being vulnerable or dependent

  4. A determination to succeed despite limited resources

  5. An obligation to help others

Now, I truly get it. I will be the first to acknowledge that there are very real and valid past and present reasons for us having to put on our armor to survive the brutalities and traumas of living at the intersection of multiple oppressive systems and injustices based upon our identities. But I also think about how living according to those narratives actually serves to strip us of our humanity— to make us LESS human.

I mean, who can, without fail:

  • Live up to the pressure to be all things to all people?

  • Be invulnerable to pain and suffering?

  • Be stoic in the midst of hurt?

  • And to give even when they are empty?

What kind of humanity is it to not be able to complain or be vulnerable or— now hold your wigs /braids / twist out— admit that you are not okay?!

If you have been finding yourself worn down, exhausted, or overwhelmed, I want to propose that the first (and possibly most freeing) step in increasing your emotional wellness is to be real about the extent to which you identify with any of these 5 characteristics and the toll that it has taken on the quality of your life. It’s okay to admit that the weight is heavy and to want to seek refuge to take the cape off.

I invite you to begin (or continue) the journey of reclaiming your full humanity by recognizing the following:

  1. You get to be tired.

  2. You get to prioritize your needs and replenish your cup.

  3. You get to establish boundaries a