We are finally combatting the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype and putting ourselves first – but the challenges remain

The stereotype of the “Strong Black Woman” is one that has been perpetuated throughout the years to our detriment.

While society often paints us with this label, many of us are reeling from it’s affects which filter down to our everyday lives, from how we’re treated in the workplace to the doctor’s office.

Despite constantly being labelled as “strong”, Black women face constant disparities when it comes to our physical and mental health compared to our white counterparts – whether that be during childbirth, developing mental health disorders and even self-harm. 

 A University of Cambridge study found that Black women between the ages of 16 and 34 are more likely to self-harm than white women. This finding is shocking but also an example of how little support Black women receive when showing emotions or symptoms that would otherwise be valued or taken seriously if seen in others. 

While the trope of the “Strong Black Woman” may have initially started as a term of endearment, it has quickly become just as damaging. Black women are seemingly not allowed to show any form of weakness, and are often criticised when they do – especially if they’re a public figure.

This has been displayed with the treatment of Black women athletes, particuarly four-time Grand Slam winner, Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open and most recently Wimbledon due to her battles with depression and anxiety. 

Last month, Osaka stated that she had “suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018” and therefore would not be speaking to the press after matches.

Following Osaka’s announcement, the 23-year-old received backlash from high profile white men, including Piers Morgan, who continuously invalidates the experiences and mental health of Black women.

While Osaka faced criticism, Roger Federer also withdrew from the French Open this year to “listen to [his] body” after knee surgery and was met with a more supportive response, once again highlighting the different responses and lack of sympathy often given to Black women.

The world of tennis has been known to undervalue the emotions of Black women and yet the same women who often receive backlash are also dominating the sport. 

This was the case for 23-time Grand Slam winner, Serena Williams, who was labelled as angry and aggressive after showing emotion during a 2018 match against Osaka. This was followed by the publishing of a racist caricature by Australian newspaper, The Herald Sun – something that I still can’t believe was allowed to be printed. 

There is also evidence of insensitivity towards Black women’s emotions in television and film.

Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder

The character of Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis in the hit television show How To Get Away with Murder, showed clear signs of alcoholism and depression and was initially fired from her job instead of being offered support.

In addition, the three-time BAFTA winning film Rocks, shows a young Black girl having to grow up almost overnight when her mum leaves her and her younger brother home alone during a depressive episode. This film not only tackled the theme that many Black girls are forced to mature very quickly due to cultural and traditional norms, but also the lack of support that single Black mothers receive in society. 

The “Strong Black Woman” trope has been addressed several times, yet change seems so far away. It’s widely known that Black women are often either ignored or not taken as seriously when showing symptoms of health issues, and this is becoming more and more damaging. 

But we are seeing a slight shift as more Black women are rebelling against this trope and expressing their vulnerability and taking time for themselves as seen by Osaka.

This is further seen with the emergence of the hashtag #ProtectBlackWomen, which was used many times last year in relation to the tragic murder of 20 year old Breonna Taylor. The hashtag was also used in response to rapper, Megan Thee Stallion, after she was allegedly shot by rapper Tory Lanez and was villainised despite being the victim. 

This hashtag does what the “Strong Black Woman” trope fails to do by acknowledging the vulnerability of Black women.

In our tragedies and in our triumphs, we should have the ability to take time for ourselves when we want to and how we want to.

I applaud Osaka for doing what was right for her and even in the midst of the criticism, she has received support from other players, celebrities and the Calm app which has pledged to pay fines for tennis players who can’t participate in press obligations. 

Doing what’s right for us is the best way to combat a narrative that’s done more harm than good.

We are strong, vulnerable and everything in between – and it’s important we never forget that and continue to put ourselves first in a world that rarely does.

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