You’ve seen her in the news: the calm African American woman reacting with dignity to a high-stress, traumatic situation. Her voice and face are steady. She stuffs down her emotions. No one will see her fall apart.
She is the Strong Black Woman.
I first heard that phrase in a sermon by Chanequa Walker-Barnes—theologian, clinical psychologist, fellow graduate of Duke Divinity School. Strong Black Woman Syndrome, something she saw regularly in her clinical practice, emerges out of the expectation that black women be “super capable, to take care of others, to be stoic—emotionally strong to the point of stoicism—and radically independent.” And I immediately thought, “I know this stereotype. I remember it from my childhood in the ‘80s. It’s Clair Huxtable.”
It’s a cultural stereotype that’s enforced in the media, in popular culture, even in churches, by blacks and whites alike. But Walker-Barnes points out, this pressure isn’t sustainable. Many black women are falling apart physically and psychologically, as she recounts in her book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength (Wipf and Stock).
Picture Diamond Reynolds calmly recording the aftermath of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s shooting by a police officer during a traffic stop—and her daughter alongside her telling her to be strong. (“No four-year-old should ever be in a position, should ever have that language ready to tell their parent in such a moment,” Walker-Barnes said.) It’s Iesha Evans stoically facing arrest by officers in riot gear. And most recently, the ring of grieving but brave mothers on stage at the Democratic National Convention.
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