Written by Miracle Hawkins, Contributing Writer
There are many narratives and stereotypical concepts that have been placed specifically on Black women throughout history. The two most popular are “The Angry Black Woman” and “The Strong Black Woman” narratives that have been consistently reinforced through film, music, and other media outlets. The Strong Black Woman narrative is “characterized by emotional fortitude, independence, and self-sacrifice” (Jones et al., 2020). Research has found that there are psychological consequences to this internalized idea of strength in Black women. For this reason, it is imperative to have a clear understanding of this narrative when addressing mental health and wellness for Black women.
The image of the strong Black woman began way before the #BlackGirlMagic movement. Images of this narrative dates back decades when the “Mammy” archetype was used to depict Black slave women who dedicated all their time to taking care of white American households. Many films also used the strong Black woman image to justify the abuse Black women experience from white American slave owners. Black women were perceived as having emotional and intellectual deficits, but immense physical strength. To rid these derogatory stereotypes, Black women re-appropriated the image by redefining the idea of a strong Black woman. Scholars believe that the process of this re-appropriation emerged a Strong Black Woman (SBW) schema. The SBW schema is an archetype of Black womanhood that is characterized by emotional restraint, independence, and caretaking often at the expense of oneself (Jones et al., 2020).
Jones et al. (2020) state that the SBW schema may be considered both a social and self-schema that is a cognitive structure that helps Black women understand who they are and how to interpret experiences they encounter in response to their race and gender. The schema is developed through gendered-racial socialization, where messages are passed down from mothers and matriarchs to Black girls based on the suspected sociocultural climate they may experience as Black women. Some of these messages include being self-reliant regardless of trauma and financial hardships, or the importance of Black women working hard and demonstrating resilience to obtain a good education and job. These messages were intended to protect Black women against racism and sexism. “However, research points to the negative consequences associated with internalizing the SBW schema and perceiving it as ideal. These consequences include limited help-seeking, maladaptive coping, and poor mental and physical health” (Jones et al., 2020).
More attention has been brought to how these messages of being a strong Black woman are associated with Black women feeling constant pressure to uphold these ideal strength characteristics. Although research demonstrated that Black women who internalize ideals of strength (independence, emotional restraint, and self-sacrifice) reap benefits, strength is linked to several psychological consequences” (Jones et al., 2020). In their study with 220 Black college women, Jones et al. (2020) found that resilience and hardworking were the two most common themes women attributed to strength. Researchers state that the SBW schema is problematic as it places the responsibility on Black women to survive in society and in turn minimizes the urgency of addressing social injustices. Researchers also believe that the SBW schema leaves Black women “believing that inequality must be a result of insufficient effort” (Jones et. al, 2020).
These findings have forced us as Black women to reconcile with the messages we have received and has made our relationship with strength complicated. “Some Black women view the embodiment of strength as key to their identity” and “an indication of their success in spite of societal barriers” (Jones et al., 2020). Other women view the image of the strong Black Women as a detrimental stereotype that is distinct from their self-concept. Therefore, it is important to understand that not all Black women share the same perspective of strength. It is also important for us as women to explore our own definitions of strength and ensure that we are also linking strength with wellness. This includes being okay with emotional expression, seeking social support, caring for ourselves, and removing traditional narratives that no longer serve us.
Jones, M., Harris, K., Reynolds, A. (2020). In their own words: The meaning of the strong black woman schema among black U.S. college women. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 84, 347-359. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-020-01170-w