Nora Gaines joins Stories Connect with her essay, "We Are Not All Strong Black Women." In this debut essay, Nora asks that we cast aside our stereotypes of the strong black woman and allow Black women to move into a wholeness that includes strength and perseverance, but also sensitivity, fear and exasperation.
I have not transcended the need for companionship and affection
by Nora Gaines
My chest felt tight, like someone with giant hands balled it up to toss it away. The only way I could find relief was by bending over; so I did. Sweating and shaking, I doubled over on a train headed somewhere I did not want to go. I was having a panic attack. My body finally exacted the break my tenacity forbid and it was horrifying.
Everything was too much and something had to change. Something needed to change. How could I make people understand that I could no longer handle everything before me -- that I am not the Strong Black Woman they think I am? I am Black. I am a woman. I am strong. Marginalized people have to be strong to survive, but I am not that strong. I am not a trope. I am not always able to make a way out of no way. I do not bounce back from trauma unscathed. I am not able to make a $1 out of .15 cents. I have not transcended the need for companionship and affection. I am not indefatigable. I am not that Strong Black Woman – even though I was raised to be.
I remember receiving a whupping as a child when I came home crying because another small girl had made fun of me and thrown my toys about. My father made it clear that my sensitive nature was a liability to be overcome and tears of sadness would be met with something real to cry about. I also remember being told stories of my mother in her girlhood - a romanticized figure that refused to cry when beaten so as not to give her chastisers the satisfaction. My mother wears sunglasses to funerals and the sight of her crying is rare and startling. But unlike my mother, I was never able to hold back my tears or to take perceived injustices and slights on the chin. I’ve remained sensitive, but I’ve learned to mask my sensitivity with defensive words and sharp looks in the hope that people will tread lightly. I understand that my parents sought to toughen me so that I could exist in this world, but I also understand that it was at the expense of my wholeness.
My mother wears sunglasses to funerals and the sight of her crying is rare and startling. But unlike my mother, I was never able to hold back my tears or to take perceived injustices and slights on the chin
With therapy and self-work I am now able to say when I am overwhelmed, hurt, tired, scared, unsure or that I’ve had more than I can take. My family depends on me to fix things that are beyond my control. There are people in my life that need help. They need money, patience, love, an ear for their troubles and a plan to move forward. They need more than I have to give. Society is corrupt. Everyday and all day people are disparaged, given less than a fair chance, made invisible and told that it is their fault. My people are being killed by those that are supposed to protect them and the world looks on. Navigating a world where I am undervalued, stereotyped and confronted with microaggressions daily is exhausting. Being the only Black person in a room discussing race and feeling like a representative is too much. Dismantling my own internalized oppression is consuming. Seeing myself not just as I am but how others think I am is wearying. Soldier armor and weaponry are heavy. Determining when hyper-vigilance and self-defensiveness is indeed necessary and when it is safe to lay the weapons down is maddening. Fighting the good fight is hard work. Trying to explain my oppression and claim my space hurts as much as sticks and stones.
The physical and psychological toll of the acute and chronic stress of racism, patriarchy and cultural alienation in African-American women is documented:
- African-American women are more likely to experience stressful situations, such as economic hardship, interpersonal discrimination, structural discrimination in housing and employment, and multiple caregiving roles than Whites or Males.
These experiences release the stress hormones catecholamine and cortisol. Numerous studies confirm that extended exposure to stress hormones/the sustained activation of the stress-response system referred to as allostatic load contributes to the development or progression of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, susceptibility to infection, carcinogenesis, and accelerated aging.
- A 2010 National Institutes of Health study titled “Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?”, found that black women between the ages of 49 and 55 are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women.
- With an estimated depression rate almost 50% higher than White women. Black people account for approximately 25% of the mental health needs in this country though we make up roughly 12% of the population.
These stressors leading to wellness inequalities are only compounded by expectations whether self-imposed or by others to be Strong Black Women and carry our burdens without help as well as take on other's loads. I’ve found that even when I do ask for help or say that I am nearing my capacity I am often not heard or believed. I received confirmation of this in group therapy (a space I entered to better understand how I was perceived and how I could better navigate people’s perceptions, no doubt spurred on by my love of The Bob Newhart Show). I was the only Black person in the group, although a few others had cycled in and out. During a session I confided that my SSRI’s weren’t doing their one job and that I had laid on the floor at work crying after my colleagues left, and stayed up half the night anxiously cleaning and making order of the things in my life that I could control. Yet the group told me that my pain just didn’t feel tangible. In the end I was upheld as a role model, not for resilience or self-awareness, but for strength.
This didn’t feel right, so I asked the group if they might be projecting an idea of a Strong Black Woman onto me and not actually seeing me. They answered with weak side-eyed “maybes.”
What is it about being a big, Black, well-spoken woman that makes people not see or accept my fragility? Is it because I’ve been known to tell people about themselves? If so, I wish they knew that for every time I told them about themselves there were likely four other times when I wanted to say something but didn’t out of fear of being labeled angry, disliked or retaliated against. I want them to know that the time I did say something, I was up until 2am ruminating about it. I have worked very hard to shake off the pressure to be Strong - to be able to name my struggles and capacities without shame. Now I need people to let tired stereotypes rest and to see me as a whole human who is wounded by the assumption that I am less or more.
I have worked very hard to shake off the pressure to be Strong - to be able to name my struggles and capacities without shame. Now I need people to let tired stereotypes rest and to see me as a whole human who is wounded by the assumption that I am less or more