Part Two: The Strong Black Woman Identity Includes Side Effects

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

Many Strong Black Women have a secret. The secret is not that The Strong Black Woman mindset helped scores of women survive slavery and its sometimes traumatic aftermath. Instead, this is the secret. Specifically, an increasing number of reports show the SBW mindset can trigger a long list of life-threatening side-effects including depression, mood disorders, binge eating, obesity, and self-neglect.

Dr. Karen Holmes, one of four researchers who launched a study on the SBW mindset several years ago at Norfolk State University, said, “This concept of strength is embraced by many women, despite some of the health and psychological issues that are connected with this ideology.” “So what are the alternatives, Jezebel, The Angry Black Woman, Welfare Queen, or Mammy?” asked Holmes who heads the Master of Arts Criminal Justice Program in Virginia Beach. Thankfully, side effects plus solutions surface in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Counseling Psychology published in 2012. “Often, African-American women will need to deconstruct the message that they need to ‘keep it together’ at all costs.”

The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Counseling Psychology continued, “The perception these women have of themselves is not that they are suffering but that they are strong, autonomous beings who can survive anything without help, despite any and all difficulties they confront.” The handbook explained, “In fact, many perceive the need to ask for and accept help from anyone as an intolerable expression of weakness … One of the great challenges for women is to find a balance between getting their needs met while taking care of others.”

Since the SBW mindset dates back to slavery, the discussion is not limited to scholars. Sit down at a table with women of color, jog a few blocks, or strike up a conversation.
Soon, someone will bring up the secret. And Atlanta writer Dana L. Stringer described some of the side effects, as well as solutions in her 2013 work titled, The Hidden Dangers of Being a Strong Black Woman, “The popular phrase (SBW) is one of the most highly coveted compliments bestowed,” Stringer said. “We’ve had to step up and do what others would not do – defaulting to a kind of independence that doesn’t ask anybody for anything,” Stringer explained. “But is this label merely another stereotype that is often perceived as a positive attribute, forcing us to keep an appearance and a performance at the expense of our own health?”


The point is nearly everyone agrees. The SBW mindset is like a drug that helps and yet hurts. For example, consider how the psoriasis drug Raptiva triggered fatal brain infections and meningitis. But news reports show Raptiva killed three people before the FDA removed it from the market in 2009. Another example is Baycol. The cholesterol-lowering drug triggered a potentially fatal breakdown of muscle tissue, caused 31 deaths, and was withdrawn from the market four years after it was approved in 1997, according to news reports.

The point is while the FDA keeps an eye on potentially life-threatening drugs such as Raptiva and Baycol. And the FDA removed both drugs from stores before they could harm more people. The point is only a small but growing number of researchers, writers, and poets are monitoring the hidden side effects that lurk deep in the Strong Black Woman mindset. Each woman bears much of the responsibility for monitoring the hidden side effects that are buried deep in the toxic parts of the ideology. According to Dr. Althia Ali, the major part of the mindset that harms is the unrealistic quest for perfection.

“I think the take away is that women who give up the pursuit of perfection have made the choice to focus on what they can reasonably do with the resources they have,” said Ali who has held several administrative posts including the presidency at Bennett College. “They have taken control of the scripts that guide their lives, and they feel that they can do something meaningful even if it’s not perfect.  At least that’s the case for me,” said Ali. “Too many women buy into the pursuit of perfection to the point that they torment themselves and, in turn, others.”

While Ali has held several administrative posts including vice president for academic affairs at United States International University in San Diego and assistant vice president for academic affairs at Mankato State University in Minnesota. And she has served as a principal at several elementary schools. To  take control of her own personal script, Ali returned to her hometown and launched ARTE (pronounced Ar-tuh) Gallery & Studio in Morristown, Tenn. on Nov. 28. “A great deal of my growth away from the notion of a SBW has been that I let go of the quest for perfection and the feeling that I had to be perfect in every way,” Ali said.  “It’s unattainable and doesn’t exist.”

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The problem, according to many scholars, is the secret. Denial makes many SBW wear the mask that breeds toxic side effects. But Sociologist Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant decided to peek behind the mask. After Beauboeuf-Lafontant interviewed 58 women for her 2009 book titled, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance. She said behavior holds the mask in place. This means the long list of life-threatening side effects are triggered by conduct, actions, and repetitive behavior.

On the one hand, The SBW is strong, proud, and busy in her “performance of invulnerability,” Beauboef-Lafontant continued. “But she might become a quiet alcoholic, overweight and (have) high blood pressure or (be) chronically depressed.” “Instead of crying or dealing with our depression and pain,“ Beauboef-Lafontant said. The SBW is “vulnerable to depression because she does not take the time to tend to herself … Her busyness may be a way to keep her off the feelings of sadness … The strength narrative shelters SBW from self-scrutiny and the searching gaze of others that might reveal their less than optimal functioning and profound needs.” Beauboef-Lafontant zeroed in on the most toxic side effect. “We see her sweat but nobody else knows.” The cost however is self-neglect. . .Listening past the lies makes us sick.”


In Virginia Beach, Paulette Braithwaite, who retired from the City of Virginia Beach about a decade ago said, ”I believe more women believe in self-care. Citing examples, Braithwaite said, “More women are running marathons. You see more women with natural hairstyles.” “People have referred to me as a Strong Black Woman,” said Braithwaite who launched her own retail and consulting business, Simply Unique in 1999. She is also active in her church Morning Star Baptist. Despite her accomplishments, she has seen her share of challenges in her career, her business, and during her divorce several years ago.

“But I try not to fall into the trap that I am somehow superhuman,” Braithwaite said. “What happens to a big rock when it is under pressure? It turns into a lot of little rocks because the pressure is so intense that it breaks it down. Put under pressure, we will crumble. I am a strong person but I never tell myself I am a superwoman. I believe in self-care.”
Experts point to three solutions: First, be assertive. Second, be authentic. Third, develop a spiritual ideology.

But why would these three solutions nullify the toxic side effects?  The SBW’s strength is largely mythical and imaginary, Michelle Wallace said in her 1990 book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. “It made me cringe to hear men referring to me as strong, because I knew they were referring to the historical me … never realizing how imaginary that strength really was.”

Mindful of the first solution (be assertive), Holmes said from her office at Norfolk State, “What many in the broader society fail to recognize is that when women of color are assertive, it is perceived as anger, which is an unfortunate stereotype to deal with,” Holmes said. “It makes sense that many are in denial because it pushes down that stress level. It pushes that down.”

Holmes continued, “And it allows the woman to wholly embrace something that is positive even though the research suggests clearly that the SBW isn’t altogether positive and that is where the paradox comes in. We have to embrace the SBW ideology because what is the alternative?” Experts offer a second solution. Become authentic. This means stop tiptoeing around secrets. According to a Columbia University study, keeping a secret threatens your health more than facing the pain and vulnerability that comes from facing the truth.

In fact, the Columbia study showed that keeping a secret made everyday tasks like lugging groceries upstairs physically harder. “What matters is how preoccupied you are with it (the secret),” said study author Dr. Michael Slepian. Experts offer a third solution: Face facts. This means since an increasing number of scholarly studies and a growing body of literature show the SBW mindset can trigger bodily shame, impulsivity, and numerous mood disorders including depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. To get a handle on the long list of side effects, realize that the secret triggers behavior that aims to silence other thoughts and concerns.

“Binge eating studies suggest that the compulsive eating arises from a desire to silence other thoughts or concerns,” Dr. Michelle Renee Offutt said in her 2013 dissertation titled The Strong Black Woman, Depression, and Emotional Eating. “Different from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, binge eating represents a loss of control over the eating behavior because the act is compulsive,” Offutt explained.

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“Studies suggest that the compulsive eating arises from a desire to silence other thoughts or concerns, the act of eating is emotionally-numbing and provides a brief escape from the myriad concerns which are overwhelming,” Offutt noted. “Binge eating and its likely outcome, obesity have been shown empirically to have a link to childhood mistreatment,” Offutt said. “The behavior of emotional overeating, or binge eating, occurs at higher rates in” populations of color, Offutt said. “As a response to trauma, compulsive overeating or binge eating, may be a way for individuals to attempt to regulate their emotions,” Offutt explained. “Compulsive eating occurs when it is triggered by a negative memory or an intense emotional response.”

Next WeekWhat Black Men Are Saying About the Strong Black Woman

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