I Stopped Playing the “Strong Black Woman”

We are paying for this myth we’ve bought into with our lives.
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Normalizing chaos is a coping mechanism. It’s what Black women have passed on and collectively reinforced, generation after generation, perpetuating the strong Black woman stereotype.

Photo by Marco Del Pozzo/EyeEm/Getty Images

I never saw my grandmother rest. From morning to night, she appeared to be in service: cooking and cleaning, helping and caring for others.

She died of a heart attack at 69.

As I reflect today on the high rates of heart disease, stress, obesity, and other physical as well as mental ailments among African American women, I wonder what would have been the impact had she said, “I ain’t cooking tonight, everybody is on their own,” or “I’m headed out for a walk,” or simply, “I’m tired, and I need to rest.” What messages might I have inferred from watching her take 15 minutes of quiet time in the morning to “get centered.”

Instead, I observed what appeared to be a never-ending pace of busyness, problem-solving, and making ends meet. As a result, I found myself behaving similarly. I didn’t dare go to her or the other Black women in my life with what I couldn’t do. I worked hard to figure things out—to trudge through my storms. I mimicked what I saw and became a professional at it.

I realized later that my grandmother and I were not the only Black women who existed in this way. There were thousands of us—of all backgrounds and ages—silently suffering, while proudly praising our abilities to make a way out of no way. The more women I engaged with, the more I discovered that we had taken the chaos in our lives and normalized it.

Normalizing chaos is a coping mechanism. It’s what Black women have passed on and collectively reinforced, generation after generation, perpetuating the strong Black woman stereotype. This accepted idea that Black women have an extraordinary strength beyond that of other women—that we feel no pain, we don’t cry, we don’t need help—has done us more harm than good.

Black women are taught to push through, keep going, and endure difficult times without protest. Asking for help—or even believing that we’re deserving of it—is a sign of weakness and vulnerability that we’ve been taught we cannot afford. More than 80 percent of Black mothers are the primary or major financial providers for their families, compared to 50 percent of White mothers. And more than 4 million family households—about 30 percent of Black families—in the United States are headed by Black women. Nearly 1 in 3 of those households lives below the poverty level. Gendered racism, which cuts across all socioeconomic and educational levels, has been shown to be a key component in health disparities.

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We are paying for this myth we’ve bought into with our lives.

Minimizing our mental health, masking depression, staying busy, overeating or not eating at all, and normalizing all of it is killing us slowly. Not only do Black women continue to have higher rates of physical illness with poorer quality of care, we also experience higher rates of depression than our White counterparts. And we are more likely to receive lower rates of mental health treatment.

The upside is, as national attention shines a spotlight on mental health, Black women are slowly joining the discussions and the efforts to heal. Some are using social media and podcasts to share their stories and emphasize the importance of self-care. Others are sharing their stories with friends and family. This movement for Black women to embrace self-care is gradually spreading.

I didn’t want to go to work, but I pushed through, put on my mask daily, and pretended I was OK.

Kellee Monet Rice-Jalloh, who works in pastoral care in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, helps women like me navigate the chaos in our lives. As she is one of the few Black women on her university campus, Rice-Jalloh’s office has become a space where Black women feel they can be vulnerable and authentic—removing their masks and capes.

She warns us that we have to stop pretending we’re not in trauma every day.

My wake-up call came in the form of burnout, exhaustion, and depression. While studying for my Ph.D., I was working full time and raising three children. I didn’t want to go to work, but I pushed through, put on my mask daily, and pretended I was OK.

I wasn’t.

I was in the rabbit hole of my normalized chaos and couldn’t find my way out until I admitted to the harm I was causing myself. I took a hard look at my life and committed to practicing self-care. I stopped saying yes to everyone and every opportunity. I started paying attention to my nutrition and physical activity. I started to remember things that bring me joy and made time to do them. I reminded myself that I am deserving of rest, with no guilt or shame. And I spend time alone.

None of these behaviors did I learn from watching my elders, but I am confident they are saving my life. I am doing the work daily, loving it, and loving me.