By Kizzy Dogan —
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”
– Sojourner Truth
No one would ever deny that strength is a great asset that has allowed our species to overcome and thrive. Indeed, without it, we would not be able to endure life’s many challenges and hardships. Great men have long been prized for their physical strength and mental resourcefulness, but what of women? More specifically, what of the black woman? With each passing of the baton, black women became more assertive, independent, and self-sufficient from generation to generation. Black women have had to do this to adapt. Although many of these courageous black women broke barriers in the process, it never stopped perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions of black women that persist from slavery and Jim Crow. Therefore the “Strong Black Woman” syndrome is harmful because it results from withstanding high degrees of trauma silently.
When you hear the word syndrome, you automatically associate it with a medical diagnosis, but that is not what I am referring to today. The “Strong Black Woman” syndrome definitely can carry long-term effects that impact the health and well-being, but at its root, it is a way of thinking instilled in many Black Americans from an early age. To be considered a “Strong Black Woman” should not be taken lightly or considered pragmatic. Arguably being a “Strong Black Woman” has excellent benefits, and if you’re a black woman, you’ve probably worn that title as a badge of honor at some point in your life. So then why do we have strong black women suffering from this syndrome?
Before we go any further, let us first break down the word syndrome. According to Webster’s dictionary, the definition of the word syndrome is a group of symptoms that consistently occur together or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms or a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behavior.
The “Strong Black Woman” syndrome spills over into all areas of the woman’s life, from her home to her job to her relationships. In each of these areas, a black woman is referred to as the person who should have the answers. If she does not, her value immediately comes into question. Now, let’s get closer to what causes this syndrome to develop. The truth of the matter is many black women are not encouraged to ask for assistance. From a very early age, black women are forced to have tough skin and are groomed to assume this “badge of honor” of being a “Strong Black Woman.” However, this often leads to self-destruction, dysfunction, and abuse in many cases. Black women’s grievances often go unheard or downright dismissed. As a result, so many black women’s emotional well-being is neglected because of the countless obligations they assume and unspoken expectations placed on them.
Without a consistent male presence in the home, many women bear the burden as their family’s sole provider and overall backbones. Unfortunately, in this instance, black women are offered very little support, compassion, or empathy. Black women suffer in silence and too frequently seek a lifeline only after it is a little too late, thus exacerbating an issue that could have been solved sooner, with proper assistance. You may be wondering: Well if it’s as simple as asking for help, why not just reach out and get the service you need? Well, that sounds simple enough, but in most instances, black women are not raised to be vulnerable because of the rule of “never letting people see you sweat.” Nor are they allowed by society to be susceptible because black women are often unseen and unheard. This backward compliment of being a “Strong Black Woman” has made black women invisible at times. The inability to speak openly about their problems often leads to turmoil and the deterioration of one’s inner peace.
Black women are forced to exhibit strength but criticized for showing up in the world as angry, bitter, argumentative, challenging to work with, and every other derogatory pejorative you can imagine. Studies have reported that black women are perceived as being more masculine than women of different races, and I believe this is primarily due to The “Strong Black Woman” Syndrome. The strength that black women possess is often confused and misunderstood. Black women are encouraged to suck up their tears and keep going, usually leaving no time to reflect and process trauma and past experiences. God forbid the black woman goes against what society considers to be a “Strong Black Woman.” It’s almost sacrilegious to show up in the world as a “weak” black woman because society does not accept vulnerability or even value authenticity from black women. The punishment for this sin of being “weak” is further ostracism and devaluation.
Sometimes having the label as a “Strong Black Woman” gives a false sense of strength and security. This woman wears a brave face to the world, but behind closed doors, the rug is pulled from underneath her feet. Sadly, several black women are quietly battling depression, mismanaging finances, suffering from abuse, and losing their minds because they are fighting to hold onto their badge of honor, which is a generational curse disguised as an attribute.
Typically women from all walks of life and all cultures are nurturing by nature and have difficulty saying no. Women often get caught up in the minutia of people-pleasing and tend to take on way more than they can bear. Although most women battle with people-pleasing, comparatively, black women have had to be everything for everybody in their communities and families. These pressures have caused black women to become overachievers, leaving them with feelings of anguish and dissatisfaction when they do not measure up tooverbearing societal expectations. The long term effect of carrying this burden is shattering to the black woman’s self-esteem, and the selfless actions of black women are not always reciprocated. Quite frankly, Black women are at the bottom of the totem pole but are expected to exemplify grace, class, and dignity or risk being dehumanized. Although black women are aware that being everything for everybody will often leave them broken, bruised, and alone, they do it anyway. The governing of their moral obligations and generational curses embedded in them forces them to believe this is their only option. Ironically, being everything for everyone frequently puts them in a place where only the Lord can settle their souls.
As a result of this syndrome, black women suffer from depression and other mental health issues, get stuck in toxic cycles of poor relationships, have poor health, and lack funds and resources. This lethal combination means that they are not living up to their full potential. Black women too often try to keep up with everyone else and put themselves last. There is a lack of freedom that comes with the expectations of being a “Strong Black Woman” that women of other races will never fully understand. Having to wear the full armor of protection every second of the day is exhausting, stressful, painful, wholly unrealistic, and, most importantly, unfair. Black women are dying inside trying to maintain the image of a “Strong Black Woman,” but why are more people not talking about this?
The most alarming and terrifying part about the “Strong Black Woman” syndrome is that it has been passed down from generations and, because of our silence, runs the risk of being passed down to the next generation. It’s time for us to start speaking up about it. This syndrome is detrimental to our future leaders, change-makers, and thought provokers. Our teen daughters are watching and emulating our behaviors, causing our teen girls to secretly battle drug addiction, abuse, and mental illness at alarming rates.
If we genuinely aspire for the next generation of black women to live an authentic and purposeful life, becoming the best version of themselves, we have to address this syndrome. We must break this cycle of silence and “so-called” strength. In the words of our beloved Ms. Iyanla Vanzant, (who has often been recognized as a “Strong Black Woman” ) we must learn to call a spade a spade people. Depending on who is speaking, being labeled a “Strong Black Woman” is not applause-worthy. Especially when the exterior appears to be stoic, but the interior is the complete opposite. Exhibiting signs of strength is one thing; feeling powerless but pretending to have all the answers is fraudulent. We must break these destructive cycles, learn to say “No” without explanation, change the narrative of the “strong black woman” syndrome, and begin to heal. Otherwise, we will have another generation of black women suffering from the “Strong Black Woman” syndrome, sending more and more women to the grave unaided.
Kizzy Kittrell Dogan is the author of Thirteen: Lessons for Every Teen Girl’s Journey to Womanhood, The Chief Executive Officer of T&G Commercial Cleaning, LLC, the Founder of Love Circle Inc, a 501c3 nonprofit organization geared for boys and girls who lost a parent before adulthood, and a certified Event Planner. Kizzy proudly sits on the St. Margaret’s Achievers Toastmasters International Executive Board and volunteers with the Youth Leadership Program. She is an advocate for second chances, a philanthropist, conference and seminar enthusiast, and is extremely passionate about inspiring, motivating, and fostering the best qualities in everyone.