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Published on January 6, 2023.

By: Yanet Mengisite

Being called a strong black woman (SBW) sounds like a compliment, right? When hearing the phrase at first, it appears to be a positive and supportive term, but the Black women who have been on the receiving end of this know that there is more underneath the surface, SBW does not empower them. Rather, it is a phrase used by society to continue to push Black women to the limits of their abilities, often at the expense of their well-being.

The emotional labour of being a “superhero”

The phrase SBW portrays Black women as exceptionally powerful individuals who are able to defend themselves, their loved ones, and their community, while being resistant to the social and economic pressures Black women confront, forcing them into the superwoman schema. The superwomen schema is a phenomenon that has been researched in academia. It occurs when Black women are obligated to “present an image of strength and to suppress one’s emotions.”

The superwoman schema is essentially an emotional armour in which Black women appear that they are resistant against painful emotions or suffering. Whether at work or in a public setting, if a hurtful, racist, or ignorant remark or action is made, Black women must “rise above” and ignore any negative comments or actions. They must adopt superhero-like strength in their ability to constantly take jabs without expressing how they truly feel about it.

The superwoman schema also represents independence. It means that a SBW can take on the world independently, and therefore any issues, all on their own. The concept of the SBW pushes the narrative that Black women can address issues themselves and should not seek external support. The issue with forcing Black women to act as superheroes is that it can cause mental health issues. It causes Black women to internalize emotions that should be expressed.

Although women of all different races have the pressure of needing to be exceptional in both their workplaces and home lives, Black women, in particular, have to suppress their emotions even further to avoid being labelled as the “angry black woman” who is “difficult to work with.” This can further cause Black women to shut down on their emotions, leading to greater mental health challenges.

The Psychiatric Times revealed that “Black women are only about half as likely to seek care” concerning a mental health issue compared to white women. This demonstrates that the balancing act of wearing the SBW mask while managing one’s emotions is a self-destructive process for Black women.

The phrase is exploitive

The phrase SBW is also harmful. As a piece by Cailyn Stewart at the University of Toronto puts it, this stereotype enables exploitative behaviour of labour. The phrase is essentially a way of telling Black women to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and work harder. As a result of this extra work, they will be successful.

This is exploiting Black women’s labour, time, and energy, as they have to invest energy into their work without receiving the same success or growth opportunities. A survey titled Women in The Workplace 2018 found that for every 100 men promoted to managerial positions only 65 Black women were promoted.

The survey also found that 41 per cent of Black women had never had a conversation with senior management about their work, while among men the number was 27 per cent. This difference indicates limited mentorship and growth interactions between senior management and Black women.

Although many strive to be the best at their profession, reminding Black women to be SBW and push themselves to their limits in their workplace, to be deprived of opportunities to grow, is exploitative of their labour.

It is taking advantage of the hard work Black women put in, but never acknowledging their efforts by rewarding them with a promotion. It is disingenuous to remind Black women to keep being the SBW in the workplace when they are not offered the same benefits as their white colleagues.

Working within the system

All these issues combined with pushing for SBW further enables mistreatment against Black women. It does so by putting Black women in a corner and telling them that they have to “suck up” whatever hurtful racially motivated instance occurred because that is what embodies a “strong” woman.

In the workplace, Black women are forced to internalize toxic experiences in a corporate or managerial position. The term SBW is complicated because forcing Black women to act strongly towards toxic workplace environment activities, the ones in power do not have to be held accountable for the environment they allow and encourage.

This will maintain the power dynamic within companies or organizations, and as a result the next Black women hired will have to deal with the same normalized treatment.

For example, Google has increased the number of the Black professionals hired from five point five per cent to eight point eight per cent in 2020. However, these statistics did not solve Black mistreatment in the workplace, leading to employees fleeing Google.

Google uses an index to calculate their resignations and 100 is their benchmark number.

A number below 100 indicates a decrease and anything above represents an increase. In 2019, the number for Black resignations was 112. In 2020, despite the increase of Black workers, that rate became 121.

For Black women, the number was 146. Google also recognized the issue stating “when it comes to our efforts to retain underrepresented talent, we have room for improvement.” Therefore, SBW creates superficial change but fails to question or examine the structures that account for mistreatment among Black women.

Black women are strong, but the phrase SBW puts pressure on Black women and their strength daily. Being strong should not equate to Black women having to suppress their emotions or being forced to work in toxic environments. Strength can be seen in vulnerability, compassion, or perseverance after failure. Black women should be able to freely display an array of emotions and should not have to keep wearing the SBW mask.

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