Behind the Veil: The journey of a POC at a PWI
The “Strong Black Woman” Narrative
One of the most pervasive narratives surrounding Black women is that of the “Angry Black Woman.” It perpetuates a number of negative stereotypes that portray us as hostile, aggressive, and having nasty attitudes. First of all, if your identity resulted in you being regularly discriminated against, you’d be angry too. However, despite our right to be angry, expressing our opinions or disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean that we are. Yet people are still quick to put that label on us. It’s frustrating and discouraging. It is something that I am always cognizant of, particularly in predominately white spaces. If someone says something reckless or inappropriate in class, I don’t have the privilege that my white peers have to be able to address it without feat of being judged or labeled. Even when directly attacked in class, I still have the tendency to remain quiet. For example, one day a classmate, in front of the whole class, told me that I was hostile and aggressive. I was immediately taken aback because anyone who knows me knows that I am neither. However, not only did she jump to inaccurate conclusions, she felt it necessary to verbalize them to the class. My response to her was, “I don’t know how to respond to you without continuing to be perceived as hostile or aggressive.” This was almost 10 years ago, and I still think about what I could have said in that moment to express my feelings about her comment without having the “Angry Black Woman” label slapped on my forehead.
Another label that is placed on us is that of the “Strong Black Woman.” While seemingly positive and complimentary, it can actually have damaging consequences. The first time I heard the term was in undergrad while reading When the Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down by Joan Morgan. In her book, she has a chapter specially dedicated to the idea of being an SBW (strong Black woman), and all of the pressures that are associated with it. She talks about how badly she struggled mentally and emotionally, but was unable to ask for help because she was supposed to be a strong Black woman. She writes, “I’d internalized the SBW credo: No matter how bad (things) get, handle it alone, quietly, and with dignity.” Even at the young age of 19, I was able to relate to everything she shared. I constantly felt like people expected me to be something that I wasn’t, and almost 15 years later, I struggle with similar feelings.
A couple of weeks ago, I met with someone who is quickly becoming one of my favorite people to talk to here at GW. While talking to her, she stopped me and said, “Angel, when I look at you and hear you speak, I don’t see someone who struggles with impostor syndrome.” The first thing I thought was, “good, you’re not supposed to.” So many of us are taught that being vulnerable is a sign of weakness, so, to protect our image, we create facades that hide our truths. But the purpose of what I write is to shed light on our experiences, so I will be transparent. The truth is that we cry when no one is watching, we contemplate giving up, and we often persist because we have to, not because we want to. At a forum on mental health in communities of color, the idea of being a strong Black woman came up. One of the speakers said, “make sure you check on your ‘strong’ friend.” And she is absolutely right. Just because someone appears to have it all together, it doesn’t mean that she does. We all need support and a space where we can be open about the battles we face on a daily basis.
When I was 19, I wrote a poem about my perspective on the SBW phenomenon. I will end this post the same way I ended that piece.
The truth is that inside every strong Black woman is a scared little girl, and we’re terrified that one day she will blow up our spot, and reveal to the masses that we are not now, nor have we ever been “strong Black women.” But don’t get it twisted, that in no way detracts from the fact that we are strong, Black, women.