THE MYTHOS OF THE STRONG BLACK WOMAN


Portrait of healthy, confident, fit woman
The expectation of strength when you’re a black woman is really self preservation. It’s not strength – it’s survival.

I hate the “strong, black woman” narrative. In a society where mental health goes largely unrecognized and untreated. The stigma around it makes seeking healthcare, even for those who can afford it, an uphill battle.

Depression may seem small in the grand scheme of a world ravaged by war and human trafficking, and so many other issues that systematically target brown people, but it is real death-threatening pain to anyone who suffers from depression. People die from depression, the only difference is the death certificate lists suicide as the cause of death. Belittling sufferers of depression just perpetuates the stigma.

The vituperative nature in the way mental health is discussed in our society is even worse. “Crazy” is more often than not used as a gendered slur, without recourse to people who actually suffering from schizophrenia, which is a long term disorder that may lead to faulty perceptions and a sense of mental fragmentation.

Ableist epithets are flung far and wide. Ableism is not just about a list of bad words that morally upright human beings should remove from their lexicons. Language is one of the many tools of an oppressive system. Being cognizant of one’s language can help us understand how pervasive ableism is. Ableism is violent by nature: it is the systematic, institutionalised devaluing of minds deemed deviant, abnormal, or defective. It is structural disregard of a plight that affects many people, who have to suffer in silence.

I am a huge proponent of the self-love movement, but I too must admit it is nowhere near enough addressing the issues affecting black women. Self-love will not cure depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, just like self-love wouldn’t cure diabetes, heart disease or tuberculosis. Prozac and Xanax are prescribed by psychiatrists not hugs.

Also read: My Existence Is Not Up For Parody

It is hard to describe depression to someone who’s never suffered from it, especially when pop culture defines depression as sadness. Meanwhile, it can manifest in despondency, anxiety, irritability and a host of other feelings, or none at all. Depression is not a feeling, it is a state. Imagine the human capacity to manage thoughts and feelings as a 6×6 box. In a person who does not suffer from clinical depression, they have the entire space to sort their thoughts and cope with everything that is in their life, and their box is never full because they can empty it at any time. Meanwhile when one has clinical depression, they can only house their feelings in a 4×4 area of the box and it is always over brimming. The rest of the area is an ominous, dark cloud acting as a constant harbinger of doom on the life of a depressed person. That is how I view depression, but there are many analogies. Others view it as drowning with a brick tied to your ankle, while other people walk by because the pool looks shallow to them.11

Black women face a higher risk of mental illness because of the cultural and social issues that are unique to us. Under the burden of being strong, we are inundated with misogynoir, which is prejudice against black women. Prejudice because we are black, and prejudice because we are women; sexualized racism and racialised sexism. Lethargy is ubiquitous among black women, and when we normalize “walking it off,” we are ignoring the fact that chronic tiredness is a symptom of depression. Self-harm extends beyond cutting or idealized version of depression is all over tumblr; self-harm can be extreme activity in lieu of self-care. The zeitgeist for the 21st century successful black women is to wear pain as a crown and not rest. That crown is one we must all reject.

Let us be a society which rejects any narrative that can burden and often entrap black women. Let us instead be a society that challenges our leaders to make mental health a priority.

By Seluliwe Vilakati

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THE MYTHOS OF THE STRONG BLACK WOMAN

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