Far too often, I wake up to an e-mail from a news reporter wanting my opinion on the latest Black tragedy in America. The questions often follow a typical script: “What do you think about this incident?” “Do you plan to organize a protest or work with any elected officials on this issue?”
As a community leader, activist, and entrepreneur, I have become accustomed to such e-mails. But I’m always struck by the questions journalists don’t ask. Do they ever think about my mental health, or how I’m holding up in chaotic times?
If they were to ask, I might tell them that, like so many other Black women I know, I’m suffering from high-functioning depression. This condition, also known as dysthymia, is difficult to detect because those with it can function almost normally. What we experience internally, however, is a different story.
For me, it manifests as the feeling that the most minor task will exhaust me, or as hopelessness even when everything is going right. As a role model for many in the city, I feel a constant pressure to keep it together, even when I’m struggling to feel like myself.
This predicament brings to mind Black women such as Cheslie Kryst, a former Miss USA and attorney who died by suicide this year. Kryst suffered from depression, despite what her mother describes as a “bubbly and lively” demeanor. Those following her career were left in shock because to us, she didn’t “look depressed.”
This begs the question: What does depression look like? And, in particular, what does it look like for a community of women who, historically, have been expected to keep going, no matter how dire the situation, and look like things are going great all the time?
Black women have long been praised for being strong. After generations of being at the vanguard of movements for equality and community building, it’s understandable why people equate Black women with strength. While I appreciate what this stereotype is meant to symbolize — our resilience — it is also rooted in centuries of oppression. After years of having to use strength to mask our pain, it’s time to finally create spaces where it’s safe for Black women to let our guard down.
To understand this stereotype, we must look at the history of slavery in the United States. Because enslaved people were considered property, gender roles for Black men and women did not mean the same things that they did for white people. They performed the same tasks no matter their body or build — which translated to their being viewed more like equals.
This created a hyper-masculinized perception of Black women, overly attaching to us character traits such as assertiveness and strength. And while it is true that women can be as strong as men, society should understand that these perceptions present unique challenges for Black women. The pressure to uphold the trope of the Strong Black Woman puts us in the impossible position of having to keep going, even when we are burned out and have nothing left to give to the world or ourselves.
“Usually, when people talk about the ‘strength’ of Black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive Black women coping with oppression,” wrote late author and activist bell hooks, in her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. “They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.”
In my life, upholding the Strong Black Woman stereotype has only deterred me from getting the help I needed. At one point — when I was on the brink of homelessness in January — I refused to take any time off of work because I didn’t want to let my team down. I convinced myself that I needed to be “strong” and figure a way out of the situation by myself. Refusing to acknowledge how I was feeling only left me drained.
After opening up to family, co-workers, and community members, I felt a sense of relief. It was at that moment that I realized vulnerability is strength. I finally understood that Black women deserve to be extended the same grace as others.
The hashtag #protectblackwomen has been gaining traction in response to the deaths of women such as Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor, but people must understand that protecting Black women goes beyond physical protection. It’s about creating spaces that allow us to finally let our guard down after having to fight for so long. It’s about creating spaces that allow us to be vulnerable. As I scroll through Twitter, I see many Black women admitting they don’t want to be strong anymore. We want poise, we want gentleness, we want the same love we pour into others.
For those of you reading who are not Black women: Please stop referring to us as “strong” after seeing us overcome our traumas. It’s not strength, it’s resilience. When a Black woman is ready to channel her emotions, let her. Encourage her. Support her. Check on your “strong” friends. Whether it’s constantly mourning the lives cut short within our race, or having to fight for equity within our gender, we are exhausted. No matter how strong a Black woman appears to be, we deserve an abundance of people who have our backs the way we have theirs.
To my sisters, I hope you all are well. I hope you all are growing, healing, taking care of yourselves. Most importantly, I hope someone is finally taking care of you.
Toiell Washington is a founding member of Black Boston, a digital organizing platform, and owner of The Master’s Tools game company. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.