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TOLLIVER: Counter-stereotypes can become stereotypes

Created to help Black women escape degrading stereotypes, the “strong Black woman” ideology holds them to impossible standards and suffocating dimensions

Throughout the years — in media and reality alike — Black women have been treated as subhuman and routinely degraded to stereotypes. One of the main justifications for mistreatment and exploitation of Black women was that they deserved it or that they could handle it due to racial and biological differences — a belief also held by the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. This ideology grew into popular beliefs that spread like wildfire through the media with Black women being portrayed as happy servants, sexually insatiable partners or angry Black women. However, as we have progressed and society has come to embrace diversity, Black women are now being seen as more than the stereotypes that preceded them and for so long limited them to what society would approve of them being and what it would not. However, there’s an equally dangerous counter-stereotype that has emerged and it’s seeped into media, politics, health and society as a whole — the strong Black woman.

It is hard to find a place to start when talking about the much appreciated and much-hated ideology of the strong Black woman. This woman can be seen in movies such as “The Help,” “The Color Purple,” “Precious” and the TV show “Empire,” but it is far from a movie archetype. Art imitates life or vice-versa as Black women try to encapsulate being superhuman, and it can be seen recently in politics as well, with prominent examples including Stacey Abrams or Amanda Gorman. Note in the examples — both real and fictitious — that darker-skinned women are more prone to play these parts. These are intelligent, ever-capable Black women, but the way in which they were portrayed after the election suggests that they symbolically saved democracy, the Democratic Party or America as a whole. Who saves Black women? It is unlikely that any other intersectional identity is praised in this manner when accomplishing something, and it gives light to the darker side of portraying or believing all Black women embody the “strong Black woman” trope. 

Oftentimes when Black women are seen as strong, they fail to be seen as anything else. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once stated, “but that they are incomplete — they make one story the only story.” With the ideology of a strong Black woman, the expectation is that she will always be strong and confident. While many Black women like this exist, they too still face human problems such as moral dilemmas, heartbreak and pain. That story is hardly explored in the media, and many feel as though they have to hide it in reality to keep their social standing.

Studies have shown that while Black women are more likely to feel sad and hopeless as opposed to their white counterparts, they are less likely to receive help for these feelings. Non-white women are more likely to experience pain during labor and less likely to be properly medicated. Even the University is not exempt from racial bias in the medical field, but this does not just happen physically but also mentally. There is a stigma of perfectionism surrounding women — particularly Black women — that any sort of emotion, conflict, or setback contradicts one’s ability to be successful and “useful”. While the narrative around strong Black women was made by Black women as a counter-stereotype, it was hijacked by other groups because, in some odd way, many cannot fathom a Black woman and a human being one in the same. What is “weak” for Black women is completely normal and human for anyone else. That is the problem.

Think of a successful Black woman. Now imagine her in love. Imagine her in heartache. Imagine her being anxious. Imagine her laughing. Imagine her making a mistake. Imagine her dancing. Imagine her tired. Is she still successful? “Loss of social standing is an ever-present threat for individuals whose social acceptance is based on behavioral traits rather than unconditional human value,” the 2011 novel Sister Citizen reads. The manner in which we expect Black women to perform can be exemplified by the way in which successful women are criticized for doing human things — see Michelle Obama or Beyoncé. To threaten an entire group of people with the notion of being less than human so that they feel as though they must maintain the face of a superhuman is not helping to create equality. It creates a world in which it is not enough to try but one must also never fail, and no human is capable of such, not healthily at least.

The necessary representation can be reached over time, as more Black women are given the power to portray themselves in the media. However, it takes more than just representation. It takes a change in the ideology behind why Black women are here. It is not as a backbone, or stepping stool, a superhero or a quota-filler, but it is what we are all here as — human beings.

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