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How the “Strong Black Woman” Identity Both Helps and Hurts
Being a "superwoman" could help African American women cope with racial discrimination—but it may have some drawbacks.
The stereotype of the “strong black woman” is more than just a cultural trope: Many black women in America report feeling pressured to act like superwomen, projecting themselves as strong, self-sacrificing, and free of emotion to cope with the stress of race- and gender-based discrimination in their daily lives.
“[Women] talked about every day walking out of their houses and putting on their ‘armor’ in anticipation of experiencing racial discrimination,” said Amani M. Allen, associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, describing focus groups she led with African American women in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“What they were really describing was this idea of being strong black women and feeling the need to prepare for the racial discrimination they expect on a daily basis; and that preparation and anticipation adds to their overall stress burden,” Allen said.
The new study revealed that, in the face of high levels of racial discrimination, some aspects of the superwoman persona, including feeling an obligation to present an image of strength and to suppress one’s emotions, seemed to be protective of health, diminishing the negative health effects of chronic racial discrimination.
But others facets of the persona, such as having an intense drive to succeed and feeling an obligation to help others, seemed to be detrimental to health, further exacerbating the deleterious health effects of the chronic stress associated with racial discrimination.
“African American women describe racial discrimination as a persistent and significant stressor, and we know from prior research that stress impacts health,” Allen said. “What we need to figure out is how to mitigate those risks. For those aspects of superwoman schema that worsen the negative health effects associated with racial discrimination, how do we lessen those risks? And for those factors that are more protective, how do we leverage them to inform interventions designed to promote health and well-being for African American women?”
“The superwoman schema also reflects gendered racial socialization that African American women receive early in life and throughout their life course,” said Yijie Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University and coauthor of the paper. “By identifying the protective versus risky dimensions, we also hope to figure out the type of messages that should be conveyed to African American women and girls.”