I just feel like I’m always giving everything to everybody and I’m never getting anything in return!
My girlfriend is almost 700 miles away, yelling about her drunk best friend, who left her alone at a party. The pain in her voice was visceral, stinging harder than a game-losing interception in the Super Bowl. Her anger was justifiable, but I discovered her frustration had been building up for months. Between working full-time, being in a relationship, and making herself available to anyone who needed her, this latest episode simply brought her to her wits end. My girlfriend had grown weary of being everyone’s emotional anchor.
I was later reminded of my girlfriend’s emotional outburst while watching Gabrielle Union’s character on Being Mary Jane. In both seasons, Mary Jane is constantly trying to balance her professional, dating, and home lives, often to little or no avail. If she wasn’t trying to provide a home for her niece as well her niece’s two children, she was loaning money to her older brother, while trying to save the younger one from his own mistakes. There was a turning point during one of the episodes where Mary Jane admitted to her friend, “I notice that nobody calls me when everything is alright. When nobody needs anything, my phone stops ringing. Nobody asks me how I’m doing or how my day was. The phone doesn’t ring.”
I’ve encountered many black women who felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of being “everything” to everyone. While these women were the cornerstone in personal and familial relationships, a majority of them perceived these relationships as one-sided. Feelings of under-appreciation were rampant, as these women gave themselves to everyone and believed they either didn’t have enough to give to themselves or the energy given wasn’t being reciprocated. Eventually, these women felt crushed underneath the weight of these relationships.
I wondered if the narrative of the “strong black woman” was responsible for the experiences these women had gone through. Any discussion I initiated with my ex-girlfriends/lovers and past/current friends surrounding the idea of creating a healthier balance or establishing boundaries with others would be met with reasons why it wasn’t possible. Conversations with them devolved into their overwhelming sense of failure because of being unable to handle the burden of others or extended sessions of self-depreciation because they felt they were complaining too much. In some cases, they were actually ashamed that they couldn’t juggle everyone else’s lives in conjunction with their own. As a man, saying “no” had been an option I freely and frequently exercised at my discretion. For women, that option didn’t seem to exist.
A pattern I’d noticed is the ease with which these women sacrificed themselves for the greater good of the people relying on them. The “mule” trope, introduced to me in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was something I witnessed first hand. As a black man, I rarely find myself in situations where I’m asked to sacrifice myself for anybody. To be honest, I can’t even think of the last time I even felt obligated to do anything for anyone else. Black women in both real life and pop-culture however, are frequently asked to take a backseat or find their efforts overlooked.
Black women who’ve battled on the frontlines during the #BlackLivesMatter and Ferguson movements have taken issue with the blatant sexism taking place during these movements. In an interview with The Feminist Wire, Zakiya Jemmot spoke directly to some of the issues women have faced; “Gender inclusion is a major issue that we have all faced since our involvement. When we go out to protest or even speak at town hall meetings there is a lack of support from a majority of the men and we are treated as if we’re invisible and haven’t been the most vocal since the movement mobilized.” From my observation, women have done a tremendous job of taking these movements forward, and it’s more than disheartening to hear they have to fight to make sure they aren’t relegated to the background. In the wake of the deaths of women like Rekia Boyd and Natasha McKenna by the same system that killed the men that we march for, the relative silence on protecting the value of Black women’s lives is deafening.
I believe a key method to fighting the patriarchal subjugation of black women is for both black men AND women to work to uplift black women. Black women have been incredible in terms of exemplifying strength, character, and the ability to move forward despite the tremendous obstacles that lay before them. With that said, they aren’t bottomless pits of resilience and despite the frequent labeling of being “Superwomen,” do not possess superhuman abilities. Recognizing their humanity and acknowledging the weight carried by them, a weight that often would be carried voluntarily but almost always is assumed now by necessity, would go a long way toward removing the “mule” trope that’s so prevalent in the community.
My offered solution of learning to humanize our perception of black women, to legitimize their feelings, struggles, lives and livelihoods, is born out evidence for what happens as a result of the opposite. Tamara Winfrey, in her article The Truth Behind the Strong Black Woman Stereotype, discussed how this stereotype dehumanizes black women.
Stories of black families are filled with sacrificing Ma’Dears and Mamas, whose ability to nurture and work was seemingly limitless. Too often we lose sight of them as human beings and, in efforts to emulate them, dash our own health and well-being on the rocks. We believe, to our detriment, that preternatural strength means that we can and should bear any physical and emotional burden without complaint. tweet
In an article for Time, Noliwe M. Rooks writes about Renisha McBride and details a conversation she had with UCLA historian Sarah Haley regarding the same stereotype. Haley told Rooks, “black women are more often viewed as ‘the help’ than in need of help … they have not always been seen as women either; to be a woman is to be seen as deserving of protection, and black women are not always seen that way.”
Winfrey lends credence to Rooks’ assertion when she later noted in her article “…the enduring meme of the ‘strong black woman’ obscures: It ultimately flattens black women’s humanity, making it harder for others to see us as complex beings. Worse, the myth of our extraordinary strength makes it difficult for us to see ourselves.”
We should work to keep that complexity at the forefront of how we perceive black women and appreciate them. Black women are often almost forced to relegate themselves to a background position, one of a “mule,” that as a black man I have never had to consider assuming. Challenging that will involve challenging myself. It will involve challenging black masculinity and black protest ideals. I believe that best way to even begin to combat this trope is for members of the community to challenge themselves to humanize black women; to try empathy and identify that the position of carrying our burdens isn’t (usually) a voluntary one. Black women often do it because they have to, and we can start to make it so they don’t.