From Olivia Pope’s iconic “it’s handled” line to real-world examples about how black women continue to “save America,” the strong black woman trope is real and prevalent. When Congresswoman Maxine Waters (aka Auntie Maxine) proclaimed that she is a “strong black woman,” we rejoiced and celebrated her. She was right. Just like so many of us in the face of oppression, she didn’t back down.
But this loaded label can also promote this perception of unwavering strength, while simultaneously dismissing the presence of pain or struggle for black women who are strong and resilient. I’ve felt this firsthand.
Like many black women, it has taken me some time to realize it’s OK to take off the cape and ask for help.
Grieving the death of my father and later finding myself without a place to live in a city that didn’t feel like home a few months after completing grad school in 2017, I finally fell apart. I felt discouraged, sad, afraid, and insecure. Still, I’d grown up admiring the images of “strong black women,” with aspirations of growing into one. I was under the impression that those women don’t complain or fall apart. They didn’t need help.
Cheryl Woods Giscombe, Ph.D., a nurse and social health psychologist at UNC Chapel Hill, observed this exact mentality among black women through her academic studies and in her day-to-day life, prompting her to author the Superwoman Schema study back in 2010. The goal of her research was to examine the relationship between stress and health among African-American women. In order to explore this, Giscombe conducted eight, hours-long focus groups with a total of 48 African-American women from various cities and ranging in age from 18 to 60s.
In each interview, she asked the women questions pertaining to their perception of stress, how they manage stress, and what they felt was expected of them when it comes to stress management. Questions included things like, How do you cope with stress, and how did you see the women in your life cope with stress? Have you ever heard the term “strong black woman” or “black superwoman,” and what does that mean? How does a woman develop those characteristics?
Using the data and feedback she gathered from these conversations, she identified the superwoman schema as a framework that has five key characteristics (as described in the study text): an obligation to manifest strength, an obligation to suppress emotions, a resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, a determination to succeed despite limited resources, and an obligation to help others.
This way of thinking is the result of black women’s experiences throughout history.
Black women are frequently assigned a “caregiver” stereotype (in addition to many other harmful representations). We have taken on that role, and often times been forced into that role, from the days of slavery to today.
Until the 1970s, domestic caregiving work was what was available to black women. Today, in 2019, employment opportunities have broadened for black women, but we’re still more likely to work service jobs than white women (nearly one-third of black women are employed in service jobs compared to one-fifth of white women).
In addition, this reality has been deeply ingrained into the American psyche, from the construction of the “Mammy” caricature (an offensive stereotype of the black women who were domestic workers in the homes of white families) to the continuous on-screen representation of black women in caretaking roles, such as Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of a maid in Gone With the Wind (which made her the first black woman to win an Oscar) and Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning performance in The Help.
For years, mainstream media has been perpetuating the ideology that black women don’t ask for help—we are the help.
History led me to believe that asking for help wasn’t a luxury afforded to me. I believed it was something for rich (often times white) people. I believed that I should be strong enough to forge onward without the external support.
“In the past, therapy was seen as indulgent, which, historically, doesn’t correlate with black women,” Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and the founder of Therapy for Black Girls (an online platform that seeks to make it easier for black women to connect with black female therapists), tells SELF.
It’s also an issue of access to care. Statistically, people of color are also uninsured at higher rates than white people, making access to therapy all the more challenging. Not to mention, it’s not easy to access to a therapist of color. For black women who do have access to insurance that covers therapy, or the means to pay any out-of-pocket fees, some would prefer to work with someone who they feel can really relate to their personal experience. But it’s not always easy to find that person. According to the American Psychology Association, as of 2016, only about 4 percent of all practicing psychologists in America were black, as SELF reported previously.
“In my experience, when black women talk about wanting to speak to a therapist, they typically want to speak with another black woman,” Bradford says. “A lot of that is probably related to it being a very foreign kind of experience. If you’re going to do this thing that already feels a little weird, you probably want it to be in a space that feels familiar to you.”
According to Giscombe, black women who have taken the leap and gone to therapy have often found themselves “educating the therapist,” as she describes, on their specific cultural norms and lived experiences. She believes that a big access issue is “wanting to make sure you find someone who’s congruent with your values or at least accepts, respects, and understands your values.”
There’s also the issue of trust: “The black community has had a strained relationship in a lot of ways with medical institutions,” Bradford notes (keeping in mind: the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments on black men, and how J. Marion Sims, dubbed the “father of gynecology,” experimented on enslaved women without anesthesia.) “So it hasn’t felt very safe for black people to be able to open up about some of the concerns that you might share in therapy,” Bradford goes on.
It’s taken time (and a lot of reflection and conversations with other black women) for me to acknowledge and move past these access barriers and explore mental health resources. It’s also encouraging to see prominent black figures, from Jay-Z to Taraji P. Henson, speak out about the racial disparities when it comes to mental health care, and the strong black woman trope specifically. I’ve begun to accept that this strong black woman stereotype doesn’t need to stop me from showing vulnerability, or allowing myself to be emotionally fragile when that’s the reality of how I’m feeling.
So, for my fellow strong black women who need (and are ready) to ask for help, here’s how to start.
First, if you do have insurance, call your provider to find out what type of mental health coverage your plan includes. Bradford notes that, for those with coverage, “more than likely there are some mental health benefits [of your insurance plan].” Thanks to the Mental Health Parity Act passed about 10 years ago, insurance plans have to have comparable coverage for mental health concerns just like they have for physical health issues.
When you call, ask the representative to point you to where you can search for a therapist who accepts your insurance. You may find that the options are pretty limited, so if you don’t see someone that you’re drawn to or can’t find someone with good reviews, you may want to consider looking out of your insurance network.
Bradford created the online platform Therapy for Black Girls, which includes a directory that lists over 300 therapists in 34 states and Washington, D.C. Users can search for therapists who are black women by location and by accepted insurance providers. You can also head to the directory on africanamericantherapist.com to search for even more black therapists (both men and women) in many cities. Another avenue potentially worth exploring is doing therapy over the phone or via video chat if you’ve found a therapist of color who isn’t accessible to you for face-to-face sessions in your location. (You can read more about how to make teletherapy worthwhile and effective here.)
For women who can’t find an available black female therapist in their area, don’t let that deter you from therapy altogether. “The familiarity we feel we’ll have with another black woman is valid, but don’t miss out on therapeutic options that could be really beneficial,” Bradford says.
She recommends that you be honest with yourself in regards to what characteristics are going to be most important for you when it comes to your therapist, and considering those factors as you search. For example, “if you need to discuss race-related issues, a black therapist may be important,” Bradford explains. “If you’re going for relationship issues or anxiety, race might not be as much of an issue.”
For those who do not have insurance or who have insurance that doesn’t cover mental health resources (or if you just want to look outside of your provider network for a therapist in general), other options do exist. If you’ve found a therapist you really want to work with, it may be worth asking them if they ever offer a sliding scale, meaning they adjust the session cost for some (or all) clients based on the person’s income and circumstances, and explain to them why you feel the most comfortable working with them in particular.
Despite lack of funding, Bradford said there are still some community mental health clinics in most states and cities available for people without coverage. She says there’s also the option to work with a clinician in training who is still in supervision and therefore typically offers treatment at a lower cost than you would with someone who’s already licensed. “You can sometimes find that at colleges and universities. People who are still getting their degrees will sometimes work in a clinic on campus and you can connect with them for low cost,” she explains, “when I was in the program, we were seeing people for like five dollars.”
For me, being a strong black woman is an honor, but I know I can’t allow this label to block me from the mental health care I deserve. From the “superwoman schema” to the blunt phrase “strong black woman,” the acknowledgment of our ability to endure and sustain in spite of the conditions we face is affirming. But it can also be a lot to unpack in terms of your identity as a black woman.
It’s an honor in the sense that women who look like me and have endured the most egregious atrocities over time have been able to not only survive, but also to thrive. At the same time, the “strong black woman” label can negate the very real pain that black women can and do experience. Once I realized my pain was valid and deserving of treatment and was able to acknowledge the strength in asking for help, I felt secure enough to begin looking for a therapist. I haven’t found the right person yet, but I’ve taken steps to do this, which is a start.
So, ladies, moving forward, don’t let anyone call you a “strong black woman” and leave it at that. Allow yourself to identify as a strong black woman, and also as someone deserving of (and sometimes in need of) asking for help.