Upending the “Black Superwoman” Trope: Balancing Power and Vulnerability

By Aminata Ciss

Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

The past four weeks have been emotionally taxing for everyone.  From the incessant phone notifications about new quarantine provisions to the morbid updates of those who have succumbed to COVID-19, everyone seems to be on high alert, as the world collapses into bedlam. There have been numerous allusions to the “Twilight Zone” and dystopian films, to make sense of the current chaos. 

In my free time, I’ve skimmed online articles about how the pandemic is specifically affecting the Black community.  In the majority of these pieces, the resilience of the black woman has been highlighted. On social media, several videos are circulating, showcasing the efforts of the tireless nurses and the selfless doctors, caring for their patients.  Across the country, during this quarantine, a large percentage of the women still working as cashiers in supermarkets and at fast-food restaurants, are black women. During these harrowing times, these women embody the “keeping it moving” ethos; but as a Black woman, I hesitate to embrace this generalized depiction of Black womanhood. Without a doubt, hearing the stories and watching others act courageously is empowering; however, I fear that these broad characterizations of the formidable Black female, help to perpetuate commonly held stereotypes. 

In the United States, before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives of Americans, whenever Black women publicly displayed any type of emotions, their feelings were promptly reduced to memes, trending hashtags, and buzzwords.  Despite the increased visibility of Black women in the media, there has been limited space for them to honestly express their feelings, fears, and concerns. Paradoxically, there are numerous blogs (like this one lol) and YouTube channels popping up daily, telling Black women what to do and how to do it. However, these platforms seem to merely brush the surface or give superficial solutions, if any, to the lived experiences and silent suffering of many Black women.

For centuries, Black women have fought for basic personhood; while white women have been defined as the “fairer sex”, in comparison to the dominant white men.  Seemingly always in flux, the ever-evolving concept of womanhood, with all its inherent struggles and biases, still looks to the upper-class white female as the paragon of “woman”.  Since the lived experiences of white women are antithetical to that of most Black women; the cis-gendered Black woman is essentially a woman with conditions. 

As a woman with conditions, the Black woman is therefore not granted the same privileges of softness; vulnerability, and space to cry.  Rather, in the face of trauma and difficult situations, the average Black woman must jump into a telephone booth, throw on her cape, and emerge as “The Black Superwoman!” And if she is triggered, like The Hulk, she morphs into  “the Angry Black Woman” brandishing a domineering stance with the ubiquitous chip on her shoulder.  

To this end, the meekest and most soft-spoken Black girl appears threatening and unhinged; while those who are reserved in nature, but question systemic workplace micro-aggressions, are deemed aggressive. Most professional Black women, regardless of their field have been characterized as  “difficult to work with”. Unfortunately, these mischaracterizations of the Black woman that begins as early as adolescence, help to shape the way that she navigates spaces in the world. The quiet teenager who is treated like a ticking time bomb, eventually, begins to change. She may master the duality of an “outside” and an “inside” face or she may internalize these false portrayals of her personhood.  Over time, the effects of splitting herself gradually diminishes her humanity and her womanhood.  

Looking back at my formative years, I realize that I learned to be very measured in expressing my emotions, be they joy, anger, or dismay.   As a Black teenager, even at the most difficult and trying times, I was expected to exude strength, as the “indomitable Black woman” in training.    And since superheroes don’t need protection, Black women are rarely offered the proverbial safe space, to just be.  

So, today, as the Black female anesthesiologist intubates the highly virulent patient while thinking about her two children at home, can she say, “I’m scared”?  If she protests about the lack of protective gear, will her fervent need to protect herself and her young family be heard, without first being filtered through the lens of “aggressive Black woman”?  Furthermore, will this society allow her to shed some tears, voice her fears; wipe her eyes; then throw on her cape and fly back into action?

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