I took a few months away from any creative output as I have had to manage major changes in my own life. However, in that time I have still sat with Black women as clients and in my own life and listened to the same theme arising over and over. When asked “how are you doing?” the inevitable response is “Girl, I am so tired”. I have heard this statement repeated to me so many times that I have come to expect it when I ask the question. I have even heard myself say it several times in recent months and so, I think it is high time that we examine what “tired” really means to Black women.
The stereotype of “the Strong Black Woman” continues to persist even in 2023 as we are globally starting to unpack racial biases and systemic prejudice. Many of us as Black women are socialised to be the keepers of our families and on a larger scale, to shift social change at the national and international levels with our votes and activism. We are expected to function in the workplace as very hard and dedicated employees while navigating the intersectionality of being a twice marginalized group, (female AND black). We are expected to shoulder emotional labour for our partners and children, friends and other relatives without complaint and rarely with the expectation of reciprocity. We see ourselves oversexualised in society at large and then reviled as “angry” when we express the weight of the frustrations and pain we carry on a daily basis.
Some of us do buy into this idea ourselves as have generations of the women who raised us did before. Many of us have a hard time expressing the degree to which we struggle with this expectation of eternal capacity. We often feel compelled to continue the emotional labour expected and demanded of us at home in other spaces like school and the workplace. There are so many cultural references both within and outside the Black community that laud Black women for their unwavering ability to be the glue of society and, in the absence of proper representation about the Black female experience, we assume that this IS how we should be. It is against this backdrop that the concept of “tired” must be examined.
To a Black woman, the idea of “burnout” or “overwhelm” suggests a lack of capacity. It is equated with the inability to hold things down and gives us a sense of shame that we are failing. We think of our mothers and grandmothers and how they shouldered responsibility without complaint and feel inadequate because we are clearly not measuring up the generational standards that they set. Never mind that they themselves may have felt the same way about their ancestors going back 500 plus years to when we were enslaved but never felt that they could express their pain either.
We would never dream of taking stress leave as that is something that only “white people” do. I have literally heard this from clients who were clearly buckling under the stress they carried and completely unwilling to follow their doctor’s orders to take a break. However, this approach is literally killing us. In this article by Tipre and Carlson (2022), focused on gender and race related stress among Black women, they stated “Black women report higher levels of psychological stress than White women and carry a disproportionate burden of chronic conditions associated with psychological stress, including obesity”. Andrea King Collier’s article (here) refers to the fact that one in two Black women has a heart related condition caused by stress. There are a host of other health concerns tied to chronic stress among Black women including depression and anxiety.
To complicate matters, Black women are socialised to be caregivers to the degree that we are often so externally focused on others that we ignore our own health, usually to our detriment. We seek help for psychological stressors at far lower rates than white women as stated in this article by Cynthia Nicole White who ties this reluctance specifically to the Strong Black Woman stereotype. This is even more pronounced in the field of mental health where I situate myself as a practitioner.
It is well known that there has been historical mistrust of “white” medicine and psychology practices by the Black community especially in North America. This exists for perfectly valid reasons based on the historical exploitation, dehumanizing and non-consensual experimentation on Black bodies. This is also compounded by the fact that most practitioners within mental health services tend to be white and lacking in the cultural competency to treat the Black population generally and Black women in particular. Psychiatry tends to diagnose Black people more frequently with disorders that have poor long-term outcomes when compared to white counterparts with the same symptoms (see here). Much of this is an additional barrier to Black women seeking support. It is also known that the degree of pain reported by Black women is also minimized by the medical fraternity based on the racist view that Black bodies do not register pain in the same way as White ones. This institutional gaslighting of Black women’s physical pain makes them even more psychologically stressed which exacerbates the challenges they are facing mentally. Black women are a group within society with multiple layers of trauma. Inter-generational trauma, sexual and physical abuse and the constant exposure to sexism and racism pretty much ensure that Black women WILL have some reactions that are consistent with trauma responses. Eight out of ten of us have experienced some type of trauma and, women are more likely than men to develop PTSD.
We know that one of the effects of trauma is reactivity. In Black women, their reactivity may come out as anger. What is really happening is that they are triggered and experiencing anxiety but, since we are supposed to be Strong Black Women, the usual anxiety response that others would exhibit are culturally frowned upon for us so, we will “cuss you out” instead. This unfortunately reinforces the idea of the “angry Black woman”. Imagine not being allowed to express your distress authentically because history and society tell you it is completely inappropriate for “people like you”, you express it the only way you can and then you are stereotyped for that too? This is exhausting. That depletion resulting from trying to hold so much, do so much and not complain about it or ask for help is the explanation behind Black women saying they are “tired”.
In my work with Black women and, in my own psychological work, I am unpacking why it is that we feel the need to uphold a harmful collection of stereotypes about us. It is time for all of us to begin to resist these notions by focus on US. Our internal experiences are just as valid as everyone else’s despite what we have been told. There is great power in the word “no”. We DO NOT have to do all the emotional labour that we do. We DO NOT have to work ourselves to exhaustion to ensure everyone else’s welfare and we most definitely do not have to accept the label of the Strong Black Woman and its companion the Angry Black Woman. It is our responsibility to start to recognize when it is that we need support. There is no shame in needing help even if it takes us a while to realise that we need it. We cannot be all things to all people and nothing to ourselves.
Next time a Black woman tells you she is tired, one of the most helpful things you can do is to ask her “tired or overwhelmed?” and see what she says. Often, we do not even think to use the words “overwhelmed”, “depleted” or “burnt out” so it is helpful to help us to name it. It also helps to just not place so much expectation on her regardless of your relationship with her. She is often too mentally fused with her assigned role in society to consider the possibility of setting limits with you. When she does say “no”, please do not try to change it to a “yes”. It was likely very hard for her to come to a point where she has had to choose herself over you and your refusal to accept that is crushing even if she will never tell you that.