Here at ChildSavers, I provide outpatient mental health services to our clients and families. Most of my clients are Black youth being raised by Black mothers and grandmothers. Often I see a pattern in many of these women which can be described as the Black Superwoman Complex or the Strong Black Woman narrative. In the New York Times, Dr. Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist, defines the Strong Black Woman as,
…a cultural icon, born of black women’s resilience in the face of systemic oppression that has dismantled families and made economic stability a formidable challenge. She is self-sufficient and self-sacrificing. She is a provider, caretaker and homemaker. And often, she is suffering.
In this blog, I talk about how I see the Black Superwoman narrative in my work. I hope this helps you understand some of the origins, impacts, and signs of the Black Superwoman Complex. This can improve how we support the mothers and grandmothers that trust us with their children’s mental health and, to some extent, their own.
In 2010, Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé held eight focus groups to study the Black Superwoman Schema. The participants, 65% of the 48 who were mothers, named unrealistic expectations as key parts of the Superwoman stereotype. Some named feeling expected to show endless strength and always help others. They gave examples such as being expected to never complain or to pretend to be strong even when they don’t feel it. Participants also named tiring themselves out by saying yes to every request and taking on other’s wellbeing as their duty.
Many pressures like these come up when I talk to some of the caregivers I work with. They talk about being expected to be agreeable at all times even when they don’t feel agreeable. They fear that if they are not agreeable it will reflect on their parenting or as a personal flaw. They talk about the expectation to parent at home, help at school, lead at church, socialize, and work.
Some of the participants in the study noted the pressures of being a Black Superwoman are associated with the race and gender bias that speculates Black women will fail. Others discussed African American chattel slavery as one of the origins of the unrealistic expectations put on Black women. It is helpful to know about the history of the pressure on Black women to be everything to everyone and to always be okay. We can recognize this as a cultural experience between Black women and the societies they live in rather than an individual character trait in one Black woman.
Another pattern I’ve seen in mothers and grandmothers in my office is the struggle to express their own emotions. They talk about having no time to seek their own therapy. They explain to me that the death their child is grieving hurts them as well. Even in their reports of their own childhood trauma or current challenges, they minimize their feelings and needs.
The focus group participants discussed some of where this pressure on Black Women to suppress their emotions comes from. They discussed learning the Superwoman complex from family members. Some said they had never seen their mothers cry. They learned hiding their feelings was part of being a Black woman.
Others reported building up defense mechanisms to protect themselves after experiencing trauma, abuse, or seeing it around them. Some said they push down their emotions because they did not get support when they asked for it, so they stopped asking.
The Superwoman Complex is a cycle that keeps itself going. Society expects Black girls to either fail or overwork to prove that they are successful. Society expects Black girls to always take care of others and handle their troubles on their own (Woods-Giscombé, 2010). Unrealistic expectations come from this place where racism and patriarchy meet. When Black women are not seen as vulnerable, they learn not to show need.
*Due to racism and patriarchy
How It Hurts
According to the results of Woods-Giscombé’s study, the Strong Black Woman narrative can hurt Black women’s mental and physical health. Focus group participants discussed stress-related physical health issues. Examples included fetal distress, unhealthy coping, and suicide. Dr. Burnett-Zeigler mentions the physical impacts of stress and depression are more common among Black women (2018). I see many caregivers of our clients struggling with physical and mental health challenges of their own. I wonder how to ease a little of the pressure these women feel to be Black Superwomen.
How to Help
What does “I’m okay” mean?
Part of helping our families is working to understand what’s beneath the surface. My clinical supervisor and I talk about how many things someone might mean when they say “I’m okay.” I worry that many of my clients’ mothers and grandmothers say they’re okay when they’re not because of the pressure they feel to be Superhuman. When I see this in my office, my next step might be to ask what “okay” means to this caregiver. Maybe we could see if there are parts of the caregiver’s life that feel okay and also parts that don’t feel okay. I’ll admit I don’t do this enough.
I don’t want to act like the caregiver owes me openness. Maybe she’s not interested or able to give it. The idea is to give this Black woman a chance to say more than “I’m okay” about how she feels and what she needs.
Offer Support Where It’s Needed
Another helpful way to support Black women who feel pressure to be strong is to understand their drive. A lot of the women in the Woods-Giscombé study also spoke about the benefits of the Superwoman complex. They mentioned being able to push through challenges and accomplish their goals. If we spend more time asking Black women what drives them, we may be able to support their goal and offer them rest.
Some of the caregivers I work with push themselves to go, go, go. They are concerned that if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. For example, a mom has to get to work early, leave work early, pick her kids up from the bus, and worry about them at home while she’s at her second job. To help, I need to understand that her kids’ safety is what drives this mom to the schedule that she keeps. Then, I can connect her to an affordable after school program with reliable transportation for the kids from school and to home. Without this insight, I might mistake money troubles for this caregiver’s motivation. My solutions wouldn’t be helpful.
Changing a System
Longer term solutions might include changing systems and institutions. Religious leaders can pair with mental health workers to break the myth that seeking mental health support is evidence of weak faith (Burnett-Zeigler, 2018; Woods-Giscombé, 210). Mental and physical health workplaces can hire more Black women to make it easier for Strong Black Women to seek help (Burnett-Zeigler, 2018). And dedicated local activities, support groups, or therapy groups for Black women can create community to reduce the shame and isolation that comes with the pressure to be a Black Superwoman.
Changing Your Ask
My final recommendation concerns any interaction with a Black woman in your life. Try to keep track of who in your life you ask for support and how often. I’m not saying don’t ask Black women. As I mentioned, many of the focus group participants found joy in being helpful to others. However, when you ask, make space for the Black woman you’re asking to set boundaries. Have a back-up plan in case she needs to say no. And as often as you praise her for being superhuman, praise her for the moments she allows herself to be human.
By CasSandra Calin.
CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.
CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.
CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.