What is the “black superwoman complex”?
In 2010, Cheryl Woods-Giscombe, published a research article titled Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Help. She examined the connection between black women, their perception of stress and health, as well as developed a framework for what exactly the Black Superwoman Complex is.
She conducted a study group with black women from all walks of life and asked questions such as “what do you think of when you hear the word ‘stress’”, “how did you see the women in your life cope with stress”, or “what are the characteristics of a strong black woman”? Makes you think, huh?
Across all generations, they were able to agree on five characteristics for what being a strong black woman includes: she manifests strength, she suppresses her emotions, she resists being vulnerable, she is determined to succeed against all odds, and she helps others. Sound familiar?
1. Manifest Strength.
Be strong, always, for everyone. When you are tired and you feel like you can’t go on anymore, get up and keep moving. Don’t rest, there’s work to be done. Put on a brave face, grab your earrings, your lipstick, slick down your edges. Never let them see you sweat. Never let anyone see you cry, tears are for night time when the kids are asleep.
2. Suppress Emotions.
Bottle it all up. Every fear, every little bit of hurt, every worry. Forget the past. What happened in that house stays there. If you don’t talk about it, it can’t slow you down and no one will become upset with you for speaking your truth. It can’t hurt you anymore, right? Don’t seek professional help, only crazy people do that. When the opportunity presents itself, someone will make an insensitive joke or do something you consider inappropriate. When that moment arrives, you may feel the urge to go AWF on that one person, with all of the built-up anger you have towards everyone. You’ll want to release months, hell, years of past pain and frustration on one lucky candidate. Don’t. Be the bigger person.
3. Resist being vulnerable or dependent.
Depend on no one. Provide for your family, all alone if you must. All you need is the good Lord. Raise your daughters with the constant reminder that they don’t need a man. A good one is an added bonus, but if he decides to leave, let him. If you happen to have children and their father doesn’t help, get over it. Life isn’t fair and you can’t make that man be a daddy. You don’t want to be seen as bitter, right? Lastly, if you want something done, do it yourself. Don’t ask for help, because then you won’t be able to say you did it all on your own with a fake smile that hides malnutrition and sleep deprivation.
4. Be determined to succeed despite limited resources.
The world won’t give you much, so work with what you have. Achieve your goals and be the best. Take on multiple leadership roles while you’re at it. Don’t eat. Don’t sleep. Don’t do anything that takes away from completing the task at hand, except what motherhood requires of you. Also, don’t fail; you’re doing this for the culture. Be sure not to articulate too well in certain crowds, you may be mocked for it by your black female counterparts; or even worse, complimented by the white ones. Whatever you do, don’t ask for help. Instead, pray again, and ask God to give you strength to make it through the next day because you’re overbooked and exhausted. It’ll all pay off, right?
5. Help others.
Don’t be selfish. Give others every ounce of energy you have. Fill them up with your nearly empty cup like only you can. Drag your loved ones and strangers alike out of sticky situations. Give them your last dime. Your legacy will be that you helped anyone in need, although no one may ever notice how much you neglected yourself. The worst part? They may never give you a chance to say “you’re welcome”.
I am THE black superwoman.
One day I was attempting to come up with a new daily schedule and I actually said, “I’m just not going to get any sleep” as if that was okay. As if that was healthy! It’s truly a blessing and a curse. The Black Superwoman Complex is why I’m able to push through my hardest days and march toward victory in the face of adversary. It’s also why I don’t want to get out of bed most days, along with depression. But you know what? Falling prey to the Black Superwoman Complex often leads to depression and physical health problems. Heart problems, high blood pressure, etc. Sound familiar?
Another International Women’s Month is upon us, and they couldn’t have chosen a better theme, Balance for Better. As I reflect on the abovementioned characteristics, I think to myself “how and WHY did they do it?” And by “they”, I mean all of the strong, black women who came before us. How did they carry their families on their backs? How did they give away their energy? Forget about the money, there’s always more of that to be made. But the process of renewing depleted energy from overextending yourself? That’s always been hard for me.
A better question is how did they convince themselves that it’s normal to not receive reciprocity? I think we all know the answer, slavery, the civil rights movement, and white feminism. Black women have always been forced to take what they get because it’s often more than what we’ve received in the past. A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing, right? No. And that stops today.
Black Superwoman Complex vs. Black Girl Magic
We are not superwomen, okay? Was it “admirable, or ridiculous” that we thought we ever could be? We deserve rest. We deserve the right to be vulnerable if we so please to do so. We deserve to say “no”. We deserve reciprocity. We deserve more than what is given to us. What I won’t take away from the black superwoman complex is the determination to succeed. There’s something to be said about the endurance of a black woman, a black mother! My shining moments in life are beating the odds that the world set for me, I’m sure many black women can relate. While I succeeded, I could have done better at taking care of myself during those times.
I like to think of the Black Girl Magic movement as the modern day Black Superwoman Complex, but a healthier version. We’re still achieving greatness, but we’re making sure we have the mental and physical health to sustain it. What does Balance for Better look like in your life? In mine It looks like saying “no”, giving myself permission to slow down, calling my therapist back, and saying “no”.
Think about your daughters.
While we’re achieving greatness and leading our families, let us not forget ourselves, let’s be mindful of the examples that we’re setting for our daughters. I wouldn’t wish the Black Superwoman Complex on my daughter in a million years. I would never want her to think that she can’t talk about her pain, that she can’t have a bad day, or that she has to be strong all the time for everyone. I never want her to think that overextending herself, or that the expectation of her to do so from others, is normal.
I want my daughter to embody Black Girl Magic. I can see her jumping around and smiling now. I hope I never see “tired” in her eyes. She will know that she came from a long line of strong women and that is why we’re here today with the world at our feet. I will teach her to be grateful for their strength and their examples of endurance. I will also teach her to put herself first, and I’m sure her grandmothers will do the same.