Why I refuse to call myself a 'Strong Black Woman'
Wearing that title used to fill me with pride until I decided I wanted to be seen as much more
This First Person article is the experience of Mykella Van Cooten who is a podcast producer and audio storyteller. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
For most of my life, I considered myself a Strong Black Woman. It was a source of pride. It meant I can accomplish anything. It made me feel superhuman.
Until it didn't.
That pride changed abruptly one night.
That night, I saw a huge ad — on a city bus no less — featuring a poised Black woman. She was standing, hands on hips, with her naturally curly hair framing her face. She looked confident and self-assured, and maybe even a little smug.
Then, I saw those words: "strong Black woman." Suddenly, those words smacked me in the face. They knocked the wind right out of me.
Those words, that night, started a journey I am still on now.
Scholars have studied what academics call the "Strong Black Woman (SBW) Schema." It's an archetype and identity taken on by many Black women — and passed on to generations — as a title of excellence.
It includes three key characteristics: emotional restraint, independence, and self-sacrifice where Black women often take care of others at their own expense.
But now those words are being dissected, re-evaluated and reconsidered by many Black women.
My path to becoming a Strong Black Woman started when I was about 11 years old.
"You are Black. You have to work twice as hard to succeed," my dad said.
That message never left me. It meant I had to be strong enough and have the energy to do twice as much, without complaint.
My dad says he always wanted me to become a strong Black woman, but I don't think he ever used those exact words back then. It was more that the characteristics were rewarded.
To me, those characteristics include: intelligence, athleticism, physical and mental toughness, confidence, focus, independence, excellence, resilience, and the ability to lead and take care of others
It's a lot. I know.
When a Black girl starts to experience the benefits of these traits — feeling respected, admired, confident, worthy — being a SBW can soon become more than just words. It can become an identity.
It can make you feel celebrated as a Black woman, as a woman who can represent the goodness of the Black community in white spaces — a kind of superhero.
Who doesn't want to be that?
I personally had taken on the full Strong Black Woman identity by university, where I met five other SBWs just like me.
"I would say we were always just thinking of the next thing, really focused on tomorrow," Dr. Claudia Chambers, my long-time friend and former McMaster University roommate, reminded me in a recent conversation.
We were confident, and maybe a little cocky. As a Strong Black Woman, I felt capable, resilient and relied upon. It made me feel special.
Until that night, when I saw that huge ad on the bus, with those words: "She is a strong Black woman."
It felt like there was a demand on me that I should be strong — and nothing else. In an instant, it felt like I went from a three-dimensional person to one dimension.
So I made a decision.
No matter how much the world wants me to wear the cape of the Strong Black Woman,
I will not take it. I want to be seen as more. I want to be allowed to be more.
And I am not the only one.
At an online event by Essence Magazine last year, actor and singer Taraji P. Henson spoke out about this stereotype.
"It came as a thing to empower us, right? It became 'I'm a strong black woman' to empower us. But then as years go on, we've been ignored because of that very statement," she said. "It dehumanizes our pain. It belittles our tears.
"We're supposed to be able to watch our brothers and sons and fathers get murdered in the street, but we can take it because we're strong. And that's just not true."
So, like Henson, I'm saying "no" to being called a Strong Black Woman.
The burnout got so bad, I was crying almost every day. I had to say "enough"— for real this time. - Mykella Van Cooten
Being an SBW isn't like being a superhero. Once you come home from fighting crime, you don't take your cape off. It's more like a skin you put on that moulds to your mind and body. You become that person — at work, with friends, with family.
I started to really consider how my own actions were reinforcing the SBW stereotype last year.
As a frontline hospital worker, I support ICU units with administrative duties. When the pandemic hit, I got the opportunity to work full-time on a COVID-19 unit. I would agree to take shifts to fill in for sick colleagues, and I would feel intense guilt if I had to say no.
I sometimes worked 11 days straight and often did 16-hour shifts. I had no idea what my body and my mind could handle. I was disconnected, on autopilot.
Until, I started breaking down.
A few hours before work, or on the drive, I would cry. The burnout got so bad, I was crying almost every day. I had to say "enough" — for real this time.
My journey to accepting my emotions, mental health challenges and physical limits began in small steps.
I started allowing myself to feel my feelings and express them to others. I learned what my body could do, and I keep checking in with what it needs. I ask for help. I set better boundaries on my time and mental space. I express my needs to people I care about instead of sucking things up or walking away from the relationship. The people who love me want to support me, so we talk, and make changes.
I follow in the footsteps of a wave of Instagram posters and public figures like Henson, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Lizzo who are pushing against the constricting Strong Black Woman identity and demanding Black women's emotions, mental health and well-being stop going unnoticed.
But I was worried that the man who stirred in me a determination to become a Strong Black Woman would not be okay if I gave up the asphyxiating narrowness of this identity.
So I spoke to my dad. To my surprise, he was supportive.
"It puts a tremendous burden on young Black women to kind of live up to those stereotypes" he said.
"I can still appreciate the Strong Black Woman, and appreciate the younger person saying, 'This is putting a huge pressure on me'."
He's a good one, my dad. I'm with him on this one.
Mykella Van Cooten is an audio storyteller and is known as DJ Em on iliveradio.com.
This story was co-produced and edited by Acey Rowe.