Tapestry

'Strong black woman' trope does more harm than good, says youth minister

As a Baptist minister and youth advocate, Khristi Adams says that young black women and girls often struggle with the belief they can’t be anything but fierce. She’s the author of Parable of the Brown Girl, in which she chronicles her experience working with black girls coming of age.

“We just don't feel the permission to be weak ━ to feel vulnerable,” says Khristi Adams

Khristi Adams is an ordained Minister with American Baptist Churches USA and author of Parable of the Brown Girl, published by Fortress Press/Broadleaf Books. (Chloe Adams)
Listen26:28

Khristi Adams believes black girls and women suffer from feeling like they always have to be strong "warriors".

Adams is an ordained Baptist minister and youth advocate. She has a degree in advertising and a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. She's also the author of the book Parable of the Brown Girl, in which she examines the cultural and spiritual struggles of young women of colour.

Skin complexion was a big, big one that I had to come out of.- Khristi Adams

"We just don't feel the permission to be weak," she told Tapestry's Mary Hynes. "We don't feel the permission to feel vulnerable." She said young black women constantly double-check to see who's nearby before daring to express themselves. 

"Like, is the coast clear?"

Adams said black girls often strive to maintain an identity of fierceness. They avoid appearing too vulnerable because they fear it conflicts with the idea of a "strong, black woman".

"We have to start giving black women and girls permission to say, 'Hey, look, I still think you're strong, but you can cry.'" 

But it's not just tears they keep in check, according to Adams. Any emotion that doesn't exude fierceness can feel dangerous ━ including laughter. And when they do laugh, she said, "it's a form of resistance, like, 'I'm going to laugh out loud anyway'. And it's like, 'Why is it anyway? You should just be able to laugh out loud." 

Adams said most of the girls she's worked with aren't aware how much they police their own feelings.

"It's interesting, the more you talk to them, it's like, 'Wow, how do you live like that?'" she explained. "Where they're just constantly having to think about their responses." 

Khristi Adams says young black women constantly double-check to see who's nearby before daring to express themselves. (Submitted by Khristi Adams)

But there is something black girls find even harder to control than their reactions and behaviour: their physical appearance. Adams said they often feel dissatisfied with the way they look because of popular cultural perceptions of beauty. And that dissatisfaction can often lead to spiritual crisis.

"Black girls, they hear far more messages about how their aesthetic falls short of traditional beauty standards than they hear about how they embody God's image," she said.

Adams recalled working with one young girl who began self-harming because she felt helpless to change aspects of her appearance.

"This particular girl, hers manifested into an eating disorder, hers manifested into cutting," said Adams. "She's like, 'Well, God made me and knew I was going to hate these things about myself. There's nothing I can do about that. But I can do something about my weight, and I'm going to not eat.' And when she was cutting, she was saying that she just felt a sense of control over herself and over her body and who she was."

Adams told Hynes that she used to struggle with her own physical appearance ━ and what it took for her to eventually overcome harmful misconceptions of beauty.

"I cut my hair and I just sort of went natural," she said. "I had to discipline myself to wake up every day and say, 'This is beautiful. This is me.'" 

And even more than her hair, Adams used to be distressed by the colour of her skin.

"Skin complexion was a big, big one that I had to come out of." Which she eventually did, she said, by "just embracing the fact that, 'Wow, my blackness ━ my darkness ━ is beautiful.' 

"It literally is. It's not just a phrase. It literally is who God made me to be."

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