What does it mean to be a young black woman in this day and age? Is it being a strong, unstoppable superhuman who can glide over any struggle she faces? Or is it being a quirky, alternative, manic pixie dream girl defying tired stereotypes? Are we supposed to be gifted at something, obtaining black excellence for applause?
Black women have always been shaped by social expectations. Within our community we’re either seen as queens or absolute scum deserving of scorn. Outside of it we’re hypersexualized or deemed ugly if we don’t fit european standards. Lately there’s been a backlash against such assumptions, and we’re now encouraged to be a “carefree black girl” or employ “black girl magic.” While these movements are important in removing racial and gender restraints, they still aren’t doing us justice. Some of us are so burdened we can’t be airy; others might not be star athletes or academic superstars. Over and over again I see these labels imposed on us, but now I think we need something else: vulnerability.
No, I don’t mean weak and unable to survive. I mean allowed to be imperfect, to be needing of protection and help. A recent trend in feminism is emphasizing that women don’t need to be all-powerful and cold in order to deserve respect. We can be soft, sweet and gentle but still equal to our male counterparts. Unfortunately this shift in thought has yet to apply to black women although we need it the most.
For example, police brutality within the black community is often ignored when women are the victim. Do the names Miriam Carey, Shereese Francis and Kathryn Johnston sound familiar to you? Probably not. This is not only because people think black women’s femininity shields us from violence, but also due to the perception of us being inherently tough, able to withstand force. No one comes to our aid because they think we don’t need it, but sometimes we do.
This is especially true given the rampant misogynoir in today’s society. Black women are regularly belittled for existing, yet rarely do people stand up for us. Even black men, who we tend to support, are participating in our degradation. Do they not realize we have feelings that can be hurt, that we’re capable of crying alone at night because everyone seems to hate us? Apparently not, since black women are supposedly all-mighty and can let insults roll off our back when in fact they’re stinging lashes.
The idea of the unbreakable black woman is especially harmful when it comes to mental illness. Although we suffer from diseases like depression, it’s unlikely that we seek proper treatment. This statistic was painfully illustrated by the suicide of Karyn Washington, a carefree black girl who dedicated her life to uplifting others. Although viewed as an unfaltering beacon of confidence, she was suffering from depression and the loss of her mother. In the end Washington was unable to get the help she needed, and saw the only escape from pain as death.
As a young black woman dealing with mental illnesses, ones that have almost pushed me to suicide, stories like this frighten me. I’ve come to a point in my life where I can admit that I’m not always stable and reach out for help. But I’m so worried for my sisters who feel they always need to be indestructible. And so I say this to my girls: you’re allowed to be fragile and need support. You don’t have to be strong all the time, and that’s O.K.