"Strong Black Woman": The Theft of Black Femininity and Vulnerability
The complexities and trauma of being a Black woman in America.
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
We are taught that we cannot be weak because we are not viewed as women or entitled to protection. We are taught to take care of everyone, but never practice self-care, or else we aren’t doing it right, picture “Big Mama” from the movie Soul Food. We know how that ended for her, right? Right. But, do we think about real people like our Big Ma’s or Henrietta Lacks?
In watching the documentary of her life, I learned that she was not only raising four children, but she also took care of virtually everyone around her, including her community. After her death, her body was used to modernize healthcare as we know it and her cells have saved countless lives, all without any form of compensation to her family.
Black women are literally expected to selflessly give until we can’t give any more, and be happy doing it. This belief is reaffirmed by structural racism in American society, even after discovering that their mother’s cells and theirs were stolen, the courts found that they had no right to the action.
I think that by and large, we’ve learned that this comes from society’s perception of ownership and control over Black bodies and personhood. Now, we are seeing a shift where Black women are starting to be more cognizant of the “tending instinct” and investing more time in practising self-care and demanding our care and humanity, which is good. It is a much-needed shift.
But somehow, this realization by and large has not stopped us from being forced into society’s caretaker roles for everyone around us, including family, friends, coworkers, and our community; all without expectation.
Recently, I became a victim of crime but rather than being assisted by the police, I received further victimization and traumatization.
As background, I have been being stalked, harassed and terrorized due to being in an interracial relationship with a white man. The stalker is someone who I considered a friend, a guy with a troubled past (which I associated with his prior drug addiction), who I have tried to and have helped. To give you an example of my assistance and support, he has a job and stable housing.
When I began dating my current boyfriend, he was initially happy for me. But after seeing a picture of us together and realizing that he was white, those feelings quickly turned into a confounding rage. He became verbally abusive and frighteningly angry and though he later apologized for this behaviour, I was still confused, hurt and a little afraid.
Fast forward about three months, I’m home with my boyfriend and my friend comes over unannounced, his eyes were bloodshot red and he appeared to be under the influence of something. Despite being a bit afraid of him, my first thought is wondering whether he has begun using again, and wondering how I could help. So I attempt to calm him and meet his immediate need, food, and send him home.
Two days later, I’m leaving for work much later than usual and as I am walking out of the back door, I notice him walking into my yard, he is visibly surprised to see me and gives me some story about dropping something off for me that he doesn’t have in his hand. I, in a rush, get in my car and head to work without questioning the story but realizing that it was strange.
That night he shows up unannounced again, I refuse to allow him to enter so he forces the door open and eventually strangles me. I call the police. First, I am transferred to three different dispatchers, then when I reach the dispatcher for my city, they are combative and rude yet eventually dispatch the police out.
The officer arrives at my house and I recount what happened. His response is, “Do you live here?”; I am bewildered by his question, so I hesitate, but I affirm that I am at home. He then asks, “Is this your house?”; I respond, “Yes.”, he then says, “Hmm, I don’t see any marks on you or anything, and he’s not still in the neighbourhood, so…”.
I respond that I’d like to press charges because he assaulted me. So he asks me for details about his name and address and employer, and I provide the information before he leaves. I don’t hear anything further.
Two weeks later, my daughter calls me at 10:45 p.m. to tell me that the guy is in my garage, behaving really oddly, but she can't tell what he’s doing. I arrive home to find all of my yard equipment and tools stolen and the garage completely trashed.
My boyfriend insists that I call the police, I told him that I’d file a police report when I felt mentally prepared to interact with the police, because interacting with the police, for Black people, is an emotionally taxing experience, filled with uncertainty.
Two days later, he returns to my home, he calls and texts repeatedly demanding that we come open the door or come out to speak with him. We ignore him and he breaks out my boyfriend’s car windows. My boyfriend, being a white male, calls the police immediately. It takes about an hour for an officer to arrive, this officer, a woman, seems much more empathetic and shocked by the behaviour, she asks why I have not sought an order of protection considering the prior assault.
I explain that I did not know that it was an option, she asks for the prior police report number, I respond that I don’t believe that the officer filed a report. She returns to her car, calls dispatch and returns with a report number.
She looks at my text messages where he admits to committing both acts and she gives me a new report number. She then goes to my neighbour's house to see if she can review their video surveillance. I never hear anything back.
As I attempt to clean up, I notice that he’s moved my garbage can up to the back fence and broken a picket of the fence, this setup gave a perfect angle of the back door, as if he was going to use it as a guide like perhaps he was going to shoot us. I shake it off and move on, thinking that a resolution will come soon.
Two weeks later, I am out of town. My girlfriend who is taking my daughter to school while I am out of town, informs me that she bumped into him at my house talking to my daughter as she waited outside on her to pick her up. My girlfriend queried him on why he was there and he told her that he was “looking for some important mail".
She tells me that she’s concerned for me and my daughter’s safety, and felt that he was there to harm us as his demeanour, presence and explanation were just bizarre. Knowing that the police would simply respond as if I’m being irrational. I did not report this event, if being strangled, robbed or having property vandalized don’t warrant a response, surely this wouldn’t, I thought.
Two weeks later, he is sitting outside of my job watching me as I return from picking my daughter up from school. The next week he comes back to my home and breaks out the car windows again. At this point, I contact his boss, whose vehicle he is using to carry out the crimes and terror and I beg him to take the car at night because I fear for my safety.
He responds that he cannot prove that any of my allegations are true, so I show him the messages and tell him that I will be filing another police report and I would be telling them where he worked. He responded with a complete lack of concern but asked that I contact him if anything further happened and gives me his phone number.
Three nights later, he returns to my home, texting me a menacing text “so I’m stupid right?”, referring to my boyfriend’s car being in the garage and no longer parked in the alley where he can access it. I contact his boss to let him know that he’s at my house, in his truck, but he tells me that I should contact the police.
Two days later, he attempts to run my boyfriend off the road, again, in his boss’ vehicle. I contact his boss again, he flat out denies that the incident occurred. Twenty minutes after I contact the boss, my stalker goes to the police station to report that I'm harassing him!
Then the next day, his boss calls the police to his place of business to say that I’m harassing him as well. He is stating that the 7 total text messages regarding 3 events over a course of several days, were harassment. He never asked me not to contact him, yet the police responded to his location, for a non-emergency event, took a report and obtained “evidence”; the text messages.
My boyfriend again filed a report about him attempting to run him off the road to ensure that he documented what was happening with the police. He maintained his belief that the police were there to protect and serve. He was treated as though he was making a big deal out of nothing.
My stalker had been contacting me almost daily for two months at this time, with menacing and harassing text messages and telephone calls, yet, I had had no follow-up either from being strangled, robbed, stalked or the property damage. However, the police saw fit to meet with his boss, a white man, and obtain “evidence” of “harassment” against him and taken a report as if this is even remotely close to a criminal matter.
This is even though there is no way that the allegations made by this man would amount to anything remotely close to harassment.
The next month, he comes to my home, kicks in my garage door, breaks out my boyfriend’s car windows for the third time, drains the gas from my car and puts water in my tank. He then climbs on the patio outside of my second-floor bedroom and debates murdering us aloud, presumably with himself, but who knows if he had assistance?
When we went out for work, we discovered the damage.
The police again, responded as if I am an inconvenience and become hyper-focused on what I’ve likely done to cause myself to become a victim of crime. After giving me the report number, I walked away and left the officer in my garage with my girlfriend due to having been injured after being assaulted by my stalker.
Sometime later, an evidence technician arrives to take photos, however does not take photos, because I never came back to the garage, the officer mentions to my friend that I am behaving “suspiciously”.
I was unaware that someone was coming to take photos of the garage, but I am not sure how my presence would have somehow made the garage door, cars or other property more damaged. But somehow taking photos was predicated on my presence.
The officer never mentioned to me that he needed me there or requested that I stay, but leaving somehow meant that I am behaving suspiciously? Not like someone who is emotionally exhausted after being abused and re-victimized by him, but suspicious? Perhaps the officer genuinely believed that I should be okay with being dehumanized and spoken to as a subhuman? Perhaps he viewed my demands for humanity as suspicious? Perhaps he was a jerk?
Or perhaps he was suffering from a classic case of toxic masculinity, white male fragility, paternalism and authoritarianism?
My boyfriend has taken this experience much harder than I have, mostly because I know what every other Black person in America already knows, that the police are not here for us. They exist to protect white people from Black and Brown people, to control us, to act as the slave patrol.
Black people know that there are dangers associated with calling the police, both psychic harm and physical harm, despite being victims of a crime, so we don’t call the police for help, because the stakes are too high. As I have explained the things that we have experienced, white people have inevitably reacted in disbelief at the treatment that we have received from police.
Though it occurs to me that they are in disbelief because it has never been their experience, so it is a completely foreign concept for them to fear the police. It still angers me. Because what does that say for American policing? Black and white people have two totally different justice systems. As my uncle used to say, “there are Black laws and white laws” and consequently, we have many different encounters with law enforcement.
What kind of society do we live in where law enforcement has the authority to ignore crime and either wait on it to naturally evolve into or knowingly instigate further conflict? How much “Black on Black” crime is fueled by the over and under policing of black communities?
For Black people, interacting with the police is traumatic, evoking real and justified fear, both as we have the uncertainty of the outcome and in the dehumanizing interaction that will surely follow as they attempt to gaslight us into believing that we have somehow done something wrong by being a victim of crime.
Police view melanin with suspicion, so rather than listening to our accounts of crimes, they begin to investigate us, because we’re “suspicious”; so reporting a crime could end with us being accused of one.
Now, this experience and the lack of empathy and awareness of the complexities of the “Black experience” with an encounter with the police confounded me. But, I guess it is what has happened afterwards is that has truly shocked me.
Every time my boyfriend and I explain the situation to a white person, they are shocked, the police should have done more, we must be leaving out some details, surely there's a reason why he hasn’t at least been questioned by the police, let alone arrested.
Apparently, Black people, our experiences and our lives are “suspicious” to white people as a whole? And the police are given broad deference. They ask why we did not follow up with the police and demand action, because we surely should have to do that, right? They ask us why the police haven’t even taken evidence of the crimes, as if we have answers for them.
Again, we are re-victimized, by family and friends.
But, the conversation takes a dark turn, it turns into an indictment on me. Why would I be nice to someone and attempt to help him get on his feet in the first place? This paternalism with my body, and frankly, my life is rooted in the dark history of slavery and the abuse of Black women.
Black women have never had full autonomy over their lives and bodies. There is always someone or something, lurking, waiting to take control over a Black female body. First, it was the slave owner or his/her agent; then husbands, boyfriends, men on the street and most disturbingly, society as a whole.
We can’t win for losing. Obviously, in their minds, I, as a professional person should not interact with someone who has a criminal history. These questions ignore the reality that every Black person in America knows someone with a criminal history, due to the structural racism that fuels the over-policing and criminalization of Blackness.
So the thought that I would suddenly not know or distance myself from people who I’ve always known or associated with, is from such a place of privilege and white supremacy, that it is maddening.
But I can’t get mad, because then I would be an angry Black woman. They believe that I should smile politely, and answer the interrogatories. So the thought that to be a palatable and acceptable victim, I have to follow a certain set of societal rules as a prerequisite, is also confoundingly paternalistic.
When you juxtapose the expectation of white culture, with the expectations of Black culture, where there is an expectation that Black women support and uplift Black men (because of the way that they are treated in society), it is a stark dichotomy.
However, Black women, ever being the superwomen, try to meet the needs of both societal expectations. We regularly navigate duelling realities, because that’s what’s expected of us, and we feel compelled to meet and exceed all expectations because we’ve been conditioned to be twice as good for half of the recognition.
But, when we unconditionally support and uplift Black men, we are seen by those outsides of our culture as “less than” for retaining ties to people that, but for the Grace of God, could have been us.
We receive this treatment because on some level, white people feel as though they’ve granted us entry into “their society” and therefore we should show our gratitude and behave according to the rules of their society and not associate with other Black people unless they are magical or palatable negroes.
Black people understand that the police have the capacity and authority within American society to ruin or end someone’s life on a whim, we know so many people who’ve been wrongfully incarcerated or just wronged by the systems that those of us who can help, often feel compelled to help.
We understand that the cards are infinitely stacked against returning citizens and without the help they will surely wind up back in jail. My selflessness and lending help has made me someone who “deserves what she got”; I am being shamed and blamed because I knew him and helped him.
What kind of society do we live in where women are gaslighted into believing that they are at fault for someone else’s misdeeds? What does that do to the mental health and wellness of Black women?
People who I know and interact with daily genuinely believe that I should not be entitled to the police protection that I pay for and my constitution entitles me to because I “deserved what I got”. Just think about that.
Why is it that, no matter what happens to Black women we are somehow at fault for the wrongs done to us? When will Black women be granted the authority by American society to be victims of injustice? Why do we have to elegantly stand in our oppression and politely request justice? When can we get mad and demand the protection that our country legally entitles us to? When do we get to be considered human?
The levels of stress and the burdens placed upon the backs of Black women living within two societies is immeasurable, and no one offers us to support or assistance, because we’re “strong” and we should be able to handle it. However, we are consistently killed by racism, preventable diseases, and stress. We are not that strong, no one is, we are not superhuman, we just aren’t entitled to humanity.
We need to push back on the “strong Black woman” trope because it is literally killing us. We should not have to survive life in America, we should be allowed to thrive in a country built on our backs.