The ‘strong black woman’ stereotype is harming our mental health

The trope of the steely, resolute black woman is ingrained in society, and helps fuel a growing problem with depression and self-harm
‘Love Island: Aftersun’ TV Show, Series 4, Episode 6, London, UK - 15 Jul 2018Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jonathan Hordle/REX/Shutterstock (9762415bm) Samira Mighty and Frankie Foster ‘Love Island: Aftersun’ TV Show, Series 4, Episode 6, London, UK - 15 Jul 2018
 ‘We’re constantly portrayed as adversarial, unattractive and unlovable, the last woman any man would pick’: Samira Mighty from ITV2’s Love Island. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/REX/Shutterstock

Depression crept in on me 17 years ago. It was shaping up to be a fabulous summer until my boyfriend split up with me and I was made redundant, in the space of a month.

My summer of partying lurched from being fun to being frenzied. I drank and danced the nights away to mask what was really going on. Not telling a soul.

Talking about anything personal was just something we didn’t do in our family. My mum was one of the Windrush generation. She arrived from Jamaica in the 1950s as a young qualified nurse. She worked her socks off in Birmingham hospitals to give me and my brothers the best she could. She succeeded. We had a wonderful life. I didn’t want to upset her. I wasn’t sure how she might react. My line of thinking was, “I’d better keep stumm.” That was until the daily crying exhausted me so much that I sought help from my GP.

I explore some of the reasons for this in a documentary on BBC Radio 4 called Black Girls Don’t Cry, to be broadcast today. My gut and personal experience told me there were other unique factors that face us as black women. When I told my friends about the programme, every single one of them asked me: “Are you going to be talking about the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype?”

We joke about our steely, resolute, no-nonsense African-Caribbean mothers, aunts or grandmothers. Naturally the media has taken those anecdotes, stories and images and then portrayed us as such in movies and TV shows over the decades. Yes, that’s a positive role model, but the problem is, this has been the dominant, steadfast image of black woman. That image sticks. We begin to believe it and wear a mask, feeling under pressure to live up to that trope. So when things get us down, we try to brush things off, while all the time groaning under the weight of the burden.

Meanwhile, sectors of society refuse to believe any other narrative about us, to the point that it deeply impacts our lives, our career prospects and even our love matches (you only have to look at how Samira Mighty’s romance with Frankie was downplayed on ITV2’s Love Island). We’re constantly portrayed as adversarial, confrontational, unattractive and unlovable (the last woman any man would pick). Black women face the double discrimination of race and gender. Even our own natural hair and beauty is criticised for not being European enough, for being unprofessional. So who hears us when we finally speak up and admit we’re fragile and we need professional help?

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