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The Other Side of the Strong Black Woman

Inger Burnett-Zeigler advocates for the mental health of black women.

inger burnett zeigler
Inger Burnett-ZeiglerImage: Jenna Braunstein Photography

By Inger Burnett-Zeigler
Winter 2022

This past summer, women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles launched a movement in Black women’s mental health by choosing not to compete in order to care for their mental health. 

For far too long the emotional pain of Black women has been ignored. Compared with other race and gender groups, Black women experience more stress when it comes to work, finances, family responsibilities, racism, sexism, discrimination and trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the civil unrest in response to highly visible police killings of Black people, piled onto that extant stress and exacerbated mental health challenges.

Black women have traditionally coped with their stress and trauma by wearing their “strong Black woman” cape, which empowers us with the resilience necessary to do what we need to do, day by day, to simply make it in the world. However, these capes veil the detrimental effects that stress and trauma can have in our lives.

Both Osaka and Biles courageously defied this strong Black woman mandate, which requires all-enduring strength, self-sacrifice and the denial of emotions such as depression and anxiety. Instead, they provided an example of how to pay attention to our feelings, prioritize our needs and set boundaries in service of mental wellness, even if it is an inconvenience to others.

Though Osaka and Biles are premier athletes with wide-reaching platforms, in many ways they are no different from the Black women I see in my outpatient psychotherapy practice at Northwestern Medicine. I work with women who are struggling with the residue of unresolved trauma related to sexual abuse, poverty, chronic instability and exposure to violence. This trauma shows up in their daily lives as persistent fear, worry, feelings of insecurity and shame.

“Black women are the bedrock of their families and communities, and everyone benefits when they are mentally and physically well.”

Many Black women I work with are additionally burdened by being “the first” or “the only” in white spaces. These women sense that they don’t belong and describe feeling the pressure to be perfect, so that they set a good example and don’t let down those who depend on and are looking up to them. They are constantly self-monitoring, making sure not to inadvertently validate a negative stereotype about Black women.

In my recent book, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women, I show the other side of what strong Black women display to the outside world — our vulnerabilities and the common humanity embedded in our suffering. I share rarely told stories of stress and trauma that I’ve heard from friends and family and women I have worked with in therapy and clinical research, as well as my personal struggle with anxiety and depression. When held in silence, these experiences can feel burdensome and isolating. By giving voice to our pain, we liberate ourselves from the necessity of wearing a cape of superficial strength. Instead, we hold space for our pain and embrace all aspects of ourselves with compassion and grace, knowing that we are worthy and valuable human beings just as we are.

The tide is turning. COVID-19 has made flexible work arrangements more common. The discussions continue about the effects of racism and trauma on mental health. There is a new opportunity for Black women to radically realign their lives in a way that supports their mental wellness. Let’s face it: Black women are the bedrock of their families and communities, and everyone benefits when they are mentally and physically well.

Inger Burnett-Zeigler ’09 PhD is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine. 

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