Women of color like Therese Patricia Okoumou have been at the frontline of activism for centuries. But portraying them as super-human diminishes the very real struggles they face daily.
“I went as high as I could,” said Therese Patricia Okoumou.
Okoumou participated in hanging an “Abolish I.C.E.” banner at the Statue of Liberty this past July 4, as part of New York activist group Rise and Resist, to protest forced migrant family separations under the Trump administration. Then, on her own, she scaled the base of the statue—a gift from France in the 19th century that welcomes immigrants from all over the world. Sporting pink sneakers, Okoumou sat calmly at the feet of Lady Liberty. As images of her protest went viral, many took to social media to praise the activist, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Writer Oliver Willis tweeted, “Black women are superheroes” with photos of Okoumou, Rosa Parks, Bree Newsome, and Elizabeth Eckford. While Black women perform incredible feats, they are not superheroes.
It may seem reasonable to consider Black women as superheroes when considering their monumental contributions to U.S. society. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Shirley Chisholm are just a few of the names that many people would recognize. Yet, focusing on Black women’s heroic achievement supports the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype. According to sociologist Patricia Hill-Collins, this notion of the “matriarch” is one of the controlling images of Black women in the U.S. It treats Black women as stoic, hypercompetent invincibles who persevere without complaint despite significant odds. While this may strike many as a positive stereotype, it is harmful because it normalizes Black women’s extraordinary efforts and exploits their repeated trauma.
In Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism bell hooks explains, “Usually, when people talk about the ‘strength’ of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression.” If you believe that Black women are “naturally” strong, you are less likely to offer assistance or to address the ways they are oppressed. This is especially the case in a White supremacist society that upholds images of elite White women as delicate and needing care. Treating Black women as superhuman leads to thinking of them as subhuman.
Black women may seem supernatural due to the adage “Black don’t crack.” This usually refers to the smooth and supple skin of some Black women which makes it difficult to guess their age. While usually intended as a compliment, this ageist and sexist notion does not account for Black women’s internal processes. Overexposure to stress is causing Black women to age faster than other women. According to one health-disparities study, “Black women between the ages of 49 and 55 are seven and a half years biologically ‘older’ than white women.” Despite smooth skin and other outward appearances, the stress endured by Black women has a negative effect on their health.
Black mothers are particularly at risk for negative health outcomes. In the U.S., Black mothers die at three to four times the rate of White mothers. In New York City, Black women with at least a college degree had higher rates of severe maternal morbidity than did women of other races/ethnicities who did not graduate high school. Coupled with racial disparities in pain assessment and treatment, it is clear that Black women are hurting. Even a wealthy woman such as Serena Williams reported difficulties in her medical treatment following her Caesarean delivery. Black women are not ageless and invincible but human and medically underserved.
In 2017, when Alabama Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in a special election for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, Black women voters were hailed as saviors. Black women will save us. Trust Black women. Listen to Black women. Praising Black women in this way perpetuates the stereotype of Black women as a “mammy” figure, an asexual, long-suffering, supremely nurturing caregiver. Writer Mikki Kendall created the #NotYourMule hashtag to address the continued expectation of Black women’s labor. She and others point out that taking advantage of Black women’s labor is exploitative and that it serves to excuse others from their responsibility of doing the heavy-lifting themselves. Black women are not caped crusaders and are not under any obligation to save anyone.
Many Black women celebrate themselves using the rallying cry of #BlackGirlMagic or #CarefreeBlackGirl. Yet, such expressions of joy and confidence from Black women differ from externally imposed demands. While sometimes they appear unbothered or nonchalant, the failure to display emotion or choosing to remain calm does not mean that Black women are unfeeling automatons. For example, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif) is known online as “Aunt Maxine.” While she has embraced the moniker, those who enjoy the “Reclaiming My Time” GIFs are probably not familiar with her congressional voting record or know the state or district she represents. Waters has had to cancel events due to serious death threats. Furthermore, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz) has introduced a measure to censure Waters due to her comments opposing the Trump administration. Biggs has also called for her resignation. Waters’s strident critiques of the Trump administration are not “clapbacks” for likes and retweets. She and other vocal Black women are not merely symbols and memes but people who put themselves at risk for their words and deeds.
Black women have been part of nearly every freedom struggle in this country. Frequently, they do make the remarkable seem commonplace. For instance, educator Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls with the motto, “We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible.” Certainly, Black women’s historic and ongoing service and achievement are part of an important and rich legacy that should be celebrated. Still, it is important to do more than applaud Black women’s sacrifices from the sidelines. Solidarity means supporting and working alongside Black women, including those wearing a blazer, pink sneakers, or even a cowboy hat. But no capes.
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