As a psychologist and a Black woman, I acknowledge the commonly held perception that to be a Black woman means we have to be super strong, invincible, and without feelings. In essence, this perception robs us of our humanity.
Social scientists have developed the term the Strong Black Woman Syndrome which refers to Black women who feel the need to handle everything alone without ever showing any sign of need or vulnerability. I was reminded of this syndrome as I read Rihanna’s recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. In the interview, she talks about not wanting to look like a victim and not wanting to be perceived as weak. She stated that she worked to present herself as strong until it felt true. This is common for many Black women, including those who have survived trauma, violence, and abuse. It is not that we are immune to pain; rather, we believe it is unacceptable to show our pain. Black women receive the message from people outside of and within our community that we should not reveal our scars. In fact, one study with Black women who have survived intimate partner violence indicated that the women perceived that the Black community overall views them as weak and undeserving of care. This fear of being dismissed as weak silences many women. Audre Lorde wrote the poignant words, “This woman is Black so her blood is shed into silence.”
This concept can be witnessed in Rihanna’s testimonial in that, regardless of the very public way in which her story was told, her actual narrative and perspective have been silenced. Rihanna stated she felt the need to figure it out by herself after just one session of therapy. What keeps her and others silent?
We have seen what happens to Black women who speak of their pain, especially if the person who caused the pain is also Black. In fact, there has yet to be an instance in contemporary times where a Black woman has been harmed by a Black male and the Black community collectively rallied to her defense. Whether it is Anita Hill, Robin Givens, the adolescent violated by R. Kelly, or, more recently, the 11 year old girl gang-raped in Texas, Black women and girls receive the message that their pain is their problem and fundamentally their fault. As a result, they are encouraged to remain silent. Rihanna has learned this lesson well. As a young witness to domestic violence and now a survivor of dating violence, Rihanna has altered her mindset to the point where she can silently find “pleasure” in the pain, comfort in the chains.
The challenge is to extinguish the pressure for Black women to wear the silent mask of superhuman strength in the most dangerous and dehumanizing situations. As I read Rihanna’s interview, I thought of all the Black women who work daily to do the impossible, bear the unbearable, and carry loads that would break any woman’s back. Yes, I celebrate those who show resilience in the eye of the storm. However, it is not enough to simply survive and just get through it. Black women need to be whole. We need to know real happiness and authentic peace. Maya Angelou says, “Survival is important. Thriving is elegant.” To get to a point of thriving, we have to heal. We have to have space to breathe, tell our stories, and tend to the broken pieces. This is not a process that we can rush. It is not a process we should have to do alone. And, it is not a process we should endure in silence. I hope more Black women will get uncomfortable with the physical and psychological chains that bind us so we can break free and live. We do have the right to remain silent, but we have a stronger, more constructive right to speak up about the abuse we have survived and the wounds that still need to be healed.
Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University and author of Thriving in the Wake of Trauma: A Multicultural Guide.