Comfortable Chains: A Call for Black Women to Break Out

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.

Thema Bryant-Davis, PhD

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.


  1. Dr.Bryant-Davis
    The article just made me stop and think. I too an a victim to the calling of a strong black woman. We jusy keep pushing and pushing but never take time to feel or know ourselves. It’s almost like we need that applause or recognition from the world to say, “Hey look at her she’s still keeping on”. And we know that is far from the truth cause we do crash often times in silence or with a close friend. I think this is the soul reason we created, Ladies Night Out with our close friends. So we can laugh, talk and get all dolled up to forget about the feeling we hide. Like exercising we do it for weight loss, stress release and health. Ladies Nigh Out is a big thing now for hurting woman. We get a group of female friend to all go out on the town and live it up. We can forget about the care we carry for a few. The mask we wear the bandaides we use to cover our wounds. I’ve learned that my spirit roots combined with my being me all help keep me balanced. I have to have that outlet but I also must have the roots of my creator to keep me on the right path. A strong black woman knows it’s alright to express, release, cry and ask for help/support along the way. I know I need it alot.

  2. I am not African American. I happen to be of Cuban descent. Although I have friends of many races, I particularly have female and male friends that are African American. I have observed the reason why women have displayed strength or not showing pain, in my opinion, this pressure has been placed on us by the men. If a woman is a certain way she is either portrayed as needy, weak, too nice and have been referred to as gay. Tough love is the way many of us have been raised so it is not acceptable with the ‘tough love era’ to display love and affection. But times are changing and I see that slowly people intertwining cultures by adapting each other’s ways. Hispanic people tend to be portrayed as needy, submissive, emotional, irrational, or crazy. Again it was men of the African American and hispanic culture that taught me to be tough and not show I need them. Thanks to them I toughened up but I’m too tough But that is a good thing. Sometimes one needs to deal with particular individuals at the level they are. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how people try to change us, we must stay true to who God designed us to be. I pray that we as women evolve to the beings that God meant us to be. We need to stop letting people make us tough and rough to please satan’s desires. We need to allow God to make us in the image of himself which we were created to be from the beginning. I pray for all of the African American women and Hispanic women alike, that God may mold us to be the women we need to be for his God’s Kingdom. Let satan’s hands not have part in molding us. Let the Potter’s hands have his way in our lives and propel us to be the women of God he wants us to be..In Jesus mighty name I pray! AMEN!!!

  3. What a beautiful article and so true, black women have learned to carry loads but as women our nature is to be cared for and taken care of. I miss those days when women were women and men were men; when they respected us naturally. I don’t want to be superwomen, it’s tiring.

  4. Great article.I am fortunate to have learned to express my feelings and not walk around with the weight of the world on my shoulders.

  5. What a strong statement to deal with! The fact that we as society are taking the matter and looking for a break through it is challenging, but not impossible! I am mexican if you see my skin color or my general complexion,inmediately will ask or might say that I dont know what I am talking about,,but I know my history, and I have an story to tell and many times is not different. I am a woman that stands in a real world,my sisters,,yes my dear sisters, strong women believing that just for being different we can not speak up. Let us rise in selflove,let us rise in self respect,let us rise in selfcare. We know it is easy to say but, how? “I am glad you ask” (Dr. Thema uses to say); let’s spread love to each other. Sometimes a smile or a simple word means a lot.
    If I am not part of the solution,it means that I am part of the problem. In which side are you?
    “In the beggining,,God created Adam and Eve. We all were made in God’s image”.
    I honor my ancentors because I know my history,,and I am proudly representing an African-Mexican Woman.

  6. Awesome article. I’m going to come back to this discussion later but for now will say that I’ve always HATED THAT TERMINOLOGY. Not all Black women are “strong”. This throws back to how we are summarily monolithized (not a word, but a word) by “the establishment”. Just one of the many branches in the tree of “let’s put all Black folk in the same bunch”. *sigh*

    More later!

  7. What a thought provoking article! It has been the theme of many generations of Black women to be abused and suffer in silence for fear of shaming the culture. It is true that we do need to have a voice and by the grace of God I have finally learned to speak up. We need to see more black women in the media and in our communities speaking up and letting younger ones know that it’s not okay to suffer in silence. Great article Dr. Thema…two thumbs up!

  8. This article is so important for our community. As an African American woman and a psychotherapist I encounter many women who carry pain and are/ or have been reluctant to speak up and seek help. I know that bringing awareness to our community is an essential key to creating an atmosphere for acceptance, support, empathy, health, and wholeness. Thank you Dr. Thema!

  9. i told my mother once as a young woman that she was a strong black woman. she properly chastised me for saying that. She said,”what does that mean”, i don’t understand that.It was funny and it made me realize how insignificant and limiting the term “strong black woman” really is. Any woman can be strong. If she is a good mother, daugther, person, able to survive this life. And is blessed by God. She is a strong woman. and Acting like you know everything and being overly agressive because you want to prove a point, isn’t being strong. jmo

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