“The Role of the Black Superwoman”

By Catherine Pannell, MSW, L.L.M.S.W

Black-SuperwomanThe historical strength, resilience and perseverance of Black women is often described as impermeable. This means that we, as Black women, have a tendency to be viewed by others (and viewing ourselves) as unlikely or less likely to be affected by pain and emotionally-distressing experiences. Therefore, the “Black Superwoman Schema (or the Strong Black Woman)” suggests that Black women are often perceived as having the ability to “overcome” any amount or type of stress without experiencing physical, mental or emotional depletion. This unhealthy perception that has been adopted by society, and generationally perpetuated throughout the Black community, has played a major role in Black women’s experiences and views of stress and coping. Below are characteristics of the Black Superwoman Schema, according to research conducted by Dr. Woods-Giscombe:

  • An obligation to manifest strength
  • An obligation to suppress emotions
  • An obligation to help others
  • Resistance to being vulnerable or dependent
  • Determination to succeed despite limited resources

It is important to note that this phenomenon of the Black Superwoman can also be viewed as a positive character trait, as it highlights a Black woman’s resilience, and has served (and continues to serve) as a survival mechanism in the face of historical hardships. Black women experience consistent and varying forms of adversity and oppression that has forced an economic and social necessity to play the role as mother, nurturer, and breadwinner.

  • Historical exposure and experiences with racism, micro-aggressions, race and gender-based oppression, and disenfranchisement
  • A past history of abuse, neglect, frequent disappointment and mistreatment (mostly from family)
  • Lessons from Foremothers: “Our ancestors made it through slavery, this is nothing compared to that.”
  • Environmental stress: socioeconomic status, limited access to needed resources (child care, education, employment, healthy food, recreation)
  • Spirituality/religion: Thoughts such as “Be strong…give it to God…just pray about it…”
  • Health: “Black women experience disproportionately higher rates of adverse health conditions correlated with unmanaged stress, such as: Lupus, Cardiovascular Disease, Obesity, adverse birth outcomes, and untreated or mistreated psychological conditions.”
  • Difficulties within interpersonal relationships: resistance to loving and being loved fully due to fear of being vulnerable
  • Unaware of various manifestations of stress: stress can manifest physically and result in migraines, hair loss, weight gain, loss of energy, and panic attacks
  • Self-preservation and survival skills: recognizing your strength and ability to overcome obstacles
  • Preservation of the Black family: an ability to be a support to family

If you find yourself identifying with some of these contributing factors or experiencing the risks associated with the role as “Superwoman” or the “Strong Black Woman” of your family or friends, please take a moment to assess the sources, frequency, and intensity of your stress and begin to implement ways to better cope with stress. Begin to delegate and divide responsibilities, incorporate self-care or “me time”, and most importantly move towards more self-expression and less suppression of your feelings/emotions. In order to continue leading and being a source of strength for your loved ones, you have to know when/if the load is becoming unbearable and ask for help. CAPS is a great place to start! Registered WSU students can call 313-577-3398 or stop in between 9a-4p for a triage assessment on the 5th floor of the SCB.

Woods-Giscombe, C. L. (2010). Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health. Qual Health Res, 20(5): 668-683. Doi: 10.1177/1049732310361892