“Rufaro I love you so much. You’re, like, this strong independent black woman who doesn’t need no man,” says my very white friend with a smile. I think it’s meant as a compliment and I’m sure she doesn’t realize how uncomfortable she has made me. I’m too polite and conflicted to call her out. Instead, I form a faint smile and change the direction of the conversation. But I think about her words for the rest of the day. Who is this strong, independent black woman she was speaking about? I’m black, I know that for a fact, and I identify as a woman, but the rest, I’m not so sure. Was it just a compliment, or is this how she thinks all black women are? Yes it’s a stereotype and I know stereotypes are never representative of every individual in group they claim to describe, but a part of me can’t help but feel compelled and obliged to live up to it.
I grew up in a relatively multicultural city but somehow I always found myself in largely white spaces: on white streets where mine was the only black family, and in white schools where I could count the number of non-white children in my year on my hands. Besides the people I knew through my parents—the multitude of family friends who became adopted “cousins”—my friendship groups were often predominantly white. It never bothered me all that much. I was surrounded by good people who, for the most part, understood me or, if they couldn’t, at least knew how to be there for me. But I always felt that it was my obligation to be an accurate representation of blackness, something I didn’t feel qualified to do with my Taylor Swift fangirling and limited knowledge of black hair. The feeling only continued to grow as I saw the strong, independent black woman trope personified in the movies and TV shows I watched in attempts to see someone like me, but I could never quite find myself in her.
The strong black woman is everywhere. She is the slightly more positive but equally manipulative sister of the angry black woman. She is a stereotype that cajoles black women into accepting the injustices assigned to them at birth—to silence and desensitize—sugar-coated with the promise of respect. In the workplace she is successful, but ruthlessly so. The difficulties she has endured at the hands of society have made her tougher and the shattered glass of the ceilings held above her have chiseled away at her heart. The strong black woman has her life together at all times or is constantly working to make it that way, while never pausing to feel. She’s a trailblazer with equal measures of sass and conviction, but always missing something inside. She’s strong: She doesn’t allow the opinions of anybody else to get in her way, and she lives with a sense of conviction and purpose that her peers can only admire. She’s independent. You can find her in a beautiful bathtub drinking wine, not relying on the approval or presence of anybody else to thrive. She doesn’t need no man, but she could get any man and anything she wanted if she tried. She is the pinnacle, the seemingly positive portrayal of black women. She’s fierce, she’s strong, she’s independent, she’s not real. Or, at least, I’ve never met her.
I’d love to meet her, I’d like even more to be her, but I can’t. Sometimes I can be strong, but more often than not I’m a ball of emotions alternating between sunshine and tears like pouring rain. I’d like to think that I’m independent, but there is always a part of me yearning for more—for people who anchor me, tell me when I’m being irrational, say nice things about me when I’m feeling down, push me to be better and love me when I can’t love myself. I don’t need a man, but it would be nice, and I don’t think feeling that way is a bad thing. The black women around me can be strong and can be independent and they don’t need a man, but those are only aspects of who they are. Those feelings are only moments of their existence the glimpses of their lives that they chose to show. That is not all there is to them and that is not all there is to me.
The stereotype of the strong independent black woman is deceptively positive. When I have to do work that I’m not particularly enjoying, or when I push myself to do hard things it’s aspirational. But when it’s the label I’m automatically attached to, it doesn’t allow me the space to breathe. It calls on girls like me to deny ourselves the right to feel, reducing us to cardboard people meant to just withstand all that life throws at us. It denies the complexity of each black woman, our experiences, our emotions, our opinions, and our individual personalities, pushing us into a box that doesn’t give us permission to determine how we want to be seen.
I’d love to be all of those things, but it’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to cry to my mom about school and all the insignificant things that make me feel sorry for myself. That doesn’t make me weak. I want to sing along to silly love songs as I cyber stalk a random boy who smiled at me in the hallway, without feeling as if that detracts from my independence. I’m complex, but stereotypes ignore that. I love watching reality television as much as I love reading and writing about classical literature. Some days I wake up in Sasha Fierce mode ready to take on the world, other days just watering my plants and making my bed feels like an achievement. There is so much more to me outside of that stereotype and I shouldn’t have to feel constant pressure to always be at the top of my game—I just want to be me. Sometimes that girl is strong and, depending on the day, she’s independent, but that’s not all there is to her. I’m learning to be OK with that; there is more to me than some lazy trope.
I feel and will express my feelings even at the cost of being labelled “angry.” There’s so much I want to achieve, but not at the cost of my health relationships and wellbeing. I won’t aspire to fulfill a stereotype that dehumanizes me. I don’t have to be all of those things at any given time, I just have to be me. Even if me is often fearful, occasionally dependent, with emotions that can be fragile, and what others might perceive as weak. It’s me, and that will always be better than any stereotype. ♦
Rufaro is trying to get her life together. She enjoys writing things online, in the journals she collects, and for the video scripts she occasionally makes. She can be found in her bedroom tweeting about her feelings, trying to control her perceived life on Instagram, and doting on her cacti who refuse to love her back.