New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity
African-American Women's Mental Health and Politics
Presenting her work in the eleventh program of the Division of United States Studies' series on New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity, Prof. Melissa Harris Lacewell began with the assumption that there is a direct connection between individuals' lives – their experiences, their emotions, their histories – and their politics. Her particular focus was on the political impact of the myth of the strong black woman.
Arguing that the stereotype of the strong, tough black woman is pervasive, Lacewell added that a major component of the stereotype is the emphasis on self-sacrifice. The strong black woman, faced with the legacy of oppression and racism, soldiers on whatever the cost to herself – and indeed, Lacewell's presentation was part of a larger manuscript with the working title, Wounded Warriors: Understanding the Politics of the Strong Black Woman.
Much of the lives of black women are spent without men, Lacewell noted, and the need to assume both male and female roles can be psychologically and physically debilitating. The black woman is frequently the household's sole breadwinner as well as its homemaker. While 75 percent of families maintained two-parent structures until the 1970s, dual parenting is now a minority lifestyle for African Americans. Women heads of households in the United States are twice as likely to live in inadequate housing as are men, and to earn only 33-50 percent of their male counterparts' wages. Today, more than one in four black women live in poverty. It is not surprising that the need to be strong is seen as an imperative.
The medical consequences of the combination of constant stress and belief that admitting weakness is impermissible include maladies such as high rates of depression, diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse, and eating disorders. As commentator Julia Boyd noted, "Being strong all the time is a burden that doesn't leave us much room to be human," and black women receive no validation if they admit to feeling stress. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that black women are less happy with their lives than any other demographic group. At the same time, the myth that the "good" black woman is endlessly strong, coupled with economic realities, means that black women seek medical help at far lower rates than do white women.
The political consequences are as great. Buying into the myth, many African-American women condemn a perceived lack of strength on the part of other African-American women. Lacewell drew upon the 1995 Detroit Area Study, the 1999 Chicago African American Attitudes Study and the 2005 Survey of Today's Black Woman to demonstrate that the result is acceptance of a political agenda focused on individual effort rather than structural change. While they criticize time limits on welfare, recognizing that there are structural difficulties to eliminating the need to be on welfare, for example, black women condemn mothers who are on welfare but continue to have children. They tend to be equally harsh in their judgments of women addicts. Believing that they are endowed with a superhuman capacity to overcome life obstacles, they are less likely to support political agendas and public policies that seek to dismantle the structural barriers facing black women and more likely to support political agendas and public policies aimed at individual empowerment. And, Lacewell added, since they view strength as a trait typical of black women but not of white women, their emphasis on strength has consequences for the possibility of multiracial feminist politics – an insight that commentator Beverly Guy Sheftall found particularly intriguing.
"What's personal for black women is political," affirmed Julia Boyd, who discussed similar findings based on her clinical experience. Prof. Guy Sheftall, while praising Lacewell's work as a strong social science study, wondered how accurate generalizations about black women are if they ignore the differences between older and younger women and among women who live during different historical moments. Both panelists, however, applauded Lacewell's ability to shed light on a significant social phenomenon with important political consequences.
For anyone who wishes to see the paper by Melissa Harris Lacewell, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum
Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129