In this age of the Black Lives Matter movement, racial tensions are at an all-time high, and at the very forefront, enduring the wrath of rubber bullets and stun grenades, are Black people—Black women to be exact. Marching for justice and advocating for civil rights throughout the movement, there they are: strong, powerful queens moving through the board that is life.
It’s been seen much throughout history, in the women’s rights movement of the 19th century and leaders like Sojourner Truth. It is present yet again in the fight for liberation of LGBTQ rights led in part by Marsha P. Johnson. From Rosa Parks to Angela Davis to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, women have paved the way for succeeding generations by demonstrating their strength and unwillingness to back down in the face of iniquity. That is #BlackGirlMagic.
Coined by CaShawn Thompson in 2013, #BlackGirlMagic is a movement meant to empower and uplift Black women and girls of all ages and sizes, to celebrate their resilience and strength when presented with adversity. This movement, along with the phrase “Black excellence,” have been good things, things to celebrate within our community. Right?
A double-edged sword that has pierced its way into the vernacular and minds of Black people, starting as a simple twitter hashtag and various Facebook posts, it has germinated into a mantra of sorts. #BlackGirlMagic emphasizes that Black women are strong, they are excellent, they are magical. But if it sounds a little familiar, that might be because it is.
Where have we heard it before?
Let’s start by taking a look at Black women and their treatment in hospitals today. The medical field continues to fail African American women to this day, through racial biases. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), “Almost half of white medical professionals believe such myths as black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people.” It’s no wonder Black women are four times more likely to die during maternity than their white counterparts are. These myths have fueled inadequate treatment of pain in minority groups. But this idea isn’t new either; it’s old and as American as apple pie.
J. Marion Sims anyone? This so-called ¨father of modern surgery and gynecology¨ earned his acolytes from experimenting and operating on Black enslaved people without anesthesia. His beliefs led him to think that Black people didn’t experience pain the same way White people did; hence, anesthesia was deemed unnecessary, even wasteful.
These are some consequences that result from the strong Black woman archetype. This stereotype insinuates that because Black women are strong, they are meant to endure and withstand any and everything, including suffering and pain. #BlackGirlMagic could further enforce these myths, even if unintentionally.
While some might argue that #BlackGirlMagic is meant to celebrate the resilience of Black women, it also falls short of allowing vulnerability. #BlackGirlMagic equates to Black women excellence and it sings the same tune we’ve heard since Jim Crow. In the words of Shonda Rhimes, ¨You have to be twice as good in order to get half as much.” This is a truth most women have come to accept and even apply to their own lives. The simple reality is that falling short of excellence leaves room for failure. Black people are not allowed to be carefree or normal. It is almost an expectation to exceed all expectations, otherwise you fall prey to yet another stereotype. This then puts pressure on Black women to be good at all times, in everything they do, in hopes of succeeding in their respective fields or educational careers in order to achieve an ounce of that American dream they were promised.
With sacrificing failure and the possibility of mediocracy comes an expected casualty: mental health. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States. Data show that for Black women, anxiety is more chronic and the symptoms more intense than their White counterparts.” To put it differently, Black women avoid seeking counseling for their mental health because it is instilled in them to power through it, and bear it in silence.
This idea of being strong, resilient and almost superhuman has had to be internalized as a way to cope with America’s dark past. Be that as it may, these ideas tread along a perilous path, for to be viewed as superhuman is just as problematic as being viewed as subhuman. Being strong indicates that one does not need to be protected or helped. Being excellent negates the ability to fail. Being magical denies us the right to be just human.
Our current political climate demands so much of us. Living in a society that would rather see us dead is in itself exhausting. If you don’t suffer whiplash as a result of all the killings and injustices of your people, you might suffocate under the pressure that expects you to grin and bear it, to be the strong Black woman that society makes you out to be. Now begs the question, when do you get to be human? When do you get to feel? When do you get to breathe?
Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Joan Shauri currently lives in Andover, MA, where she attended high school. She currently works as a residential care provider. Her interests are hiking, reading, and gardening. She hopes to become a nurse practitioner in the near future.
We, Too, Are America is made possible through “Democracy and the Informed Citizen,” an initiative administered by the Federation of State Humanities Council through a grant from the Mellon Foundation.