Often celebrated, this stereotype is rarely viewed negatively but could be costing black women their lives.
So where does this stereotype of ‘strong black woman’ come from?
This narrative justified physical, emotional, and sexual abuse against black female slaves and the dehumanising stereotype is still a very powerful means of silencing black women today. That it is natural and normal for black women to experience excessive hardship, that this must be endured silently and that this is ‘strength’.
The ‘strong black woman’ stereotype is closely tied with the belief that black women have a higher pain threshold.
Again, where does this narrative come from?
It has also been used to justify inhumane medical experimentation on black people; Dr J. Marion Sims experimenting on black female slaves’ genitalia without anaesthetic (including more than 30 experiments on a single woman, named Anarcha.) black men purposely allowed to suffer untreated during The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment; mustard gas covertly being tested on black soldiers during World War II, the list goes on.
These stereotypes are more than just ignorance or racism, we are paying for them with our lives. Healthcare is one area in which these stereotypes can still play out with deadly consequences. A 2019 UK report confirmed that being black and pregnant was more dangerous, 5 times more dangerous in fact. It found that black women are dying at 5 times the rate of white women during pregnancy. Could the way black women are stereotyped be contributing? Quite possibly.
Studies from the US in 2016 found that almost half of medical students believed that black people had thicker skin and less sensitive nerve endings than white people. These troubling and deeply misguided beliefs have real-world consequences; black patients are less likely than white patients to receive painkillers and when they do their pain is underestimated and under-treated.
Our mental pain can be dismissed too, a pressure to be ‘strong’ often doesn’t permit us to feel and express the full range of human emotions. This in itself is dehumanising. Our mental health is suffering, and whilst many factors contribute, we should all ask ourselves, could this be one of them?
Are black women being overlooked and not taken seriously as patients because of a belief we can endure more? That we don’t need as much pain relief, can wait longer in emergency departments, can be sent home sooner after a C-section.
As a medical student myself, I know we have often learnt the four pillars of medical ethics long before we start medical school. Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-maleficence, and Justice.
A word we’ve heard a lot in recent weeks. Here, it means fairness; to treat all our patients equally and equitably.
Are these being upheld for black women too? Does the high ethical standard we are held to professionally make us immune to stereotyping, to bias, to racism? No. It is only in addressing these issues that a meaningful, sustainable change can be made, one that truly upholds Justice.
In attempting to understand these alarming reports, we too often land in the murky waters of trying very hard to find a genetic basis for racial disparities in healthcare, when we must remind ourselves that racial categories are socially, not genetically defined.
We must understand the history of these stereotypes, our own biases and make conscious decisions to dismantle them, so that right now, as my cousin happily rubs her baby bump she won’t be 5 times more likely to die than her white friends rubbing theirs.
Learn more about Anarcha here: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/466942135