The definition of empathy is to understand and share the feelings of others. In fact, to have effective empathy, you need to have what we in the field of psychology call, "mindsight." Dr. Dan Siegel attributes our ability to have empathy on our ability to examine our own internal world, our thoughts and feelings. In turn, this is how we are able to focus on the feelings of others and thus, have compassion.
The challenge that exists when having empathy for Black women is the inability to see Black women’s experiences as a reflection of you and your own experiences. What does this have to do with strong Black women? It guides a reality that Black women live in a world that cannot honor their vulnerability. Too many Black women walk around with a smile on their face and pain in their heart because it is not okay for them to not be okay.
We all know that we live in a world filled with racism, sexism, and heterosexism. If you don’t know this then we have a lot of work to do as a culture. Black women live at the intersection of gendered racism that provides a unique experience that Black women alone face. Since Black women set foot in the Americas, they have been appointed the role of taking care of everyone, sometimes to the detriment of themselves.
Now, we all know the stereotypes of Black women as Sapphires, Jezebels, and Mammies. We also know about the exploitation, commodification, and objectification of Black women, such as Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman who became a spectacle to be exhibited for the pleasure of others. By reducing Black women to stereotypes and objects, we reduce the very essence of their uniqueness. Mind you, stereotyping is natural. We all do it. We are constantly making sense of a complex world by clumping similar-appearing objects with one another. A ball bounces, a chair is for sitting, and so on. If we didn’t do this, we would constantly look at balls and question it’s purpose, or look at a chair and think, “So, can I actually sit on that?” Our days would go by quite slowly. Though stereotyping is natural, it’s not always good. We miss the nuance. And when we objectify, we “other” people.
So, why do we call Black women strong? It allows us, as a culture, to abuse and abandon them without care to how they are feeling because we believe that they are unaffected by it. By distancing oneself from the experience of Black women, we “other” them and believe them to be unhuman. Take her body, take her milk, take her pay, and take her dignity without emotional repercussion. Even the seemingly innocuous statement, "hey, you are too beautiful to not smile," forces Black women to perform for others.
So, what if we, as a culture, altered our views of Black women and saw them as a reflection of ourselves, moving about in a world that was not designed with them in mind? We would not see them as the strong Black women we label them to be, as easily capable of tolerating hardship, of being angry and forceful. Instead, we may see them as resilient, thoughtful, engaged, sacrificial, human, AND strong.
So, the challenge here is to develop some mindsight and, thus, empathy. If we did this, we may honor Black women’s vulnerability and allow them to be their fullest selves in a world that sees them one-dimensionally. Instead of forcing them to smile, take action that will help them smile. Throw the myth aside and truly ask a Black woman, “How are you doing today?” And whatever their response, see them as the unique magical beings they are.
These concise blog posts were created to make information about mental health understandable, relatable, and accessible to non-mental health professionals.
Please note: information in these articles are not clinical recommendations. Rather, they are general tools for thinking about your mental health in a different way. They have been written by
Dr. Shatina Williams and should not be reproduced without her permission.
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