Frances Ahrens.

I often feel conflicted when I hear the phrase “You are a strong Black woman.” I usually think, “Of course I know that,” or “Do I otherwise seem weak? It’s a phrase that elicits a flurry of emotions from me, ranging from confusion to almost accepting my moment of strength.

Over the years, I have had to grapple with this phrase. On one hand, I am all for understanding and emphasizing the strength behind being a Black woman, but on the other hand, it feels like it takes away from our vulnerability. To me, nothing makes you stronger than being vulnerable and being able to communicate your feelings. Over the years, Black women have always had to be strong for themselves, their families and their communities. 

As Malcolm X once said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” This doesn’t only mean being looked down on for being both a woman and Black, but it also means being underestimated, which has been made evident through Serena Williams her entire tennis career or Allyson Felix in her fight for maternal rights with Nike. It means knowing we have to consider what we name our children so they aren’t discriminated against when they are applying for jobs.

Beyond this, Black women are the most unprotected people in America. For example, when Megan Thee Stallion was shot in the foot by Tory Lanez, the internet made jokes about it instead of having empathy. Our pain is constantly undermined or receives little to no attention even when it is most pressing. In all walks of life, Black women are oversexualized or deprecated for their looks or unappreciated in general. Even in work settings, Black women have to wear certain outfits to feel respected and be seen as an equal no matter how hard we work. We have to shield ourselves from prying eyes even as young girls.

In general, as Black women, we are constantly called “emotional,” “irrational” and “temperamental.” However, when we show our strength, we are called “demanding,” “controlling” and “aggressive.” We are all strong, but we all have areas of our lives where we are vulnerable. I would rather connect with the people around me, emotionally and intellectually, instead of having to constantly walk a tightrope or stay reserved and “strong.” I continue to learn to adapt by looking at the women in my life who radiate strength, poise and compassion in spite of the circumstances that try to restrict them.

One of the strongest women I know is my mother. This is not because of the strength she needed to raise my brother and me, but rather because of how she never saw herself as small, despite being 5’3”. She refuses to be underestimated and always stands her ground. Her strength is evident in her eloquent words, her posture and her smile. My mother is always strong, but her power is often shown through different outlets such as humor, her tears or the way she hugs me. 

We don’t need a phrase to constantly remind us we are strong, because strength is ingrained in us. Our ancestors had no choice but to be strong, no choice but to be the roots in their house, no choice but to be part of the armor that protected their families. Black women are “strong” in not only the traditional notions of strength, but also in our love and vulnerability. To be a Black woman is so much more than strength, and “strength” should not define who we are. We are defined by our loving hands, our words of wisdom, our ability to help our community and everything in between, not by our strength alone. 

MiC Columnist Simone Roberts can be reached at siroberts@umich.edu.