Throughout history, society has imposed several controlling images onto Black women to justify their oppression, including the Jezebel, the matriarch, and the welfare queen. While many of these controlling images clearly perpetuate negative characterizations of Black womanhood, others purport to depict Black women positively despite their oppressive realities. The strong Black woman is one such trope, as sociologist Patricia Hill Collins describes in her book Black Sexual Politics:
The depiction of Black women as tireless workers, both in the paid labor market and the unpaid reproductive labor of the family, reinforces views of African American women as the Strong Black Woman (SBW). As one of the few positive images used to describe Black femininity, the valorization of women’s strength in African American communities makes it difficult for Black women to reject exploitative work and simply walk away from responsibility, especially from their families.
– Collins (2004:205)
To date, several Black feminist scholars have examined the ways the characterization of Black women as strong “superwomen” has negatively affected the mental and physical health of Black women. Beyond that, the expectation that Black women demonstrate strength and resilience harms those who can’t conform to this controlling image. In a 2018 study published in Gender & Society, women’s studies scholar Angel Love Miles asserts that the strong Black woman schema affects the self-concept of disabled Black women in complicated ways.
The Ableism of the Strong Black Woman Controlling Image
According to Miles, the strong Black woman controlling image assumes that Black women possess endless amounts of selflessness, nurturance, resilience, willpower, and independence.
Rooted in the exploitation of Black women as unpaid slaves and underpaid service workers, Black women’s characterization as strong also reinforces the notion that white women, particularly those who do not work outside the home, embody the ideal wife and mother. Miles argues that besides the racism of these beliefs, ableism also shapes this controlling image due to its emphasis on independence and caregiving rather than values of self-care and interdependence. Disabled Black women get treated as incapable of taking on this gender role due to the barriers they face as economic and domestic providers.
The Feminist Intersectionality Disability Framework
In the Gender & Society piece, Miles sets forth a feminist intersectionality disability framework to examine the relationship among the strong Black woman schema, care work, and the self-concept of disabled Black women.
Miles developed this framework due to the limitations of disability studies as a lens for the experiences of women of color and intersectionality as a paradigm for adult women with disabilities. This framework includes several assumptions:
- Disability is an unequal and inequitable social construct.
- Intersectionality differentiates the life outcomes of disabled people.
- The result of intersectionality for disabled women of color leads to lived experiences characterized by multiple jeopardy.
- Our understanding of structural inequality often ignores ableism.
How Disabled Black Women Experience Care Work
Through interviews and survey responses, Miles identified how the ableism of the strong Black woman controlling image relates to how they experience care work, which Miles defines as the labor people do for their health care or the health care of others.
The women Miles spoke to felt society forced them to adopt the traits of the strong Black women. Fearing that others would see them as a burden, they sought to rely only on themselves and provide for others. However, this strategy came with costs associated with care work that prevented them from purchasing their own homes or experiencing economic advancement in their careers.
This experience of economic disadvantage meant that they had fewer resources to engage in self-care. Besides the financial constraints, these women felt service providers and other community members questioned their competency and ability to act independently. These attitudes contributed to their fear of discrimination in the home buying process, so they developed advocacy strategies to facilitate their needs.
How The Strong Black Woman Schema Affects Disabled Black Women
Miles argues that the internalization of the strong Black woman schema has a detrimental effect on the well-being of disabled Black women because the controlling image emphasizes independence and not seeking help. Beyond that, disability policies and communities of support tend to have white people, particularly men, in mind and therefore fail to assist Black women seeking care adequately.
To resolve these issues, Miles calls for community building, empowerment, affirmation, and social exchange geared specifically toward Black women to provide the resources to resist and cope with oppression.
Miles, Angel Love. 2018. ““Strong Black Women”: African American Women with Disabilities, Intersecting Identities, and Inequality.” Gender & Society 33(1):41-63. doi: 10.1177/0891243218814820.