Exploring the lived experiences of the Strong Black Superwoman

There is a character on ABC’s popular medical drama series, Grey’s Anatomy, named Dr. Miranda Bailey. Dr. Bailey is a black woman. In fact, she is the substance of what black girl dreams are made of. She is high academic achieving, ambitious, goal oriented, the chief of a medical hospital, a well-respected surgeon, a consummate professional, and she does all of this while being a mother and a wife.

Dr. Bailey is the superwoman archetype of black women personified. And just like many of the real life black women that are seemingly “effortlessly” excelling in every aspect of their lives, she struggles with showing vulnerability. Dr. Bailey is a strong black woman, and there is very little to no space for vulnerability when you are a strong black woman.

 As black women, we take on so many roles as professionals in industries in which we are underrepresented, as caretakers of our families, as nurturing friends and the list goes on. We manage the day to day responsibilities of these various roles within the context of toxic environments in which we routinely encounter racial and gender micro-aggressions. We engage in code switching as a professional development tool and we think and rethink our every move to avoid not being categorized as the pervasive and dangerous negative stereotypes of black women such as the mammy (caretaker/nurturer), the jezebel (hypersexual), the sapphire (spicey/sassy), or the welfare queen (lazy and living off government assistance). We work so hard to avoid these categorizations that we often times leave microaggressions unaddressed, discriminatory practices unaddressed and our very own lived experiences unaddressed.

In the 2009/2010 academic year, black women received a higher percentage of degrees within their race/ethnic group than did women in any other major group in the country, however, we continue to face a wage gap even larger than women overall. We are leading the nation in labor force participation, burgeoning entrepreneurship and voter participation. We are healing the world. But we are doing so at the cost of our own health.

The stress responses to these lived experiences orchestrates physiological responses in our bodies that change the course of our health across our life span and across our children’s life span. Black women are driving the infant mortality rate in this country because of the impact of institutionalized racism on our lived experiences in this country. Black mothers in America die at three to four times the rate of their white counterparts. The disparity in infant mortality between black women and white women is wider today than it was in 1850, 15 years before slavery ended.

We are also disproportionately impacted by adverse health outcomes such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, fibroids, sickle cell, mental illness and sexually transmitted diseases.

There is a cost associated with being a superwoman who does not have the freedom to process stress and emotional distress through vulnerability, when living in a society in which you are multiply marginalized. This past season, on Grey’s Anatomy, the strong black superwoman character known as Dr. Miranda Bailey, had a heart attack. While her intellectual superpowers, her ability to advocate for herself and navigate the health care system saved her life, these black girl super powers could not protect her from health care practitioner’s dismissal of her symptoms and misdiagnosing her accurate self-assessment of cardiac arrest. Dr. Bailey admitted herself into the emergency room reporting symptoms of cardiac arrest and she had to fight to get proper treatment, she had to fight to get doctors to believe her reported symptoms, she had to fight to save her own life! Black women are 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than their white counterparts.

Although Dr. Bailey is a fictional character, her experiences within the health care system are consistent with what many black women have experienced and continue to experience because of racial bias within the healthcare system. Studies have shown that unrecognized bias against a specific ethnic group can affect the care given to those individuals. So for all the strong black women that may not be armed with the superpowers that served as protective factors to Dr. Miranda Bailey, their vulnerability is exacerbated.

There is strength in vulnerability and tremendous healing power. Connecting with our vulnerability allows us to feel what is going on inside of our bodies. When we avoid vulnerability with busyness, we place more stress on our bodies and ignore early signs and symptoms of health issues. Vulnerability is the greatest superpower of them all. It helps us to be proactive with our physical and emotional health. While it may be painful to acknowledge, process and move through vulnerability, because it forces us to address challenging life experiences, we are strengthened by this process. So to all the strong black superwomen, find your vulnerability super power, because we must first heal ourselves before we can go out and heal the world.  

By Danielle K. Wright