Approximately one in five women develop depression during their lifetime, and it is estimated that the depression rate among black women is fifty percent higher than that of white women. Black women are also twenty percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than white women (Black Women’s Health, 2015).
Depression is most commonly understood to be caused by an imbalance of neurochemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, but Beauboeuf-LaFontant (2009) and Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2008), suggest that in addition to its biochemical roots, depression should also be examined through the lens of feminism – as a gendered and racialized symptom of oppression – since racial minority status and poverty are associated with higher levels of depression among women (Siefert et al. 2000).
Inspired by the work of Jack (1993), Beauboeuf-LaFontant (2009) coined “the silencing paradigm” to explain the experience of depressed strong black women. According to this paradigm, the feelings often associated with depression – those of hopelessness and helplessness, disinterest in pleasurable and routine activities, social withdrawal, and fatigue – are a result of a fracturing of the self and the mourning of a self that has been excluded based on societal norms and beliefs.
Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2008) describe this fracturing of self as shifting – changing outward behavior, attitude, or vocal tone to accommodate the dominant white culture and to compensate for differences in class, gender, and ethnicity. According to Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2008), shifting is a consequence of living within a system of oppression, one that promotes racial and gender bias. It is both an internal and external process that chips away at black women’s sense of self and wholeness.
In addition to shifting, the ideal of strength plays a role in black women’s experience with depression. Taylor (1995), former editor of Essence magazine, shares in her autobiography that she felt compelled to withhold her emotional reality and uphold a façade of strength because “feeling stressed, anxious, and ill have become accepted ways of living for black women” (pg. 5). Similarly, Danquah (1998) drew attention to her strength while struggling with depression and likened it to a performance rather than an authentic expression of their experiences. This ideal of strength influences the strong black woman’s experience with depression culturally, but also symptomatically. In both autobiographical accounts (Danquah 1998; Taylor 1995) the women noted that they did not feel hopeless or helpless, instead, they experienced extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, frustration, and suppressed anger.
The recognition of these symptoms and the unique cultural components led Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2008) to describe the depression that strong black women experience as the “Sisterella Complex” – a functional depression experienced by black women that is influenced by the obligation of strength and characterized by selflessness and self-silencing, in an effort to defy stereotypes and appear strong. According to Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2008), talented, hardworking, selfless strong black women shift and suppress their own needs and feelings so much that “they are pushed insidiously, unwittingly, often invisibly toward depression” (pg. 124), and, since the strong black woman suffers in silence, her depression often goes undiagnosed or unrecognized by mental health practitioners. Systemic issues, like limited access to quality health care, high healthcare costs, distrust of healthcare providers, and lack of cultural competence among healthcare professionals also contribute to the lack of recognition and diagnosis (Collins, 2013).
Oppression and The Black Female Body
Oxford Living Dictionary (2018) defines oppression as “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment” and “mental pressure or distress.” Slavery, Jim Crow, and modern day institutionalized racism are all systems of oppression that have historically affected black women and continue to affect black women today. These occurrences, as well as the accumulation of less subtle racist and discriminatory experiences, or microaggressions, disempower black women, reduce their options for behavior, and require complicit compliance to the limitations placed upon them by the dominant white culture (Frye, 1983). According to DeGruy (2005), these systems of oppression have resulted in an intergenerational trauma that she calls Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – a pattern of behaviors that include vacant esteem, a belief that one has little to no self-worth based on an inferior position within society; ever present anger, or anger resulting from the repeated undermining of hopes and dreams by governing institutions and racist societal views and actions; and racist socialization, or the adoption of colonist values, especially those that deem whiteness to be superior and blackness inferior.
The latter, racist socialization, can be seen in the formation of the ideal of the strong black woman, and as Degruy suggests, it is a socialization that is passed down from one generation of black women to the next through behavioral patterns and thinking (Degruy, 2005). The inheritance of this characterization was mentioned repeatedly by women interviewed by Beauboeuf-LaFontant (2009). During their interviews, women spoke of the ways in which they were socialized by their mothers at a young age to maintain the strong black woman ideal. One participant shared that “being strong is almost ingrained in you from day one. You know, you don’t cry easily. If something happens, you get up. You don’t cry. You don’t let it bother you” (pg. 77). Another participant, Tasha, reflects upon her own parenting and the ways she socializes her daughter to maintain the strong black woman ideal: “I make her hang with the boys…I don’t want her to be, you know, whiny. I want her to be out there you know…to be able to take care of herself…If she gets into anything or whatever, I want her to be able to handle it (pg. 81).
Similarly, the women interviewed by Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2008) expressed that they socialize their daughters at a young age to behave in a manner that will be perceived as respectable by white people, but also help to keep them alive should they run into trouble with authority as they get older. One participant shared that she did not tolerate the “terrible twos” with her twin girls, and at the age of three, her daughters know how to pick up after themselves, not to play at the dinner table, and do what they are told without excuses or questioning. The participant described this as “strict love” – not necessarily the way she preferred to raise her daughters, but a necessity given the way they would be treated outside the home if they misbehaved or questioned authority. She states: “as Black people we don’t have the luxury of questioning authority…we’ll always come up short. And when that authority is packing a gun, you’re going to come up dead” (Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2008, pg. 245).
According to Beauboeuf-LaFontant (2009), the wear and tear of continuous oppression affects the body and mind, making black women more susceptible to depression.
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Collins, C. F. (2013). African American Women's Life Issues Today: Vital Health and Social Matters. California: Praeger.
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