Black woman standing confidently flexing her arms above her head. She casts a large shadow on a wall that outlines a superhero with her hands on her hips and cape flowing behind her. Image credit: Getty Images
The Heavy Cost of Strength: The Weight of Being Black, Queer, and Disabled
- the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
- "through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us"
As a Black, Queer and Disabled person, I’m no stranger to hearing things like “tough it out,” “you’re so strong,” “I wish I was as resilient as you” when I’m discussing or venting about the oppressive structures I face on a daily basis. From ableism to medical negligence to queerphobia to racism, I navigate a variety of levels of marginalization that impact and emphasize one another.
Being a Black non-binary woman, I’ve been held to a standard of strength and resilience since I was in elementary school. Alongside the pressures to maintain my emotional composure lest I be deemed threatening, noncompliant, or a “problem child,” I’ve learned since a young age that I would never be truly allowed the space to feel my emotions, to be vulnerable, to be weak.
You’re supposed to let racism roll off your back. Be used to it. Expect it even. To this end, you shouldn’t even let it get to you. You’re taught early on to be strong in the face of all forms of adversity and that allowing yourself to be upset was allowing the opposition (re: the oppressors) to hold power over you.
This concept of maintaining strength despite everything is present in many marginalized communities and it not only affects your mental and emotional well-being, but it can also result in isolating oneself instead of reaching out for support or postponing medical attention and treatment which can have irreversible repercussions.
Pretending to be strong in the face of all adversity led to a belief that things weren’t that serious...
But what exactly is “strength” in regards to these conversations? It’s typically understood that to be strong means that you handle whatever is thrown at you. You can be upset but you can’t dwell on it long and you surely can’t break down no matter how much you may feel like you need to. It’s your very existence, survival, or self-advocacy (that is usually done not out of will but survival) seen as an inspirational example of activism, and a goal to strive to despite you having no true intent on inspiring anyone with your lack of choice in the trauma you endure.
For a lot of people, being told to be strong means to bottle up their emotions and feelings. If one deals with this each time they speak on things, they may even decide to refrain from speaking up again, pushing the situation to the back burner and never bringing it back up so they don’t have to risk being shut down. The long-term result of this is that that person may develop anxieties, insecurities, guilt, and/or shame associated with being upset at their own oppression.
As someone who grew up with the mindset that my being angry, hurt or sad made me weak, it resulted in me losing the ability to properly recognize when notable harm was done to me. Pretending to be strong in the face of all adversity led to a belief that things weren’t that serious. I mean, if it were, people wouldn’t be effectively telling me not to be weak, right?
I often discuss my anger and frustration at inaccessibility, medical racism, neglect, and gaslighting as these are a few different ways my marginalizations present. As mentioned before, Black people, especially those who are marginalized genders, are held to an impossible standard of strength. We’re expected to do unreal amounts of labor on top of maintaining our composure and being an example of the way to handle the harmful ways oppression presents itself. When I vent about the issues I face, rather than be met with sympathy, and understanding as well as given the room to process my feelings, I instead receive people immediately shutting down my feelings, assigning me strength and inspiration, the latter concept something many disabled people are aware of.
This internal battle can also display itself in not allowing yourself to make time to seek medical treatment when you’re having concerning symptoms. Thinking that you just have to be strong because the symptoms aren’t that serious because you can still do “X, Y, and Z.” Our symptom severity and need for medical attention aren’t dependent upon how strong we are or how much we’re able to do. It’s better to address concerns early before things reach a point where significant harm is done or there are permanent effects.
This unhealthy way of enforcing strength falls in line with the concept of “toxic positivity.” They’re two sides of the same coin. As if being positive and strong will make oppression, inaccessibility, abuse, etc. magically easier to deal with or “take away its power.”
If you’re too busy feeling angry, depressed, or exhausted, you’re too busy to play the role of the inspirational figure to people around you. They look to you as a light amidst the darkness when you didn’t even know you were a beacon. They want a silver lining, a crumb of positivity and whether the intention is pure doesn’t change how invalidating it can be to be labeled negative for discussing your life.
You’re a real person facing real issues and sometimes it's too much to handle on your own, to take upright, and that’s absolutely okay.
When you’re multi-marginalized, you deal with so much harm and invalidation. There isn’t always a silver lining to be inspired by. You’re a real person facing real issues and sometimes it's too much to handle on your own, to take upright, and that’s absolutely okay.
We should be able to discuss these things and be met with understanding, attentiveness, or by simply being asked what ways we need to be supported. Being marginalized is difficult and there are so many axes of oppression that cause great amounts of harm to marginalized people. To walk through life pretending you aren’t as bothered by it is unfair. Oppression is traumatic and we owe it to ourselves and each other, to be honest about what these experiences are like. It doesn’t give power to oppressive groups by discussing the reality of harm they can cause.
Feeling your feelings and acknowledging the harm done to you isn't a weakness and it isn’t a strength either. They’re neutral, but very important, actions. Strength isn’t owed to anyone and it isn’t a toll you pay to be allowed to take up space.