Living Up to the Superwoman Standard

This writer says lives can be saved if the high expectations forced upon black women are reduced.

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(The Root) -- Back in the late '80s, Karyn White sang "Superwoman," in which she dispelled the idea of being a woman who's strong enough to withstand everything thrown at her, including mistreatment by her man. Ten years earlier, scholar Michele Wallace wrote the seminal Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, a black womanist manifesto unpacking sexism in the black community and the challenges that black women face in society. It was one of the first books truly critiquing the systems in place, ways of thinking and being that feed the myth of black women as the ultimate heroine.

Wallace's book has been on my mind a lot lately since learning of the recent death of popular writer Erica Kennedy. Social media was ablaze with tributes and remembrances of the woman who penned Bling and Feminista after the dynamic writer's death. In a 2009 interview with Rebecca Walker for The Root, Kennedy said that being a feminista is about "tapping into our unique female attributes and living authentically instead of defining ourselves by male standards of success."

I recall thinking at the time that the ability of black women to lead authentic lives is indeed a revolutionary act, no matter the decade and the way in which the information is presented -- whether as a song, scholarly book or novel. I also recall thinking that there's a struggle to live an authentic life in the midst of being defined by any and everyone in society, often in horrible ways (i.e., the stereotypes of black women being described as fat, unattractive, angry, mean-spirited, broke, uneducated, materialistic, sick, unmarriageable or masculine). It seemed like an uphill battle because black women are always managing someone else's expectations of who we are and should or shouldn't be. Many people, including other black women, often presume us to be "superwomen," to rise above the fray and keep it together in spite of the challenges we face, often because many know that if we don't, then who will?

Underneath the cape, the "S" and the badass knee-high boots is a human being and people forget that. In the same ways that black woman are not allowed to be fully human in popular culture, it is often the case in real life. The assumption is that we will throw on our proverbial capes and save the world from itself and sacrifice ourselves in the process, which is the dominant narrative for us onscreen and off. Interestingly enough, other black women set and promote this standard, which makes it more problematic. No, I'm not letting other folks, systems and structures of domination off of the hook, but internalized oppression is a reality, not just a theory or academic term.

I thought about my sister's best friend who committed suicide eight years ago and how we all thought she was "superwoman" prior to the devastating loss. This woman was brilliant, incredibly accomplished, financially stable, attractive, family-oriented and a community servant, yet she suffered silently from depression and mental illness. I believe that she was afraid to tell people about her challenges because it was not in step with her strong black woman mandate.

Look at what happens when "realness" or "vulnerability" is discovered. Folks go in for the kill (see Lisa Nicole Carson, Fantasia Barrino or Lauryn Hill); instead of being supportive and acknowledging their issues, we ridicule them for being "crazy." Isn't it just as crazy for folks to focus on Hill's tax issues, when they know that she has been struggling to hold it together over the years in a very public way? Should she have paid taxes? Absolutely. If you're struggling to get out of bed or to put one foot in front of the other each day, then maybe paying taxes should not be the first or last thing on your mind. In our society, there's no room for that analysis, especially as it relates to a black woman.

The popular notion that black women are "superwomen" has real consequences on our lives. This myth needs to be put to rest before more black women are laid to rest.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning news site the Burton Wire and chair of the department of communication and media studies at Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter.

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