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The Danger of the Strong Black Woman Trope

Antoinette Tuff (screenshot from WSB-TV)
Antoinette Tuff (screenshot from WSB-TV)

People should simply attribute Georgia school bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff's heroic efforts to her humanity rather than to her being a strong black woman, Tressie McMillan Cottom writes at her blog.

Tuff is an amazing woman who did what we can each only hope to be brave enough to do when so many lives are at stake. Many are attributing her immense bravery to a type of womanhood. I’d rather they attributed it to her humanity. For black women, there’s a difference …

Black feminists and scholars have detailed the tropes that have been used to marginalize and dehumanize black women, generally to the benefit of protecting the cult of white womanhood. Jezebel, Sapphire, Mammy, Welfare Queen, Ghetto Chick — all of these work through each other and historical conditions to create an ideology that legitimizes scientific inquiries into the genetic masculinity of black women as a reason to explain why we are so ugly, stupid, lazy, unmarriageable.

The Strong Black Woman caricature can seem like a disruptive counternarrative. In this, at least black women are respected for their remarkable ability to not cry at work, let a man get her down, be the mule of the world and still laugh loudly and talk sassily.

The problem with that is one of constrained ideologies. The relative destructiveness of the Strong Black Woman to the Welfare Queen can make the former seem positive. In fact, the myth of the indestructibility of black female bodies and psyches increases our chances of being engaged in the criminal justice system, being victims of domestic violence, being ignored when we report sexual crimes …

Tuff talked down a madman. That is brave, yes. But, it is also human. It is also incredibly risky and dangerous and should never have to be asked of a civil servant hired to manage the front house of a school. She did not stare down a man like a superhero. She stared him down like a human …


Read Tressie McMillan Cottom's entire piece at

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.


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