Black girls are socialized to be “strong” under the premise that strength will serve as a means of psychological resistance to oppression prevalent within American society. Although research demonstrates that Black women who internalize ideals of strength (independence, emotional restraint, and self-sacrifice) reap some psychosocial benefits, strength is linked to several psychological consequences. The growing understanding of these consequences have put Black women at a crossroads—forced to reconcile the wisdom of matriarchs with the detriments of being strong. This tension has pushed Black women, especially young women, to reconsider their relationship with strength and redefine its meaning for themselves. The current study sought to qualitatively examine Black U.S. college women’s (n = 220; Mage = 21.88, SD = 3.96, range = 18–48) varying perceptions of strength, specifically focusing on the meaning women attributed to being a strong Black woman and their attributions to others’ perceptions of strength. Our results revealed that although Black college women recognize that strong Black women may be perceived negatively (e.g., angry) by others, they continue to perceive strength as a relevant aspect of Black womanhood and have redefined strength in novel ways. We conclude by discussing how researchers may advance our understanding of strength and the ways clinicians may support women in defining strength for wellness.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Abrams, J., Maxwell, M., Pope, M., & Belgrave, F. (2014). Carrying the world with the grace of a lady and the grit of a warrior. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38, 503–518. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314541418.
Abrams, J. A., Hill, A., & Maxwell, M. (2019). Underneath the mask of the strong Black woman schema: Disentangling influences of strength and self-silencing on depressive symptoms among US Black women. Sex Roles, 80, 517–526. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-0956-y.
Anyiwo, N., Ward, L., Day-Fletcher, K., & Rowley, S. (2018). Black adolescents’ television usage and endorsement of mainstream gender roles and the strong Black woman schema. Journal of Black Psychology, 44, 371–397. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798418771818.
Ashley, W. (2014). The angry Black woman: The impact of pejorative stereotypes on psychotherapy with Black women. Social Work in Public Health, 29(1), 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/19371918.2011.619449.
Bailey, V. (2018). Stronger: An examination of the effects of the strong Black woman narrative through the lifespan of African American women. Dissertation retrieved from https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/communication_theses/119/.
Baker, T. A., Buchanan, N. T., Mingo, C. A., Roker, R., & Brown, C. S. (2015). Reconceptualizing successful aging among Black women and the relevance of the strong Black woman archetype. The Gerontologist, 55, 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnu105.
Beauboeuf-Lafontant, T. (2009). Behind the mask of the strong Black woman: Voice and the embodiment of a costly performance. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Black, A. R., & Woods-Giscombé, C. (2012). Applying the stress and ‘strength’ hypothesis to Black women's breast cancer screening delays. Stress and Health, 28, 389–396. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2464.
Brown, D. L., Blackmon, S. K., Rosnick, C. B., Griffin-Fennell, F. D., & White-Johnson, R. L. (2017). Initial development of a gendered-racial socialization scale for African American college women. Sex Roles, 77, 178–193. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0707-x.
Collins, P. H. (2000). Gender, Black feminism, and Black political economy. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568, 41–53.
Commodore, F., Baker, D. J., & Arroyo, A. T. (2018). Black women college students: A guide to student success in higher education. New York: Routledge.
Corbin, N. A., Smith, W. A., & Garcia, J. R. (2018). Trapped between justified anger and being the strong Black woman: Black college women coping with racial battle fatigue at historically and predominantly White institutions. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 31, 626–643. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2018.1468045.
Cox, V., & Ward, L. M. (2019). A wholistic view of Black women on scripted TV: A content analysis. Journal of Black Psychology, 45, 540–570. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798419887072.
Davis, S. M., & Afifi, T. D. (2019). The strong Black woman collective theory: Determining the prosocial functions of strength regulation in groups of Black women friends. Journal of Communication, 69, 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqy065.
Donovan, R. A. (2011). Tough or tender: (dis) similarities in White college students’ perceptions of Black and White women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(3), 458–468. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684311406874.
Donovan, R. A., & West, L. M. (2015). Stress and mental health: Moderating role of the strong Black woman stereotype. Journal of Black Psychology, 41, 384–396. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798414543014.
Dow, D. M. (2015). Negotiating “the welfare queen” and “the strong Black woman”: African American middle-class mothers’ work and family perspectives. Sociological Perspectives, 58, 36–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/0731121414556546.
Edmonson-Bell, E. L. J., & Nkomo, S. (1998). Armoring: Learning to withstand racial oppression. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 29, 285–295. https://doi.org/10.3138/jcfs.29.2.285.
Greene, B. A. (1990). What has gone before: The legacy of racism and sexism in the lives of Black mothers and daughters. Women & Therapy, 9, 207–230. https://doi.org/10.1300/J015v09n01_12.
Harrington, E. F., Crowther, J. H., & Shipherd, J. C. (2010). Trauma, binge eating, and the “strong Black woman”. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78, 469–479. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019174.
Harris-Perry, M. (2011). Sister citizen: Shame, stereotypes, and Black women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Henry, W. J., Butler, D. M., & West, N. M. (2011). Things are not as rosy as they seem: Psychosocial issues of contemporary Black college women. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 13(2), 137–153. https://doi.org/10.2190/CS.13.2.a.
Hill, C. E., Knox, S., Thompson, B. J., Nutt-Williams, E., & Hess, S. A. (2005). Consensual qualitative research: An update. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 196–205. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0126.96.36.199.
Houston, S. (2010). Prising open the black box: Critical realism, action research, and social work. Qualitative Social Work, 9, 73–91. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325009355622.
Jackson, F. Z., & Naidoo, K. (2013). "Lemeh check see if meh mask on straight": Examining how Black women of Caribbean descent in Canada manage depression and construct womanhood through being strong. Southern Journal of Canadian Studies, 5, 223–240. https://doi.org/10.22215/sjcs.v5i1.296.
Jerald, M. C., Cole, E. R., Ward, L. M., & Avery, L. R. (2017). Controlling images: How awareness of group stereotypes affects Black women’s well-being. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64, 487–499. https://doi.org/10.1037/cou0000233.
Jones, M. K., & Day, S. X. (2018). An exploration of Black women’s gendered racial identity using a multidimensional and intersectional approach. Sex Roles, 79, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0854-8.
Jones, M. K., & Pritchett-Johnson, B. (2018). “Invincible Black women”: Group therapy for Black college women. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 43, 349–375. https://doi.org/10.1080/01933922.2018.1484536.
Jones, C., & Shorter-Gooden, K. (2003). Shifting: The double lives of Black women in America. New York: Harper Collins.
Jones, M. K., Reynolds, A., Hill-Jarrett, T., Latimer, K., Garrett, N., Harris, I., & Joseph, S. (2020). The role of coping in the relationship between endorsement of strong Black woman schema and depression among Black women. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Mitchell, A., & Herring, K. (1998). What the blues is: Black women overcoming stress and depression. New York: Perigee.
Nelson, T., Cardemil, E. V., & Adeoye, C. T. (2016). Rethinking strength: Black women’s perceptions of the “strong Black woman” role. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40, 551–563. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684316646716.
Ponterotto, J. G. (2005). Qualitative research in counseling psychology: A primer on research paradigms and philosophy of science. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 126–136. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0188.8.131.52.
Porter, C. (2017). Articulation of identity in Black college women: Influences, interactions, and intersections. In L. D. Patton & N. N. Croom (Eds.), Critical perspectives on Black women and college success (pp. 88–100). New York: Routledge.
Robinson, S. J., Esquibel, E., & Rich, M. D. (2013). " I'm still here:" Black female undergraduates' self-definition narratives. World Journal of Education, 3, 57–71. https://doi.org/10.5430/wje.v3n5p57.
Romero, R. E. (2000). The icon of the strong Black woman: The paradox of strength. In L. C. Jackson & B. Greene (Eds.), Psychotherapy with African American women: Innovations in psychodynamic perspectives and practice (pp. 225–238). New York: Guilford Press.
Rosette, A. S., Koval, C., & Ma, A. (2016). Race matters for women leaders: Intersectional effects on agentic deficiencies and penalties. The Leadership Quarterly, 27, 429–445. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.01.008.
Schreiber, R., Stern, P. N., & Wilson, C. (2000). Being strong: How Black West-Indian Canadian women manage depression and its stigma. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 32, 39–45. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1547-5069.2000.00039.x.
Settles, I. H., Pratt-Hyatt, J. S., & Buchanan, N. T. (2008). Through the lens of race: Black and White women's perceptions of womanhood. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 454–468. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00458.x.
Shorter-Gooden, K., & Washington, N. C. (1996). Young, Black, and female: The challenge of weaving an identity. Journal of Adolescence, 19, 465–475. https://doi.org/10.1006/jado.1996.0044.
Smeets, E., Neff, K., Alberts, H., & Peters, M. (2014). Meeting suffering with kindness: Effects of a brief self-compassion intervention for female college students. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 9, 794–807. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22076.
Spates, K., Evans, N. M., Watts, B. C., Abubakar, N., & James, T. (2019). Keeping ourselves sane: A qualitative exploration of Black women’s coping strategies for gendered racism. Sex Roles, 81, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01077-1.
Stanton, A., Jerald, M., Ward, L., & Avery, L. (2017). Social media contributions to strong Black woman ideal endorsement and Black women’s mental health. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 41, 465–478. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684317732330.
Thimm, J. C. (2017). Relationships between early maladaptive schemas, mindfulness, self-compassion, and psychological distress. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 17, 3–17.
Thomas, D. (2015). Why everyone’s saying “Black girls are magic.” LA Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-everyones-saying-black-girls-are-magic-20150909-htmlstory.html.
Thomas, A., & King, C. (2007). Gendered racial socialization of African American mothers and daughters. The Family Journal, 15, 137–142. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480706297853.
Tyree, T. (2011). African American stereotypes in reality television. Howard Journal of Communications, 22, 394–413. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646175.2011.617217.
Walker-Barnes, C. (2014). Too heavy a yoke: Black women and the burden of strength. Eugene: Cascade Books.
Wallace, M. (1990). Black macho and the myth of the superwoman. London: Verso.
Ward, E. C., Clark, L. O., & Heidrich, S. (2009). African American women’s beliefs, coping behaviors, and barriers to seeking mental health services. Qualitative Health Research, 19, 1589–1601. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732309350686.
Watson, N. N., & Hunter, C. D. (2015). Anxiety and depression among African American women: The costs of strength and negative attitudes toward psychological help-seeking. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 21, 604–612. https://doi.org/10.1037/cdp0000015.
Watson, N. N., & Hunter, C. D. (2016). “I had to be strong” tensions in the strong Black woman schema. Journal of Black Psychology, 42(5), 424–452. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798415597093.
Watson-Singleton, N. (2017). Strong Black woman schema and psychological distress: The mediating role of perceived emotional support. Journal of Black Psychology, 43, 778–788. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798417732414.
West, C. M. (1995). Mammy, sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical images of Black women and their implications for psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 32, 458–466.
West, L. M., Donovan, R. A., & Daniel, A. R. (2016). The price of strength: Black college women’s perspectives on the strong Black woman stereotype. Women & Therapy, 39, 390–412. https://doi.org/10.1080/02703149.2016.1116871.
Woods-Giscombé, C. L. (2010). Superwoman schema: African American women’s views on stress, strength, and health. Qualitative Health Research, 20, 668–683. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732310361892.
Woods-Giscombé, C., Robinson, M. N., Carthon, D., Devane-Johnson, S., & Corbie-Smith, G. (2016). Superwoman schema, stigma, spirituality, and culturally sensitive providers: Factors influencing African American women's use of mental health services. Journal of Best Practices in Health Professions Diversity: Education, Research & Policy, 9, 1124–1144.
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest. The study involved research with human participants (adult women aged 18+). All women participated in informed consent and agreed to participate in the study.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Jones, M.K., Harris, K.J. & Reynolds, A.A. In Their Own Words: The Meaning of the Strong Black Woman Schema among Black U.S. College Women. Sex Roles 84, 347–359 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-020-01170-w