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Black Women Don’t Have To Always Be Strong Words by: Jacquelyn Gray

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On August 24th, actress and comedienne Leslie Jones was the victim of a hacking which entailed having her address, sensitive photos, and racist images sprawled on her official website.

For the veteran comedienne and SNL star, this wasn’t the first time she was targeted in a malicious online attack. She received backlash for the “Ghostbusters” remake like most of the all-female cast, but unlike her white counterparts, the attacks against Jones were more racist than sexist. Though Jones pushed back against her tormentors, she announced she was stepping away from Twitter (where most of the abuse occurred).

Leslie jones tweet

Jones hadn’t tweeted since the hack until yesterday and during her departure, the Twitterverse had varying reactions ranging from outrage to apathy. There was one common theme though, people wanted Jones to remain, or become, strong.

While many of these sentiments were well-intentioned, it speaks to a larger and deep-rooted standard of how Black women are expected to deal, or more specifically not deal, with trauma.

Popularized in the 1800’s, the Sapphire caricature depicted Black women as loud and domineering. Whites essentially utilized her boisterous presence to show how “slavery and segregation were not overly oppressive,” according to Ferris State University.

As the stereotype evolved through television, Black women were perceived as perpetually angry to the point of being ignorant and unintelligent. Meanwhile, the trope stripped them of their vulnerability, sensuality, and ultimately their humanity — an attitude very present in the insults hurled Jones’ way.

Over time, Black women were expected to just deal with hardship. Deal with racism. Deal with sexism. Deal with other forms of systemic violence, but never ever appear weak. And in that, is what we’re left with today. Jones and Black women as a whole are pressured to appear strong publicly and cope privately – if at all. Black women’s path to strength doesn’t include helplessness.

It’s a vicious cycle which affects their mental health. Studies have shown African-American women are affected by more severe and persistent depression. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) points out that only 12 percent of Black women seek treatment for depression. One common myth as to why so many Black women don’t get help is because it’s perceived as a sign of weakness. Yet, this notion isn’t limited to the mental health field. A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reported half of white medical students believed Blacks processed pain differently. Reasoning that Black people literally had thicker skin than whites or didn’t feel as much pain, these students “rated the Black patient’s pain as lower and made less accurate treatment recommendations.”

Jones’ situation proves that in the public’s eyes Black women cannot win. Black women are not allowed to be magical, proud, assertive, or sad unless we are in our own safe spaces. It is harmful to suggest any one of us to be strong during a painful time and so the best thing we all can do is stand with Leslie without placing an unhealthy burden on her.

Jacquelyn Gray is a New Jersey-based writer, blogger, and journalist who covers race, politics, and entertainment.
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