Issue #5: Group Identity and Belonging

Reimagining the stories we tell ourselves about group identity

This week was eventful for reasons expected and unexpected. On the expected side, I delivered two talks to a room of 400 people on Tuesday, probably the largest audience that I've ever spoken in front of. I also tried out a more narrative-driven format that really stretched me professionally. Unfortunately, this was not the only way that I was stretched. I awoke on Sunday morning, sicker than I've ever been and throwing up every 40-45 minutes.

Even though I doubted my ability to get through the two hour flight to Phoenix, somehow the idea of really sitting this out, taking a sick day and nursing myself back to health never seriously crossed my mind. It was like there was an inner voice yelling, "THAT'S WORK. You can't take a break. You just need to power through and get it done." Thanks to luck and a bunch of electrolytes, that ended up happening. But since I've returned, I've been thinking about how playing Superwoman was the wrong choice.

The Superwoman persona refers to the idea of feeling a need to be strong, self-sacrificing, and emotionless, says Yijie Wang, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University.

The superwoman stereotype is a tried and true trope or persona known by almost all black American women. It's drilled into you from early childhood and reinforced throughout adulthood. The idea that whatever burden is yours, you just carry and it and never put it down. And even if that burden isn't yours but someone's in your immediate circle, you carry it anyway without breaking down or complaining. Whatever obstacles you encounter, you simply keep pushing through. It's faith or maybe even delusion in your larger than life strengths. And lastly, you keep a brave face through all of it: never let them see you sweat or complain.

There's a certain amount of resilience that comes from the black superwoman persona. It's metaphorical wind at your back, propelling you to handle whatever challenges lie ahead. It motivates you to pursue success and achievement. There's also some evidence that it's protective against racial discrimination. I certainly have felt that pride, confidence and strength when thinking about the life stories of my mother and grandmother. Those stories of ancestry and lineage provide a sense of belonging to a collective of black woman much larger than any other I could find or build myself. In a certain sense, being superwoman is the definition for black womanhood. However, this inherited identity also anchors individuals with insane expectations for achievement and servitude that can lead to burnout and demands unrealistic and harmful emotionlessness.

So I've been curious about signals that show what comes after the superwoman as a way of exploring how other in-group personas may emerge to replace fading stereotypes and tropes.

The new story certainly dispenses with being self-sacrificing and emotionless and aims for visibility and wholeness. One area where you see the shift is language through public declarations such as giving up code switching. Social media academic Rachel Cargle is using her platform to enable self-directed education during Black History Month. In the initial post to kickoff the challenge, Cargle calls on those living with and benefitting from white privilege to #DoTheWork, rather than calling on black women to take on the burden of explaining and soothing.

This filtering of academic theory and praxis into the everyday digital domains when black women live and connect means that theories can be tested, challenged and modified far faster than in previous decades. We should expect to see the accelerated emergence of new languages and literacies as colloquialisms and academic terminology fuse and morph into language that surfaces tensions and empowers individuals to take actions and assert influence. We can 'already see this in terms like 'blackfishing' that call out white women for donning the physical attributes of black women for personal and financial gain.

Another area where you can see this shift is in physical space. After a video went viral of a black mother yelling at a white woman for leaning over her child without saying excuse me, one writer issued a 'hold your space' challenge to black women. In response to the lived experiences of public invisibility and lack of public respect, the author encourages women to go through the next 24-48 hours without shifting to accommodate people on the sidewalk and other public spaces and find strength in being seen.

Occupying public spaces in manners differently than expected is a mechanism for both asserting and shifting power. Although black women are the most educated major group in the United States as measured by bachelor’s degree attainment, black women still only earn 61 cents to the dollar as compared to white men. Although financial power is limited, there’s enormous normative and cultural power in visibility to reflect back the injustice of inequity as well as limiting suffering by coming together for commiseration and support.

Black Girl in Om creates both physical and digital spaces and encouraging practices that connect strength with mindfulness, self-care and community. By shifting norms around vulnerability and productivity, communities like Black Girl in Om reshape the superwoman persona by redefining what it means to belong to black womanhood. Online spaces like The Well aim to turn entrepreneurship and career climbing from a solo endeavor into a community experience.