Black women face numerous challenges in U.S. society that cause distress and have been linked to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and body image issues. Beyond the universal stressors of everyday functioning, distress caused by insidious social forces such as racism, sexism, and economic injustice make the preservation of mental health a difficult if not impossible task for many Black women. Despite this grim reality, there are several areas in which Black women demonstrate positive mental health outcomes in comparison to women of other races or ethnic groups. Why do we rarely hear about the positive mental health outcomes of Black women in the United States?
A recent poll by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation (2011), which included interviews with more than 800 Black women, resulted in a complex portrait of Black women’s lived experiences. Nearly three quarters of participants in the study worried about having enough money to pay their bills, half identified racism as a big problem in the United States, nearly half worried about being discriminated against, and one fifth reported often being treated with less respect than other people. At the same time, nearly three quarters of respondents stated that now is a good time to be a Black woman in America, 67% described themselves as having high self-esteem (compared with 43% of White women), and 85% reported being satisfied with their own lives.
A recent focus on the obesity epidemic in the U.S. has highlighted Black women’s disproportionate rates of overweight and obesity. Although a legitimate health concern, media coverage often uses this statistic to further reinforce the notion of Black women as falling short of the European-based thin ideal. Yet despite the fact that Black women are typically heavier than their white counterparts, according to the WP poll they reported having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. In fact, 66% of Black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese reported having high self-esteem as compared to just 41 percent of average-sized or thin White women. This finding is in concert with previous studies in which Black women reported being more satisfied with their bodies even though they tended to be heavier than the White women. Such findings make a powerful statement about the resilience of Black women even when bombarded with messages about themselves as undesirable or less feminine. It also perhaps suggests that Black women adaptively tend not to internalize mainstream beauty and body weight ideals that will elude them.
And despite the recent media attention on Black women’s grim odds in regard to marriage, more participants in the Washington Post poll rated their career (88%) as important to them than being married (67%). This is evidenced by the trends such as a record number of Black women earning college degrees (U.S. Department of Education), 1/3 of employed Black women working in management and professional positions (Bureau of Labor Statistics), and the number of Black women-owned businesses doubling within the past decade (U.S. Census Bureau). The career-first attitude may be an adaptive coping strategy on the part of Black women who recognize the statistical shortage in potential Black marriage partners. But it could also be a result of many Black women’s childhood socialization when it was emphasized (by both mothers and fathers) that girls should not expect a “Prince Charming” to take care of them, that they should instead prepare to live independently and knock down obstacles as part of their everyday routine. In this way, cultural factors can serve a protective function in the mental health of Black women facing circumstances that other groups might deem catastrophic.
Furthermore, the cultural notion that Black women need not be as passive or dependent as White women extends beyond the Black community. A recent study on corporate leaders found that while respondents demonstrated negative reactions to both assertive Black men and assertive White women in the workplace, assertive Black women in leadership positions received less backlash and were indeed expected to be as assertive as White men. Thus, Black women may possess more latitude to express themselves once in leadership positions, though racism and sexism still make it extremely difficult for them to secure such positions in the first place.
Systemic stressors such as racism are pervasive, perpetual, implicate one’s sense of self worth, and impact multiple life domains (education, employment, housing, etc.) on a daily basis. Black women necessarily struggle against the consequences of such stressors as part of their daily survival. The strength that Black women demonstrate in doing so may be based in several cultural factors identified in psychological research literature, as these factors have been found to mitigate the effects of stressful situations.
The collective social orientation of African Americans, derived from African traditions of communalism and social connectedness, may help to reduce the impact of daily stress on the mental health of Black people1. Thus, Black women who embrace a traditional African worldview may experience some protection from the psychological distress of life in a racist society. Black family environments built upon a sense of collective and social identity, often times led by Black women, may promote resilience among Black girls and women throughout the lifespan. In addition, racial pride serves a strong protective function in helping Black women to identity, reject, and replace negative stereotypes and images of themselves presented by mainstream society.
Black women’s strong sense of spirituality and religiosity have also been tied to high feelings of self-esteem, optimism, and resilience despite socioeconomic hardships and racial prejudice. For Black women, religion and spirituality represent a communal experience that incorporates both psychological and instrumental social support. Perhaps this can explain why in the recent WP poll, 92% deemed “living a religious life” as very important to them. Spirituality is an adaptive resource that helps Black women to interpret the world, appraise stressors, and construct meaning in times of adversity2. The spiritual outlook traditionally embraced by Black women provides a basis for optimism, as well as a cognitive framework for understanding and dealing with stressful situations3.
So, as it turns out, the picture is not all doom and gloom for Black women in modern society. Despite ubiquitous degrading imagery, bleak statistics, and the reality of daily struggles, many Black women are managing to thrive.