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The Things about Normalizing: Black Women, Resilience and Superpowers

I recently watched the six-part mini-series, The Thing about Pam. In a nutshell, it's about a woman who could get away with murder(s) while living her best life—with the full consent of societal norms. What did her best life look like? Well, it included being able to murder a friend, stealing the life insurance money from "said" murder, framing the victim's husband, manipulating the deceased friend's family, perhaps murdering her mother—and, oh yeah, attempting to murder another individual— [in my best Keith Morrison, Dateline voice].

As I watched that series, I began to think about all of the incidences of "Pam-like behavior" that we have all observed play out during these last two pandemic years. Please know that some of us have been watching this mess for decades; however, the pandemic finally allowed other folks to see the 'ish. Thanks, yawl. The world currently calls out these Pam-like privileges using the infamous Karen pejorative. Pam's actions and support systems vary little from those who have been able to get away with murder, attempted murder, character assassination, harassment, and many other foul indignations. Dr. Robin HughesDr. Robin Hughes

Like Pam, these same individuals are allowed to wreak havoc and traumatize individuals because they have learned from experience that their actions are fully supported. They are both privileged and validated, and quite frankly, their actions are just plain old normal. In fact, on any given day, they can turn on televised news that often encourages, protects, and lauds what they do. So, while Pam and Karen live their best lives, including going on vacation, climbing mountains, doing yoga, getting their hair and nails "did," and buying property, they also get to map out a "to do" list which often includes getting in other folks' business and posing a threat when they feel a need to do so—which is daily. The Thing about Pam showed us all how effortless it was for Pam to live her best murderous life—all while guzzling down a daily 40 oz carbonated beverage from the local convenience store.

While not at all surprised, I was disgusted as I turned to no one in the room with me to say, "do you see this 'ish? Oh, never mind, I thought about our own workspace where the fragile engage in various forms of "The Thing about Pam" havoc." The complexities and complicities "reside" whether it be career-ending character assassination to actual life-ending traumas, there are no shortages of the self-appointed trauma-inducing overlords there to police, surveil and control specific individuals as part of their uncalled upon civic duty.  

Further, as I watched this mini-series from my own Black lived experience and through a CRiT lens, I thought about how Black women live in the same space. That lived experience typically comes sans the normative calls for "safety" care and protection that we [Black women] hear exist. While Pam is co-constructed in this US social normative space as the fragile, civically minded do-gooder, who needs protection from life's ugliness, Black women are just darned resilient; bless our hearts.

Black women are "built"-through societal social constructions- to never think about framing the hard work that we all do, including both physical and/or mental labor, with any inkling of being safe or comfortable. The assumption is that Black women don't need safety and comfortability because we were "built" to be perpetually strong. When those superpowers fail, we can permanently supercharge through a good shot of resilience.  

While I do not believe there to be malicious intentions [sometimes], such a description undermines Black women's intellect and places Black women at significant risks for all sorts of trauma and health-related issues. It signals a false narrative about "super powering" expectations for and about Black women. It imposes and demands that Black women expend significant mental and physical labor, inconsequential to what's best and typical for healthy living for any human. Above all, such a characterization blatantly suggests that Black women are "built" differently [see Tomika Ferguson's work on hyperfeminity and Black female athletes]. No medical attention is needed for the perpetual bot or superhuman.  

In other words, somehow, Black women are able to endure significant and insurmountable stress in perpetuity. We become faster than a speeding bullet,  more powerful than a locomotive; we leap over tall buildings in a single bound and yadda, yadda, yadda (quoting 1941 Superman, comic). Additionally, Black women are neither allowed to rest nor cry, and we certainly do not get to take peace-filled vacations [when we do, we have to keep a watchful eye and fight racism all up on the dang beach]. Our affect is supposed to be grim and stoic, and our muscles are tight, lean, and explosive. Heck, Black women do not really need to drink that 1.5 liters of water that everyone else is supposed to consume per day. We are just that resilient! Who needs darn water?

The thing about resilience and Black women? Sojourner Truth asked the same question. Ain't I a woman? The answer in 2022 is nawl; we still ain’t. We are expected to be powerful, robust, sturdy, magical, mythical, mystical, hardworking, nonfeeling, and infallible bots. To be clear, while we are supposed to be so darn resilient on the one hand, on the other, our intellect is second-guessed as leaders, thinkers, students, and teachers. Many of us grew up hearing that you must be twice as good to move in these streets. Nawl boo, that would need to be ten times better for this new crew to complete. Couple that with resilience and all the other superpowers, and there you have one life that is in no way sustainable for any length of time.

Please look at Black women's health statistics; they suggest precisely that. Black women are more likely to die from a stroke during childbirth, suffer from high blood pressure, battle with diabetes, and die far sooner than any other group of women. The world's focus on and rhetoric about our superpowers suggest that we hold some unique genetic code that serves as a more robust countenance and provides us with a more hearty bodily and mental endurance than the average person.

However, as I have noted in previous publications, resilience is often a response to some ism, racism, sexism, or perpetual racial trauma for Black women. Will Smith's brilliant work regarding Racial Battle Fatigue [RBF] provides a far better description and explanation of the trauma from the pressure of super womanhood. Smith describes outward signs of RBF that resemble battle fatigue experienced by soldiers on the frontlines. This includes, sweaty palms, stuttering, heavy breathing, heart palpitations, adrenaline rush, etc., etc. Smith also describes the mental and physical tolls such responses take on individuals. Importantly, like PTSD, he is clear that individuals cannot live everyday healthy lives under such stressful conditions for prolonged time periods. Notably, he states that when soldiers are overstressed, they are removed from the frontlines of battle. However, those who suffer from RBF live in such conditions, similar to frontline, until death. So, the thing about Black women that folks tend to forget…living at the intersections of racism and sexism creates a different "normal" – one that is stressful, trauma laden, demanding, and impossible to keep up with for any length of time. In other words, this thing about Black women …the universal expectation for the powerful, resilient, magical, hardworking, and ten times better Black woman pays little attention to the actual insurmountable efforts taken to live and exist in such a reality. 

Dr. Robin Hughes is Dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Behavior and professor of Educational Leadership|College Student Personnel at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 


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