Juneteenth and the Myth of the Strong Black Woman

By Lauren Eldridge | June 18, 2021

Dear SPH colleagues and students,

Tomorrow, Black people across the country will commemorate Juneteenth (June 19), the day that enslaved people in Texas were notified of their emancipation in 1865. Yesterday, President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth National Independence Day a federal holiday. As Black people in the U.S., we continue to wrestle with what it means to live free and thrive on our own terms in America.

Recently, tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is a mixed Black and Asian woman, released a statement on Twitter saying that she would not participate in the media events at the French Open, where she was competing last month. Osaka said she was protecting her mental health and, after being fined and threatened with harsh sanctioning, she withdrew from the tournament and announced that she would be taking a break from competing. She revealed the difficulty she faced with the required press conferences, while also dealing with the depression and anxiety she had suffered for years. The backlash was immediate and fierce. The French Open published a tweet mocking Osaka’s situation that it later deleted. One well-known journalist called her an arrogant, spoiled brat. Other fans online echoed such sentiments, suggesting that Osaka should learn to deal with the demands of being a professional athlete, even to her own detriment.

Osaka’s experience underscores the peculiarity of oppression. Just as the parts of our identities intersect to create a whole person, oppressions intersect to create unique experiences for marginalized people. As the news came in, I was struck by how foreign it must seem to some people to see a young woman of color — who has a disability — exercise agency and prioritize her health.

The myth of the strong Black woman demands that we work through pain, discomfort, grief, and indignity and endure all forms of physical, mental, and emotional hardships with nary a word of complaint. We see this myth manifest in all parts of life from entertainment and athletics to politics, and even, healthcare.

Liberation is an ongoing journey and justice requires imaginative reorientation. Juneteenth is a reminder of the freedoms that we have as well as those we don’t. While we celebrate the fact that Osaka can do what she loves and be well-compensated for it, we lament the fact that she is still subject to harassment at the slightest hint of centering her own needs. She stands as a representation of many other Black women who feel compelled to perform with strength and resilience, despite feeling depleted.

This Juneteenth, I am focused on the liberation of Black women and how we can make room for ourselves in a hostile world. What might it mean to have the freedom to advocate for our own well-being and for others to respect it? How would it feel to be valued not for what we can produce, how we look, or how much we can withstand, but for simply being human? I challenge you to spend some time considering your relationships with the Black women in your lives and how you can demonstrate care that is authentic, comprehensive, and sustained. I invite you to consider how our policies, practices, and beliefs create unique intersections of oppression for Black women and how we can eliminate that oppression.

The School of Public Health has much work to do. We acknowledge the inequities at our school that perpetuate systemic forms of oppression. We also recognize that some people with marginalized identities have not felt fully supported at SPH. We hope as our strategic plan for antiracism launches in late July that our community is willing to help us change this situation. While the challenges may seem insurmountable, the energy that has been building over the last year should push us forward. Our collective responsibility is to each other, to help each other learn, grow, and flourish. This Juneteenth, join me in committing to putting the freedom, joy, and health of all Black women at the center of our thoughts and actions. And going forward, help us to dismantle the systems and beliefs that have kept so many people in our country from fully thriving.

In solidarity,

Lauren Jones
Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
School of Public Health

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