Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) stands in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this fall.


Anyone who doesn’t know that Rep. Maxine Waters is not to be trifled with has not been paying attention.

A few weeks ago, during a congressional hearing, the California Democrat silenced the U.S. treasury secretary and gave voice to legions of exasperated women by repeating the phrase, “Reclaiming my time.” She has been an unyielding critic of President Trump, calling for his impeachment. The president’s supporters have pushed back hard, disparaging her record in Congress and, in one highly public instance, her appearance.

But Waters, 79, has not seemed shaken by the blowback. As she declared Tuesday night after receiving the social humanitarian award at BET’s Black Girls Rock ceremony, “I’m simply a strong black woman.”

The crowd of mostly black women roared in agreement. Waters is perhaps the most popular fighter in “the resistance” against the Trump administration, especially to millennials, who have affectionately named her “Auntie Maxine.” Her signature visage — a disapproving glare over the top of her glasses — has been printed on T-shirts, and her retort to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin became a social media hashtag and the inspiration for a gospel song. When I interviewed her in April for a profile, she seemed confident, resolute — strong.

Yet as the celebration continued on social media, with memes quoting Waters’s self-affirming statement, I winced, as I thought about what it means to be a strong black woman.

When it’s time to rumble, everybody looks to you to take the first swing. And if you don’t show up, some folks are upset or suspicious, wondering whether you’ve lost your super powers or maybe cut a deal. And you have to calibrate that show of strength just so, or you become marginalized as an angry black woman.

Being a strong black woman can be physically and emotionally exhausting.

Kaila Story, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Louisville, said that people use the phrase in the most positive and affirmative sense. But it carries historical and present-day connotations that “pigeonhole black women’s images.”

“I don’t think Maxine meant any harm, and I saw it as an affirmation of herself,” Story said. “But in these times and especially in this climate, with all of the violence affecting black girls and women constantly every day, we need to leave room for a more holistic picture and understanding of who we are as human beings, not stereotypes.”

The term “strong black woman” has been used to laud the bravery of historical heroines such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. But it also has been abused in popular culture, from the tart-tongued, emasculating Sapphire character of the 1950s “Amos ‘n Andy Show,” to the more contemporary works of comedians and filmmakers such as Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry, who don drag to portray cartoonishly powerful black matriarchs.

Either way, the dominant image of the boss black woman is an incomplete portrait. What of those black women who, because of oppressive or unsafe circumstances, are unable to push back. What if the strong black woman needs to take a sick day or a vacation?

“It doesn’t leave any room for vulnerability, to say, ‘Hey, I quit today. I’m tired. I’m resting today,’ ” Story said.

The overexposed image of the strong black woman also puts African American girls and women at risk for violence and harsher treatment by society. Story cited a recent study that found adults see black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection than white girls. Black girls are disciplined more harshly, in schools and in the juvenile justice system.

“Violence becomes rationalized for black women and care and tenderness goes out the window for black women and girls,” Story said.

In recent years, when black women have been the dominant faces in politics and popular culture, we have been reminded that even at the top of their games, black women are not bullet proof. Beyoncé, one of the most successful female artists in history, addressed the pain of her husband’s infidelity via her album “Lemonade.” Serena Williams is constantly a target of racist and sexist comments about her body type and dominating tennis game, and recently has had to endure bigoted taunts directed at her unborn biracial child. Michelle Obama publicly acknowledged last month the “small tiny cuts” that she lives with, inflicted by people who could not accept the notion of an African American first lady.

“I’ve been called a strong black woman before. I think people who use it mean you have a developed racial consciousness, you are deliberate and intentional about the things you say and the things you advocate for,” Story said. “I think people honestly feel it’s an affirmation, a compliment and are unaware of all historical and somewhat present ramifications of what that statement really means.”

Waters, in her speech Tuesday, indicated that she does understand the challenge of being a strong black woman. She told the crowd that her antidote for the “right-wing haters” who come after her is “the love and respect shown to me by black women.”

“I am you and you are me,” she said. “We have power. We have influence. We can do things that others have told us we can’t do.”

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