by Amanda Hutchinson
Edited by Sarah DeSouza
Growing up, I never saw my mother panic. I remember attending funerals with her when I was young. She would look so poised, pressed skirt and flattering blouse, biting her lips to prevent herself from crying in front of me. As a child prone to passionate outbursts, I never understood why she wouldn’t just let it out. The idea of holding my emotions back seemed so unreasonable. If I could tell a 7 year old me anything, it would be that my mom does not look strong because she wants to be; but because the world expects her to be. I would let my younger self know that my panic attacks, rattling teeth and random tears were not weakness but instead sensory overload caused by my anxiety.
I am inherently anxious. My anxiety lives inside me, humming in my heart, making me bumble and stumble mentally. But, anxiety usually has one face in mainstream media: someone meek, usually white, who blends into the background and is comfortable doing so. Anxiety does not look like me, a petite Black girl, who surprises people when she says it out loud, as if they want to ask “You?” or “How?” I usually flash a dimpled smile and say something cheeky but on the inside I am relieved I hide it so well. The moments that I am hyperaware, reading body language, or fighting for something to say is quickly overshadowed by the fact that I am a Black girl. I am not “supposed” to have anxiety so I am never sure how to feel when people express their surprise.
In Blackness, there exists no room for anything other than the expectation that we are strong, the colour of our skin is believed to provide an immunity against what is perceived as weakness. So their surprise often feels like a validation of a reality that has always been denied.
I grew up understanding that as a Black woman, you never hold down your head. That “cute” and “bubbly” — what people seem to associate with confidence is a carefully constructed defense; my shell has cracks if you look past the shiny surface.
Every Black woman I’ve ever met has chosen to fight even with tears in their eyes. I am inherently anxious, but as a Black woman it must never show. I have had a panic attack nearly every time I’ve had to public speak but I always deliver my speech. We are always expected to choose fight over flight even when we are terrified and unsure. After all, “strong black womxn” aren’t allowed a moment to be unsure. At times I am jealous of how naturally other Black womxn appear to fall into the role of fighter, lacing their gloves, ready to attack adversity and leave the altercation seemingly unscathed. Other times, I am saddened by the knowledge that their mental toughness is likely a result of knowing that society has no safety net for Black womxn. Our insecurities and fears are never treated as valid, our exhaustion is never honored. Black womxn are supposed to be ride or die, charging into situations ready to fix it and get things done. But some of us aren’t like that, at least I’m not – “I am hesitant, I am nervous and I have anxiety.”
The stereotype of the “strong Black woman” has obscured the reality some of us experience. We are not immune to fear or fatigue, we are just depicted as warriors who charge into battle without trepidation. But anxiety is a skilled adversary. If I sit on something for too long I begin to question myself, self-doubt swallows me whole and I end up accomplishing nothing. Black womxn are not given the luxury of doing nothing, our drive to act may at times be the only thing keeping us from being completely overlooked. Forcing one foot in front of the other when your steps are unsure is the only way I and others like me have been able to keep moving, building and achieving.
My life up to this point has been a series of fearful leaps rather than carefully planned moves. These sporadic bursts of bravery where I adopt my mother’s trademark calm are the equivalent of holding my breath before ripping off a band-aid. Even writing this is a spur of the moment decision that I must do before I chicken out. I hope one day I can live in the confident moments more often than I reside in periods of self-doubt. I hope one day I can give a speech without feeling tears burn the back of my eyes until I hear the audience laugh. However, even without holding onto that unforeseeable day when my anxiety disappears behind God’s back, I know that I’m going to do something amazing. Even when my tongue feels like lead in my mouth, I’m going to find a way to make people hear me because that’s what we do.
Ending this, I wish I had more wisdom to give. Soul searching and mindful meditation have yet to unlock the secret to living with anxiety. However, what I have realized is that strength is subjective.
The image of Black endurance, emotional durability and unshakable courage doesn’t have to be you. YOU ARE ALLOWED TO JUST BE. There is strength in being yourself, your truest most authentic self. Live without apology and give yourself a break. Being young, being black and being anxious is exhausting but simply being all those things is a victory in itself.