What Is Strength?

I don’t mean physical strength, in the sense of how much you can lift, carry, the feats you can accomplish with your body. Instead, I am thinking of the more nebulous emotional strength, the thing we are supposed to carry inside, that thing we all aspire to have. We must be strong, must be role models, must show our strong sides; some of us more than others, as in the case of the enduring stereotype of the ‘strong Black woman’ or the stoic patient who endures pain and frustration without complaint.

Much of the work being done on conversations about strength and whether it’s really something we should be promoting as a social value is happening among women of colour, like Mia Mingus, Mikki Kendall, and Flavia Dzodan. White communities still seem very focused on the idea of strength as virtue, and when the subject is addressed, they tend to erase the generations of work done by women of colour when it comes to confronting attitudes, both internal and external, about the idea of emotional strength and how we interact with it culturally. Not only does this constitute reinventing the wheel: it’s also a profound act of erasure that is tightly bound in with highly racialised ideas about race, gender, and strength.

So what is strength? It’s the thing that allows us to be ‘independent,’ to do things without needing anyone’s help, to keep on going through tough circumstances without needing handholding. There is a sense in society of sneering at people who need or ask for help, like they’re pathetic for being unable to do something on their own. If they were strong, they could do it on their own, and people would have more respect for them. If a project requires collaboration to complete, it’s less worthy of respect than a single person’s accomplishments.

Thus, we have white women like Sheryl Sandberg promoting a strength-based model of social engagement and receiving a great deal of attention—both positive and negative—while collectives and groups of women of colour working on similar issues don’t achieve the same recognition. This is in part due to racism, and the idea that the contributions of women of colour have less value, unless they can be appropriated and repurposed by white women. But it is also in part due to the devaluation of community-based problem solving and the value of the collective.

A single tree standing alone is independent. It is also vulnerable; it has no shelter from the elements, no trees of other heights and ages to protect it from hungry animals, nothing to draw lightning away from its crown. It may be striking, or pretty, but it is not long for this world. A stand of trees, though, draws upon strength in numbers to create something larger than its whole, protecting other members of the stand and creating a supportive network. There’s a reason trees grow in forests, and not in isolation.

Much like trees, people can be stronger when they’re in groups, although few seem willing to admit it. Mingus has written about the important concept of interdependence, arguing that the opposite of independence isn’t necessarily dependence and complete reliance on someone else. That it is in fact possible to live a life of coexistence and support with another human being that could be more accurately classified as interdependent, with each of you bringing something important to the relationship, enriching it with your own contributions. Like an alloy, you bring out the best in each other to make something new and different.

What is strength, and why it is so heavily pushed on society, especially among women? One of the effects of the demand for independence and strength is isolation. Women are encouraged to strike out on their own, to not reach out for help, to not network and communicate with other women. They are told that they’re failures if they can’t be ‘strong’ and independent, and in the process, they are cut off from the potential for communities, collaboration, and organising. This sounds suspiciously like the tactics used to keep marginalised groups from rising up against their oppressors, as keeping people isolated and fiercely proud of it is a good way to ensure that they can’t work together on a common cause.

Strength, it would seem, is the thing that keeps us from learning from each other, because as defined by society around us, it is the thing that allows us to do everything on our own, without help. Be strong. You don’t need anyone else. You can do this. Narratives about strength in the West echo our bootstrappy way of life, the belief that it is both possible and necessary to thrive by working hard and focusing on yourself, not anyone else.

But this is not the only form of strength; many communities practice a more interdependent and community-based approach to life, and to definitions of strength. Those communities have a great deal to teach dominant society, if it’s willing to change the way it interacts with them and promote actual discussions, not endless appropriations of experiences, ideas, and strategies with no credit to their origins. The white community, struggling as it is with conceptions of ‘strength’ and how to rethink the way it conducts social justice, needs to pay attention to what people of colour are doing in their organising efforts; and must figure out how to change its perceptions of strength while crediting the rich and immense cultural history of the people who are already redefining it.

Asking for help is not a failing. Needing help is not a catastrophe. Recognising that different people have different things to bring to the table is common sense in a world filled with so many talented, skilled, fantastic individuals.