Author: Oya Heart Warrior

I founded Unapologetically Black Yoga to build compassionate spaces for Black people to move and breathe freely beyond the white gaze. As an experienced racial trauma, yoga teacher, I believe it is vital to offer Black people non-linear movement that is not confined to a mat or defined by how it looks. Learning to slow down, sprawling out and connecting to what we sense and feel, is far more important to a vibrant people who have been overworked, displaced and systemically dehumanised.

Oya Heart Warrior (Msc CounsPsych, Registered trauma informed Yoga teacher, Reiki Master)

http://unapologeticallyblackyoga.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

Black Women Don’t Bruise, Cry or Die When We Are Hurt?

Quite rightly, there was a national outcry when police officer Wayne Couzens, was recently convicted in the UK, for the savage rape and murder of Sarah Everard. This heinous crime made me wonder how many people know the name of Valerie Forde? In 2014 Valerie Forde and her 22 month old daughter were horrifically murdered by her ex-partner.

Six weeks before she was killed, Valerie, a Black woman from Hackney, told the police that she feared for her life, because her ex-partner had threatened to set the house on fire with them inside. The officer’s note recorded the incident as a ‘threat to property’ and failed to intervene to protect Valerie and their young infant. How is this possible? I mean, how the hell is this possible?

Recent research from Refuge the largest (funded) provider of domestic abuse services in the UK, documented that when Black women report domestic abuse to the police, they are less likely to be perceived to need specialist support – denying them access to vital lifelines for their prospect of survival.

Unapologetically Black Yoga has proudly tended to Black women, in solidarity with Sistah Space, a domestic violence charity, set up in response to the murder of Valerie Forde. The dedicated staff support Black women of African-Caribbean heritage to feel inherently valued and protected from abuse. Rose Lewis from Sistah Space says:

“Too often, if you go to a police station, you don’t get beyond reception. Some officers say: I don’t see any bruising…It’s because of our black skin”.

If the police can’t even see the physical bruises on a Black woman’s skin, what hope do we have that they will see our psychological ones, when we are widely perceived to be so strong? Most domestic abuse doesn’t leave any bruises, because it’s about the perpetrator systematically messing with your head, to undermine, intimidate and control you. I know from personal experience, that many ‘Strong Black Women’, are isolated behind closed doors, coping alone with self-doubt, intense fear, and deep shame – all psychological effects of coercive control. Coercive control is a criminal offence under the new Domestic Abuse Act 2021. We have a right to be protected from it, even if we are perceived to be ‘Strong Black Women’: Our bruises may be hiding in plain sight.

The Phenomenon of the Strong Black Woman – A Blessing and A Curse

The phenomenon of the ‘Strong Black Woman’ has long been a revered archetype in the Black community. She is:

  • Feisty
  • Unbreakable
  • Self-sufficient
  • Fearless
  • Powerful

Obviously, we can’t reasonably live up to this superhero image, but we are certainly under a lot of pressure to die trying.

Psychologist, Cheryl Woods Giscombé, describes how the Black ‘Superwoman Schema’ is a social historical legacy, that has been passed on by our foremothers with the imperative to survive.

She describes the five characteristics of the schema as: –

  • perceived obligation to present an image of strength
  • perceived obligation to suppress emotion
  • perceived obligations to resist being vulnerable, or to need help from others
  • a motivation to succeed despite limited resources
  • a prioritization of caring for others over and above self-care

She notes that these high effort coping strategies, are often a façade of strength that cost Black women their health to uphold.

The Ancestral Cloak of Protection, The Racist Shroud of Neglect

I believe the superwoman schema needs to be unpacked into its survival qualities, and its dehumanising qualities, to properly understand our complex relationship to it as Black women. The former, acts an ancestral protective cloak, the latter, a cursed shroud of racist neglect.

My own mother primed me for my ancestral cloak of ‘Strong Black Woman’ protection, before I could even walk properly. As a child, I literally put on her big, ‘church best’ shoes, and modelled her steadfast power with wobbly laughter. I witnessed her sacrifices causing irreversible damage to her health and personal happiness.

Yet, I felt I had to be like her, and unwittingly passed this ‘cloak’ onto my own daughter – depriving her of the wisdom to prioritise wellbeing; show vulnerability or depend on support from anyone but oneself. In my relationship choices I didn’t centre my self-care. In my feverish pursuit of security for my family, I was single minded and didn’t rest. Is it any wonder I became ill? Is it any wonder my daughter became way too strong, way too young?

She was with me, this teenage tower of precocious strength, when I had to be urgently hospitalised in a foreign country. My body stole my holiday from me, wailing, ‘we’ve had enough’, as my whole digestive system ground to a life-threatening halt.

My petite, 95lb daughter, did her best to cover for me – impersonating the strength I wish she didn’t need. But the truth is, my life depended on it. Emergency medical treatment was being denied to me because I was perceived to be much stronger than I was – why couldn’t they see that I wasn’t wearing my ‘cloak’? I was defenceless – I mean, I was passing out and incontinent – I couldn’t protect myself or my daughter, yet I was neglected and left soiled in excruciating pain for hours.

Too weak to cry and too delirious to care, I fretted that my resilient, young daughter, hadn’t eaten for nearly 24 hours – but nobody was looking after her – couldn’t they see how small she is? I saw my teenage self in her fortitude – fleeing from abuse into homelessness – prematurely looking after myself when no one else would.

The double tragedy is that Black women have to be strong to survive, but we are also ascribed superhuman strength, that justifies our neglect and lack of protection. Even when our lives are at risk, we are regarded as stronger than we have the human capacity to be.

Strength, for the Black woman, is a duty of survival and a curse of the oppressed.

Uncoupling Strength from Survival in Unapologetically Black Yoga

Over 85% of the Black women attending our racial trauma sensitive yoga, cite stress and emotional troubles as the main reason for attending. They often feel tension in the neck, shoulders, lower back and joints. High blood pressure is disproportionately higher for Black people, so we need to be very careful with inversions and holding strong yoga positions. Fibroids are common for Black women, so we need to be aware of putting pressure on the stomach and minimise prone positions.

An Unapologetically Black Yoga class is a completely unique experience of yoga: We invite ease in the body and mind with integrated, non-linear movement, that centre choice, intuition and Black Body Joy. Our all Black, supportive space, calls to the wisdom of the heart, to slowly uncouple strength from survival. Our spiritual practice explores the ‘strength’ of: vulnerability, multi-dimensional support, and rest, using: movement, meditation, affirmations of collective belonging, and exercises of tender care. We welcome our rhythm, our sound, our vibe.

We do, however, deeply respect the protective legacy of ‘the cloak’ as an inter-generational necessity; passed on for Black women’s survival. We support this with practices that ground us with the earth, energise us with the sun, and welcome our ancestors to embrace the ‘tender strong’ Black woman, to be wholeheartedly supported in her power.

This Is What Black Women Say: –

“I’ve attended several racial trauma sessions which were all in the head. What I enjoy and appreciate about your sessions is that you take the practice into the body, into the breath, and we are invited to synchronise our breath with our movement. I find this practice much more impactful, where I am able to shift and dissipate long-held energy blocks. I call this healing!!!!”

“It feels like going to church – but only the good bits, body and soul set free in a safe community.”

Tips to help a Strong Black Woman

Firstly, recognise that it is exhausting to carry the mantle of strength, and frightening to be neglected due to perceived superhuman strength. When we over identify with the image of the ‘Strong Black Woman’, we abandon ourselves to a legacy of survival exploited by racism. However, it’s important to acknowledge that we are in a double bind – declining the role, can leave us prematurely vulnerable, and is often met with abrasive disdain and self-admonishment for not performing.

Attacked for being ‘a selfish sociopath’ and accused of having a ‘victim complex’ – gymnast Simone Biles, was criticised for withdrawing early from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics on mental health grounds. In the aftermath of sexual abuse at the hands of the team’s jailed doctor, she feared she’d lose focus and leave the games on a stretcher, she said:

“…one morning, you wake up, you can’t see shit, but people tell you to go on and do your daily job as if you still have your eyesight… as a Black woman, we just have to be greater… even when we break records and stuff, they almost dim it down, as if it’s just normal.” – (The Guardian 28 Sept 2021).

The ancestral ‘protective cloak’ passed on to Black women for our survival, means we may not be able to readily give it up. It may be difficult for us to recognise we need help, much less ask for it. We may also signal our vulnerability in a ‘strong way’. Be patient – this is the armour of inter-generational, racial trauma.

  • When we do send smoke signals – acknowledge our load, and offer help
  • When our signals are not clear – acknowledge our load, and offer help
  • When we don’t send signals – acknowledge our load, and offer help

We will appreciate sensitive efforts to lighten our load, without undermining our value. We will unconsciously tune into everything about you and your environment, for cues of safety and capacity to hold the ‘strong space’ for us, so we don’t have to. You will know when we feel safe – we will start to let go of what we are holding – bit by bit, while checking that the necessary cues of safety are present and maintained.

Please don’t call me a ‘Strong Black Woman’ when it’s not a choice

It is vital to understand that our protective cloak is not a fashion accessory we can choose to leave at home because it doesn’t match our shoes. It represents an ancestral toolkit of survival. So please don’t shoehorn us into vulnerability, especially when this may leave us unprotected from a world that fails to protect us or recognise that we too can be fragile.

There is no excuse to neglect our basic human needs for support, protection and safety. There is no excuse to dehumanise us with racist stereotypes of superhuman strength that fail to see our long, long history, of greatness and inter-generational, strong, silent tears.

In the words of a ‘tender strong’ Black woman attending our practice: –

“I have been hardened. We all have been forced to harden and then judged for our hardness! Thank you for holding space for this softening for me and everyone who comes. It’s vital work and I wish I had started sooner but then, how could I?”

Black People of African descent are welcome to join our next Unapologetically Black Yoga class online here

Petition for Valerie’s Law

Sistah Space is campaigning for Valerie’s Law to make specialist training mandatory for all police and agencies to better understand the cultural needs of Black women affected by domestic abuse. Please support this important initiative by signing the petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/57841

Donate to Sistah Space if you can here and please mention Unapologetically Black Yoga.

Getting Help – You are not Alone

Research published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates that 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime. Sistah Space research showed that 86% of African and Caribbean heritage women in the UK have either directly been a victim of domestic abuse or know a family member who has. If you need any support or information around domestic abuse (which includes psychological control, intimidation, harassment, physical threat or actual harm from an intimate partner, an adult child, or your family carer), please ask for help. You deserve it.

If you are in immediate danger call the police on 999 and say you are in immediate danger.

You can contact the Freephone 24-Hour UK National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247 or click here to visit their website (access live chat Mon-Fri 3-10pm). They can signpost to specialist services for Black women in different parts of the UK and abroad.

Sistah Space based in London, works directly with Black women affected by domestic abuse – note this is not a 24-hour immediate response line. Click here to Contact Sistah Space.

 

Southall Black Sisters work with Black women of African and Caribbean heritage and Asian heritage. Note this is not a 24-hour immediate response line. Click here to contact Southall Black Sisters.

 

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