Meghan could help black women shed harmful 'strong' trope, says Diane Abbott

The MP, along with other campaigners, praised the duchess’s frankness about mental health struggles in her Oprah interview

The Labour MP Diane Abbott and leading campaigners hope the Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey is a watershed moment that encourages black and mixed-race women to be open about their mental health struggles.

The trope of the “strong black woman”, which campaigners say is deeply ingrained in society, worsens depression and other mental health problems as it discourages people from speaking out and getting help, they added.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, which first aired in the US on Sunday, Meghan said she had suicidal thoughts during her time as a working royal.

“I just didn’t want to be alive any more. And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought. And I remember how he [Harry] just cradled me,” she said. When she asked the palace for help, she told Winfrey: “They said, my heart goes out to you because I see how bad it is, but there’s nothing we can do to protect you because you’re not a paid employee of the institution.”

Abbott said she wanted the “moving” interview to signal to black and mixed-race women that they need not suffer in silence. “The relentless negativity and abuse is awful. It’s not just any one article or tweet, it’s knowing that day after day, there are going to be abusive tweets and stuff on Facebook. Day after day, you’d open a newspaper and see an article, or a news story, which completely distorts your position. And above all, there’s a presumption that you’re not human.”

Abbott, who alone received almost half of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the 2017 general election, said: “One of the most upsetting things is when people, meaning well, will say: ‘Oh, but Diane, you’re so strong.’ Nobody is that strong. Nobody can take the sort of abuse that Meghan had to take and that I’ve had to take. And by dismissing it by saying: ‘Oh, black women are strong,’ that’s denying our humanity.”

Abbott said she had been encouraged to speak out against the abuse she has experienced as a black female MP. “For a lot of black and mixed-race women, when they can look at what we’re now hearing, what’s happening to Meghan, they can realise: if this can happen to her and if it could be so crushing and humiliating to her, I can face up to how that sort of thing makes me feel.

“We shouldn’t internalise the idea that we’re not supposed to feel vulnerable, we’re not supposed to get upset, and we should have people around us that we can confide in, or we can be open with. Otherwise, it’s incredibly corrosive.”

Natasha, the 22-year-old co-founder of All Black Lives UK, which was behind many of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, described the interview as important because it showed a mixed-race women speak candidly about feeling suicidal. “Finally, people are understanding that black women are affected by mental health issues. Most black women that I know have experienced – at some point – mental health issues, whether that’s depression, borderline personality disorder, or other disorders that aren’t spoken about.”

Natasha said she has found it hard to be open about her struggles with her mental health because of societal expectations of black women. “People depend on you when they’re sad to make them feel better, because you have this presence as a strong person. I get it as a compliment all the time that I come across as a strong person, but sometimes I just want to be a person susceptible to all sorts of feelings and susceptible to all sorts of behaviour.”

Guilaine Kinouani, a psychologist and author of Living While Black, said the trope of the steely, resolute black woman has far-reaching consequences: “from us being less likely to be seen as vulnerable thus not picked up for depression, for example, to being allocated the most difficult and risky tasks or clients at work, to being maligned when we attempt to be vulnerable, all the way to us being less likely to receive anaesthesia and pain medication.”

Natasha wants the interview to send a message to black women to be themselves. “It can be very limiting being a black woman. How much of yourself are you really being when you’re supposed to be strong all the time?”


Aamna Mohdin Community affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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