Black Women and The Martyr Complex

lonely-black-woman

So much for the myth of the strong black woman.

Black women in America have historically taken on the role of the martyr — one who suffers for a cause or belief. During and after slavery in the United States, black women sacrificed their own needs and well-being for the benefit of others.

Over time, many black women have developed not only the role of the martyr, but the mindset of the martyr. They have come to see themselves as the eternal victim, specially chosen to endure pain and sacrifice their happiness for others. In contradiction to their outward appearance of resilience and ability, some black women indulge in unending victimhood, and consider pain and hardship a basic aspect of their existence.

This martyr complex is easy to observe, if one looks in the right places. Magazines catered to black women, online forums and blogs where black women participate, and conversations among black women offer many examples. In such venues it is not uncommon to hear rants and complaints from black women on everything from beauty standards to career.

For every martyr, victimhood fulfills certain needs. What do black women gain from the martyr syndrome?

1. An explanation

Believing that one’s fate in life is to endure pain provides an explanation for suffering, if a simple and unchangeable one. If black women are destined to suffer, an individual black woman’s problems in life are simply the fulfillment of this fate. There is no need to reflect or determine if one’s problems are due to any personal failings. There is no need to improve.

2. A sense of belonging

People enjoy bonding and feeling like they are part of a community. They appreciate this sense of belonging even if their only tie to others in their community is shared trials and frustration. By joining together in martyrdom, black women feel less alone in any struggles they may be having.

3. The biggest loser

Martyrs gain a sense of self and identity from their suffering. No one suffers as much as they do, no one is as honorable in their ability to bear difficulties. The martyr is strengthened from being broken down. This sense of misery provides relief for black women. Even if they can’t win at anything else, black women can win at one thing — losing.

But no matter the benefits the martyr complex appears to offer in the short-run, it is more damaging than anything else. Martyrs hold themselves back from their maximum potential in life. They strain themselves mentally and emotionally by making experience of pain a life priority. Martyrs make life for those around them more difficult with their negativity and constant victimhood.

Black women would be better served by concentrating less energy on the victim complex and more energy on finding or creating solutions to any issues they may come up against in life. True peace and happiness are more uplifting than martyrdom.

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18 thoughts on “Black Women and The Martyr Complex

  1. During and after slavery in the United States, black women sacrificed their own needs and well-being for the benefit of others.

    I think you girls should start looking out for yourselves. Put yourself first and not the men…

    It is so weird for me that you girls in America would want this “martyrdom” since you can get out of it if you feel like it nowadays (from what I’ve seen). It’s not like that at all for a lot of women around the world..

    An explanation

    Everyone likes to be able to blame someone else for their problems..

    A sense of belonging

    Yeah… I guess it’s good for some people. I don’t “see” myself part of any community. Not the Afro Swedes community (really I moved all the way to Sweden to hang out with a all black crowed?) or something similar. I got my family and friends thats enough for me.

    The biggest loser

    I would not want to be around women like this , who can get out of their situation if they just felt like it. It’s an insult really.

    But I could be totally wrong, since I don’t know THAT much about how things work in US. But it feels like you guys should be able to pull yourself out of this whole “mess”. Is US really that bad that you can’t?

    I mean I did not went to half as nice a school as you guys got. My school still pretty much still practice “Bantu education” when I was a teen. You know, education that would limit blacks to be pretty much manual labor for the men and maids and housekeepers for the women.. But I did my best and got help from AA to further my education as did my brothers…

  2. Nkosazana,

    A person with a Martyr Complex doesn’t want to get out of their way of thinking and behaving, and lots have convinced themselves there is no way out. There is usually a way out but they either ignore it or simply don’t see it.

  3. IMO, the biggest supporters of the martyr complex tend to be women who co-opt that label in order to hide from the fact that they have personality flaws that have nothing to do with being a Black female. Sometimes, you just suck as a person, and people who don’t want to associate with you because of that aren’t necessarily projecting racism/sexism. Mostly it’s the whole “Debbie Downer” aspect that gets to me–be alone you’re whole life if you want, but don’t hate on me if I *gasp* admit that I enjoy being in my current relationship.

    I wonder if not having any brothers is why I wasn’t raised to see myself as allied to Black men as a group. I didn’t have to support any of them through racist incidents and such, so my Black men circle only extends to my cousins and friends, not Black men in general.

  4. Jasmin,

    “Sometimes, you just suck as a person”

    A little blunt. But, yes. 🙂

    You’re right about the martyrs trying to “recruit” for their cause and bring others down with them. They don’t like to see the opposite of their situation because that means that their situation is not inevitable and, horror of horrors, may have more to do with them personally and less to do with their gender/racial label.

    “I wonder if not having any brothers is why I wasn’t raised to see myself as allied to Black men as a group.”

    I have a brother, but he’s the only black man I see as a brother. I guess I just don’t get tied to unknown people based on superficial traits.

  5. This topic will definitely generate talk! I personally don’t get the “pay-off” for being a martyr because frankly the things you mentioned are not worth the price you have to pay.

    Now having said that I AM a strong, black woman and do not equate that with martyrdom. I look at my history – Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, etc and use those powerful sistahs as an impetus to reach my fingers as high as I can. I do not feel despised or downtrodden because I am a black woman even though I know that there are folks who will never like me for those very reasons. I see a lot of ink written about being an SBW is a bad thing, and we should give it up. I’m having none of that!

  6. Sherry,

    “I AM a strong, black woman and do not equate that with martyrdom…I do not feel despised or downtrodden because I am a black woman even though I know that there are folks who will never like me for those very reasons.”

    This is a constructive point of view, and certainly one others should try to adopt. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea: racism and sexism exist, and black women are in a unique position in that regard. But there is no reason to view yourself as a perpetual victim or give up on trying to improve yourself and your situation because of it.

    The “strong black woman” identity isn’t terrible, but it does come with consequences. One major consequence being that if people perceive you as strong as steel, they feel less of a need to treat you humanely and may even treat you harshly because they think you can take it. You can be strong without having to be a “strong black woman” or projecting that persona, if you understand what I mean.

  7. Alright sweet sistah. I’ll meet you half way. Some black women (myself included) probably tough it out more than we should. I could stand to ask for help a little more!

    Now if folks are treating me bad because they think I’m strong, that makes them ridiculous…

  8. Sherry,

    “Now if folks are treating me bad because they think I’m strong, that makes them ridiculous…”

    It’s not as a direct result, but a side-effect. Sort of like what happens with men many times: they are subjected to harsher (physical or otherwise) treatment than are women because its assumed they can handle it.

  9. Hah. My post is a perfect example of my bantu education … So messy. I should have read it before posting it, but I was in a bit of a hurry. I guess it could be worst, I could be channeling my inner Kasi girl and then you girls would not be able to understand anything lol.

    Strong black woman? I think I would not like having to be strong all the time…

  10. Actually I think SOME Black women AND Black men have a martyr complex. Let’s not forget the men and be biased here. It’s a Black thing that many of us need to overcome.

  11. Very very very poignant post. Very very apt in light of everything I’m reading whenever I venture on any Black female interracial (American) blogs. Their Martyr complex, as so rightly outlined here, boggs me down, makes me soooo depressed, and feel totally hopeless. I’m a fan of I/R romances and too many of them(in the beginning, ie) also projected this sort of behaviour. I thought, well, geez, one can’t even be flirty, ditzy, have not a care in the world besides getting the hero and girly in fiction!!!. The movies made by black producers reflect the same. TIRING!. I give up. Any young girl reading these blogs and wants to get out of that thinking, I’m willing to help (financially, emotionally), but I have given up posting my opinions on other blogs as their defence of this attitude is even more shocking as it’s so blatantly obvious and so many are educated!!!.

    If black women were truly strong, so many of them wouldn’t be having children (many from different men!!) out of wedlock. I remember a white guy posted on another blog how he loves black women, but so many he meet already have children and they’re younger than him and were never married!!!!.
    If black women were truly strong, they would nip sexism first in the bud as any intelligent woman knows, women are the first to suffer at the hands of men when a Country, community, home gets dire!!!.
    If black women were truly strong, they would take ownership of their sexuality so as to avoid that all over the world, in every black community, we have the highest infection HIV/AIDs

    Those are just three of the issues that for me make this “strong black woman” theory a myth!.
    Strong black woman……………………… MY HIND!.

  12. Just a story which I think is really telling:
    I have two female colleagues who’re black English girls, both married, with children, to wonderful Swiss men. We started a ladies night once a month, just so we could first get to know each other better, network a bit (both are in finance and quite career focused) and just have fun away from hubbies and hottie blonde guys(that would be me, lol). Anyways, our first ladies night out, an hour into our meet, this black guy(English. Parents from some African nation I can’t recall) comes over (of course we’re the only black people in the whole wine-bar) and introduced himself. The two English girls didn’t mind, but I was more cautious, as he asked questions that, in my opinion, were leading up to him spilling his sob story on us. So I had a bit of an attitude, whereby I told him directly that it was a night out for us to have fun and not shoulder any male problems. If he wants to hang with us a bit more, he’ll have to flirt, pay us tons of compliments, get our drinks and simply behave like a true gentleman would, not burden us with his issues (like if we didn’t have any of our own!). He took offence and left, whereby my colleagues turned to me, admonished me for my directness, but after I explained what they were doing, ie, enabling a grown man to give us his problems to shoulder, they really turned pale with disbelief that that was exactly what they were doing, UNCONSCIOUSLY. We agreed then that our monthly nights out will be only us having flirty, funny, educational, sometimes networking, nights. Received an email next day from one of them who wholeheartedly agreed with me that she does tend to enable black men and end up spending her whole evening out (a breather from her kids!!) listening to their problems instead of having fun!!!.

    Hope my post made sense. If not, am willing to clarify any questions.

  13. Nkosazana, your comment was fine. 🙂

    “Strong black woman? I think I would not like having to be strong all the time…”

    Indeed. It can get tiring. Even for those who are strong.

    Hi Elegance 🙂

    You said,

    “Actually I think SOME Black women AND Black men have a martyr complex. Let’s not forget the men and be biased here. It’s a Black thing that many of us need to overcome.”

    Yes, some black men do have a Martyr Complex. I call theirs the “Why you gotta hold a black man down” Syndrome, where they think everyone is against black men and keeping them from succeeding.

    This post isn’t about their specific case though, but about that of black women, which comes from a different place and manifest itself differently. There’s no bias here, but I don’t do too many topics on black men, in any case.

  14. Hi foosrock. Really great comment, thanks.

    “Very very apt in light of everything I’m reading whenever I venture on any Black female interracial (American) blogs…I have given up posting my opinions on other blogs as their defence of this attitude is even more shocking as it’s so blatantly obvious and so many are educated!!!”

    Yes, the Martyr Complex is not limited to uneducated or unworldly women. In fact, it is quite in evidence in some black women who attended some of the best schools in the country, have advanced degrees, and are very successful by any measure. It’s something that

    “I remember a white guy posted on another blog how he loves black women, but so many he meet already have children and they’re younger than him and were never married!!!!”

    Uh, hmmm. I guess it depends on where he is looking. I know plenty of black women in my age bracket who have never had children and don’t plan on having any until marriage. But I’ve been told my background isn’t reflective of the “norm”, so… I definitely agree that OOW births are a problem both for a woman personally, and in terms of the trickle down effects in society.

    “If black women were truly strong, they would nip sexism first in the bud as any intelligent woman knows, women are the first to suffer at the hands of men when a Country, community, home gets dire!!!”

    You have to understand that black women are/were taught to see racism as a much bigger issue than sexism. And, in the history of the U.S., one could argue that it was. So while there are a few womanists, they are greatly outnumbered by the “race woman” type of black woman.

    But you’re right that this sort of thinking is problematic because it causes black women to not notice or care as much about the blatant sexism and misogyny directed towards them. Which is a huge problem; at least as big as racism (and connected to it, in a peculiar brand of what has been named raciomisogyny). The “black community” never had any formal Feminist Movement, and that is quite clear today.

    Your story made sense, and is quite typical. Black women think that they should help black men with their problems (even before tackling their own problems) — that it is their duty. In fact, they don’t even think about it: they just do so without much prompting. And that is part and parcel of the Martyr Complex.

  15. foosrock!, your story made perfect sense. I’ve witnessed a similar dynamic before, and it is off-putting, to say the least. Some black men see a group of black women together, and automatically assume that he can “lay his burdens down.” My response has been different, though, as I’m not one to tell other adult women what they should or should not be doing. My mindset has been, “If they want to entertain that, so be it,” and I proceed to tune him out or, if applicable, exit stage right.

    As for the martyr complex, SBW syndrome, I think #2 feeds #1 and #3. I’m not blind to the racial hierarchy within the United States; at the same time, I can’t agree with the mindset of “black women are the most ill-treated/disregarded/ least respected/(insert dramatic, negative attribute) in the world.” That mindset is incredibly self-involved and ill-conceived. Yet, go to a blog where many black women frequent, and watch the comments roll in on any post that directly or indirectly speaks to that topic. Chronic lurkers are cajoled out of their silence with it.

    It’s really sad, as I think it’s a cycle that is hard to break, particularly if that’s the mindset you grew up with, and the women that surround you reinforce that. Class plays a large part of this as well. I’m willing to bet that the majority of black women who sincerely buy into the mentality either are or were born working class or underclass. They may have economic or social mobility, but a certain type of thinking permeates their existence. It’s a conundrum – they may not be able to directly relate to their previous class, but can’t fully embrace their transitioned class. Martyring is a great way to obtain a sense of belonging.

  16. Daphne,

    ‘I can’t agree with the mindset of “black women are the most ill-treated/disregarded/ least respected/(insert dramatic, negative attribute) in the world.” That mindset is incredibly self-involved and ill-conceived. Yet, go to a blog where many black women frequent, and watch the comments roll in on any post that directly or indirectly speaks to that topic. Chronic lurkers are cajoled out of their silence with it.’

    Yes. Those topics are always the most popular. It’s really interesting. Because a topic about a successful married black woman living in Europe will get less than a third of the views and comments than a topic about how everyone is “above” black women.

    “It’s really sad, as I think it’s a cycle that is hard to break, particularly if that’s the mindset you grew up with, and the women that surround you reinforce that.”

    True, very true. If you’re surrounded by women that suffer from the Complex themselves and encourage that mindset in others, it can be hard to get out of it.

    But you have to realize that there is little positivity in this sort of thinking, and you’re only bringing yourself down. Some martyrs think they are just “being realistic” and not truly affected by their mentality, but in fact they are very affected, and it shows. They can adopt a “me against the world” mentality where they fight anyone who tries to help, or become depressed over what seems to be small issues.

  17. Yes, the Martyr Complex is not limited to uneducated or unworldly women. In fact, it is quite in evidence in some black women who attended some of the best schools in the country, have advanced degrees, and are very successful by any measure.

    This is so true. I don’t think many black women even realize that they have a Martyr Complex. I might not have noticed it myself (or any expressions of it in my own life) if not for BWE and other bloggers pointing it out.

    I was just on another blog — a new one — that’s promoting an upcoming book by a black female author. The book is getting a lot of advance play in the blogosphere and I admire the author… she’s well-educated and moves among movers and shakers. I want to buy her book because I like to support black women doing thangs, you know?

    Now, I’m not so sure. A recent blog entry was about interracial dating and she said she didn’t know if it would work for her because of how committed she is to black community uplift and “healing” black families, so therefore, a white guy probably wouldn’t fit in well with that.

    Then she got into the whole, “black women will have to deal with hair questions, why we don’t swim questions, cultural clashes,” thing.

    I’m sorry, but WHAT? Really? Look, no one has to date interracially, but please don’t speak for me, ummkay? And how silly do you look being single and never married at 43 (and wanting to be married) and then mentioning your brother who is interracially married and has a kid and yet say that black women are going to struggle to date IR? Or that IR gets in the way of “community uplift?”

    How is that really all working out for you?

  18. Bunny,

    “I don’t think many black women even realize that they have a Martyr Complex.”

    Scary as it is, you’re probably right. That’s why I wrote this post.

    ‘I was just on another blog — a new one — that’s promoting an upcoming book by a black female author… A recent blog entry was about interracial dating and she said she didn’t know if it would work for her because of how committed she is to black community uplift and “healing” black families, so therefore, a white guy probably wouldn’t fit in well with that.’

    : /

    I would not buy her book, but that’s just me. IME, The Martyr Complex is quite common among black women who aren’t fond of interracial relationships for black women. And I wouldn’t support anyone who is promoting the Black Women Martyr Complex.

    ‘Then she got into the whole, “black women will have to deal with hair questions, why we don’t swim questions, cultural clashes,” thing.’

    I don’t mind discussing hair with a non-black partner. As long as they aren’t being impolite about it (which they wouldn’t be, if they were my partner), I am happy to educate and have my partner learn more about me.

    As far as cultural clashes, I haven’t experienced any, really. As I said in another post, I haven’t found I have any more in common with black guys than I have with white guys, Asian guys, etc. The guy I had the most in common with culturally was mixed, Jamaican mother/Irish father, because he grew up right outside of my hometown.

    And plenty of black women swim.

    “no one has to date interracially, but please don’t speak for me, ummkay?”

    Exactly. It’s always the “we” and I think, “We? No, you.”

    ‘And how silly do you look being single and never married at 43 (and wanting to be married) and then mentioning your brother who is interracially married and has a kid and yet say that black women are going to struggle to date IR? Or that IR gets in the way of “community uplift?” ‘

    Why did I know this was coming?!?

    It’s so interesting, indeed, how black women who have brothers who are interracially involved, still have mainly negative things to say about black women and interracial relationships. So the only black people who should support the “black community” are black women and the only black people who “can’t” date interracially are black women?

    It’s the ultimate Martyr mentality.

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