Highly Sensitive Refuge
A strong, powerful Black woman in profile against a yellow background, with a sensitive expression on her face.

Sensitive Black Women Are Strong Black Women

As a Black woman, there are repercussions for ‘slipping up’ — by letting your sensitivity show.

I’m a highly sensitive person — someone who has a significant response to physical, emotional and social stimuli. I’ve learned over time that society isn’t always kind to highly sensitive people (HSPs). You see, the world is built for the strong and the resilient. It’s the people who don’t tremble at the first sight of blood or cry at the end of “Finding Nemo” who walk the path of least resistance. The rest of us — the sensitive few — are shamed for showing our humanity and revealing the shocking fact that we do, in fact, feel. Deeply. 

As a child, I remember being unfairly labelled as “dramatic” or “overly sensitive” whenever I reacted with hurt to a deprecating joke. My inability to watch violent slasher movies and survive a night of crazy clubbing and loud music quickly converted me into the “grandmother” of my friend groups. I was the drama queen who was sensitive to, or overwhelmed by, everything. 

But my experience as an HSP goes deeper. As hard as it is being someone who feels higher highs and lower lows than the average population, there’s little comparable to the difficulties of being a sensitive Black woman. For us, the world can be a particularly harsh place. Not only are we forced to navigate the intersection of systemic oppression that comes from being Black, but we must also steer around the disadvantages which arise from being a woman, as well. Misogynoir is very real.

The Paradox of Highly Sensitive Black Women

Tough skin is a Black woman’s saving grace — a necessary shield to project us from the microaggressions we often face. The world tells us that we’re inherently strong, and unfortunately, many Black women buy into that stereotype. Yes, we’ve collectively overcome great difficulties. But that doesn’t mean we should have to hide our real feelings in order to make everyone more comfortable. We have convinced ourselves of our invincibility so much that we often place pressure on ourselves (in addition to external social pressure) to live up to unhealthy standards. Allowing yourself to be sensitive as a Black girl is very difficult. 

Marverine Cole highlights in “The Guardian” how the ingrained image of the strong Black woman has fueled increasing rates of depression and self-harm among Black female populations. She explains, “When things get us down, we try to brush things off, while all the time groaning under the weight of the burden.” That one-dimensional view of Black women as strong is harmful, writes Shirley McLellan, who says, “We are emotional. We cry. We’re vulnerable, and we’re sometimes weak — although this often goes unnoticed by the wider world.”

The strong Black woman trope has been one of the reasons I’ve struggled so much with my sensitivity. Not only do others unfairly perceive me as intimidating and bold (often before I’ve even opened my mouth), but their prejudgment leaves little room to lean on those around me for support. Sometimes, I’m forced to hide my sensitivity or to apologize for feeling everything. Apologize for taking up space in the world. Apologize for simply being me. 

My Reality as a Highly Sensitive Black Woman

My sensitivity pops up in different ways, like when a friend forgets to answer my text or turns down an invitation to hang out. It may seem small, but I often feel like my world has ended. But there are bigger experiences, too. Many Black women have learned to brush off racism and negative insults, but I take every instance personally. And it’s even worse when I see a Black girl become a victim of domestic violence or police brutality or suicide. I feel gutted to the core. It feels like it’s happening to me, or like it could’ve happened to my sister, or my friend, or my aunt.

As a Black woman, the repercussions of slipping up — of letting my sensitivity show — feel grave. At work, we face harsher discrimination. Vulnerability is rarely rewarded in the corporate world, but as a Black woman, expressing your emotions may be the difference in advancing in your job because Black women are far less likely to be promoted to manager and we face more workplace discrimination. 

Being a highly sensitive Black woman in a world where Black women aren’t afforded the luxury of vulnerability, creates merely another hurdle for us to overcome. But I’m learning to value my sensitivity.

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Being Sensitive Is Not A Weakness

Contrary to popular belief, my sensitivity isn’t a weakness. In fact, it’s a strength. But unlike the stereotype of strong Black women, my sensitivity makes me strong in a different way. 

I’m empathetic.

We’re fantastic at sensing other people’s emotions, so empathizing comes quite easily to us. My extreme sensitivity means I feel extremely deeply and makes me eager to help those around me and bring smiles to their faces. And that kind of empathy is a strength that unifies — unifies me, my family, my community, and so much more.  

I care.

I wish that Black women were valued in society and that we opened businesses, started schools and lead entertainment companies more frequently. I wish we walked down runways, where we were the main attraction, and that we got to be the desirable love interest in more films. 

But the fact that Black women remain at the bottom of the totem pole — the fact that we still struggle to make a place for ourselves in this world — often brings me to real tears. Still, the fact that I care means there’s a fire there. And I choose to stoke it rather than extinguish it by pretending to be something I’m not. Caring is a strength that makes me a full person, rather than a surface-level idea.  

I feel, therefore I’m brave. 

I can’t just let it slide when it comes to injustice. My extreme sensitivity has led me to be an activist. Last year, I founded an online publication, Sorella Magazine, which aims to remedy the lack of positive representation for Black women in the media. The articles and pictures feature happy Black women living carefree lives, which is the antithesis of the chronically unhappy, overly dominant, and “strong” archetype of Black women. 

On the side, I run the podcast “Sit Down, Sis,” which expounds on the important topics discussed in Sorella Magazine and where I interview and support leading Black female influencers with an empowering message.

Although being forced to feel pain so deeply is often a disadvantage, it keeps me hungry for a better life and reminds me to stay consistent in my mission to improve the collective lives of Black women globally. The very fact that I feel so much is a reason for my business and it’s the reason for my daily activism to improve the conditions of others.

While being highly sensitive may be inconvenient at times, it is not a weakness. My idealism leads me to see the world as what it could be, not just as what it is. I see the potential of a more diverse, inclusive world. A world where all women are treated fairly without being invalidated for their emotions and a place where men can be vulnerable and actually feel.

The world is finally starting to learn more about high sensitivity, but the other facets of that experience — like being a highly sensitive Black woman — remain murky. If you’re like me and you’re at war with your emotions, thinking that being strong only looks a certain way, remember that it’s normal to feel deeply. You have permission to experience the full range of human emotions. There’s nothing wrong with being you.

If this article spoke to you, you should see Grace’s online empowerment magazine for black women, “Sorella Magazine.” Check out Sorella Magazine here. 

See Grace’s online magazine, Sorella Magazine.

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