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Black Women Vs. ... Stereotypes

Updated on September 27, 2013

Introduction

The following quote from the book, Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D., is as painful as it is revealing:

"...the reality [is] that no matter how intelligent, competent, and dazzling she may be, a Black woman in our country today still cannot count on being understood and embraced by mainstream White America." (p. 2)

The quote is revealing because, at this time in American popular culture, it appears that Black women are everywhere. One would think that Black women are finally being celebrated instead of denigrated.

For example, Kerry Washington is receiving critical acclaim and an Emmy nomination for her work on ABC's Scandal. Another example is the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. She is cheered for her style and grace, as well as her Let's Move campaign to combat childhood obesity. Oprah Winfrey runs a television network after hosting a successful television talk show for 25 years. Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph. D., hosts a self-titled weekend morning show on MSNBC. By all accounts, it appears that Black women are finally receiving praise equal to that of their White counterparts. ... Right?

Wrong. Dead Wrong.

The quote is still painful, especially after re-reading it. I will never forget how Michelle Obama was downgraded to a "baby mama" and another "angry Black woman". She continues to be reduced to nothing more than a leech and a freeloader. Kerry Washington is an accomplished actress, but I dread the moment when she is reduced to nothing more than a Jezebel for her role as a political fixer on Scandal. Both Winfrey and Harris-Perry have been attacked for sharing their opinions. It never fails; whenever a Black woman takes a dozen steps forward, there is always someone or something to yank her two dozen steps backward.

No matter what Black women achieve, there is always the danger that we will be reduced to crude and monstrous caricatures; rendered invisible; or judged as inferior. Speaking of stereotypes and caricatures, Black women are still, to a grave extent, beholden to myths regarding our character, our intentions, our behavior, and our beliefs.

Misjudged and Misunderstood: The Abundance of Myths About Black Women

Even in 2013, Black women are judged harshly and unfairly. Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D., detail the variety of ways Black women are misjudged and misunderstood in Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America:

"As painful as it may be to acknowledge, their [Black women's] lives are still widely governed by a set of old, oppressive myths circulating in the White-dominated world. Based upon those fictions, if a Black woman is strong, she cannot be beautiful and she cannot be feminine. If she takes a menial job to put food on the tale and send her children to school, she must not be intelligent. If she is able to keep her family together and see her children to success, she must be tough and unafraid. If she is able to hold her head high in spite of being sexually harassed or accosted, she must be oversexed or promiscuous. If she travels the globe, she must be ferrying drugs rather than simply trying to see the world." (p. 2)

Black women are judged based on stereotypes that have never been changed, but have instead taken on different guises as they were passed from generation to generation. They may be called by another name (Hoochie Mama, Welfare Queen, Mammy, etc.), but they speak to myths about Black women's supposed promiscuity, alleged unethical behavior, and unfeminine characteristics.

A Black woman could be doing the right thing, such as taking a low paying job to support her family; or she could be doing her own thing, like travelling the world; or, she could be doing nothing, like walking down the street, exuding confidence and minding her own business. It doesn't matter what Black women do; they can expect to be judged rigidly. These judgments leave no room for self-definition. There is no gray area, no space for Black women to be the complicated human beings we are. The binaries imposed upon Black women are stifling. A Black woman who has seen her children to success, to pull an example from the quote, cannot be sensitive and vulnerable; there is no other way for a Black woman to raise her children than with an iron fist. If she isn't the tyrant, then she must have tyrannical children.

Such harsh judgments affect Black women in a myriad of ways from the outside, but the also affect Black women internally and they way we interact with others. Jones and Shorter-Gooden's work, Shifting details what happens to the psyches of Black women as a result of the bombardment we face when we encounter stereotypes:

"Black women are routinely defined by a specific set of grotesque caricatures... that include the emasculating Sapphire, the desexualized Mammy, and the scheming temptress Jezebel. ...

Indeed society's stubborn myths continue to do tremendous damage to Black women. They often seep into their inner psyches and become permanently internalized, battering them from within even if they're able, for a time, to wriggle free and live the truth. Stereotypes based on race, gender, and social class make it hard to trust oneself and to trust others who look or behave like you do. They set confusing parameters on who you think you are and what you believe you should or can become. They often dictate what you expect, what seems real, and what seems possible." (p. 3-4)

Here is where invisibility enters the picture. The stereotypes of Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel are recognizable to anyone, especially in media. They stand in for any real character development that my involve Black women. If you are a Black woman and do no emasculate men; desexualize yourself; or, use your sexuality to advance, then expect to be erased. There is no such thing as a Black woman who is represented in the media as a complex human being. Once again, it's conform (or create, in the case of some authors and playwrights) to the stereotypes or say goodbye.

The weight of these stereotypes is damaging. They manage to destroy from the inside, absorbed by even the most respectable of women, regardless of class. The most upstanding woman in the neighborhood can fall prey to the label of Sapphire with one fiery verbal exchange. This same Black woman can be subject to the label of Mammy if she hides her sexuality, or called a Jezebel if she flaunts it too much.

These stereotypes of Black women are used to silence us, limit our expectations, and obscure who we know we truly are. Stereotypes act as blinders, keeping black women from expanding their horizons and achieving their goals. For fear of fulfilling an inaccurate and inhumane stereotype, Black women step back and choose not to speak up.

Black women are judged and scrutinized based, not on who we actually are, but on destructive and fallacious images. The stereotypes placed upon the shoulders of Black women are damaging, limiting, and outdated, but still very effective in keeping Black women in line.

Succeeding, Yet Suspicious: What Happens in the Fight Against the Stereotypes

Nevertheless, there are Black women who manage to sweep past these caricatures and pursue their own lives and goals. Yet they pay a price for this pursuit. In "The Integrity of Black Womanhood", from her collection, Killing Rage: Ending Racism bell hooks describes the suspicion and unease that greets a high-achieving Black woman:

"Consequently, a suspicious light is almost always cast on the achievements of individual black women who become self-determining despite the barriers created by institutionalized structures of domination, by race, sex, and class exploitation and/or oppression. Most recently in the wake of an overall attack on feminist politics in our society, black women are once again represented as liars, as lacking in ethical and moral values, as potential traitors. Liberal white male patriarchy has promoted this devaluation as much as its conservative counterpart." (p. 79)

If you are a Black woman getting ahead, be prepared to be distrusted. The barriers that were erected to keep Black women out of high positions and high-paying jobs have been breached. YOU ARE NOW SUSPICIOUS. Black women have and are receiving the brunt of the feminist backlash, the push against the gains made by feminism. Once again, we are painted as unethical and traitorous females. Black women have been thrown under the bus in the name of maintaining the status quo.

Though conservatives may lead the charge, unpacking old clich├ęs about the Black community and Black women in particular, but liberals follow in their wake, doing and saying all they can to keep the circumstances as they are. As I stated before, Black women just can't catch a break. Though you may be succeeding, be prepared to be scapegoated once there is trouble. There is not one moment of reprieve; Black women don't have many advocates, besides other Black women, who speak up on their behalf.


Conclusion

Black women are shadowed by stereotypes, which serve to limit who we are and who we can be. They are used to silence Black women and to keep us in our place, which is usually at the bottom. It doesn't matter if a woman is respectable. [SEE: My essay titled, "Removing the Blinders, Part I", where I detail why the politics of respectability is a problem.] If a Black woman manages to excel and succeed, she will be looked at with suspicion, maybe even torn asunder.

Works Cited

--hooks bell. "The Integrity of Black Womanhood." Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. p. 79.

--Jones, Charisse and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: Perennial, 2003. pp. 2, 3-4.

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