"Strong" Black Woman

"Strong" Black Woman

The political dangers of "positive” black, female stereotypes.

In her 2011 book Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry builds upon Patricia Hill-Collins’ concept of “controlling images” of Black women. Melissa Harris-Perry asserts that these negative stereotypes influence both Black women’s conception of self as well as they ways in which Black women are perceived and portrayed in mainstream media and society. Harris-Perry focuses predominantly on the “mammy”, “jezebel”, and “matriarch” stereotypes, drawing from each of them to explore the contemporary archetype of the “Strong Black Woman” or “Superwoman”. Upon first examination, the trope of the Strong Black Woman may seem like a harmless, even positive stereotype. Harris-Perry argues that, while useful for every day acts of resistance and survival, this stereotype can also serve to reinforce the racialized, gendered oppression that Black women face.

After outlining the “accommodation” versus “resistance” dichotomy that recently emerged in scholarship surrounding the role of bondspeople in North American slavery, Stephanie Camp creates spaces for the reconciliation of those two arguments – “…the contradictory and paradoxical qualities in bondspeoples’ lives: …both agents and subjects, persons and property, and people who resisted and who accommodated – sometimes in one and the same act” (Camp 2004: 1). This framework can be applied to Melissa Harris-Perry’s study of the nature of the “Strong Black Woman” archetype. Camp and Harris-Perry’s works are particularly valuable when examining the sociohistorical role of the arts Black women’s lives. Likewise, these works are also crucial in the examination of the nature of political activism in Black women’s lives.

Melissa Harris-Perry loosely defines the “Strong Black Woman” as “…a racial and political construct emanating ... from the needs of the nation that frame black women in very narrow ways" (Harris-Perry 2011: 21). More specifically, the notion of Black women’s strength has served as justification for the enslavement, exploitation, and neglect of Black women during and after slavery. For example, J. Marion Sims – the “Father of Gynecology” – cited Black women’s superior, inherent strength as a justification for the grotesque and dehumanizing use of Black bondswomen in his foundational gynecological research of fistulas (Kapsalis 2002).

As Melissa Harris-Perry suggests, the internalization of the Strong Black Woman stereotype has had disastrous results in the political sphere in that it often causes Black women to work against their own interests and, as a result, reinforce the structures and hierarchies which oppress them – “I am concerned that in their efforts to evade the Sapphire stereotype, black women may be discouraged from demanding equal consideration of their specific political needs within black political discourses” (Harris-Perry 2011: 95).

This is clear in Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham’s research in which she discusses the emergence, outcome, and implications of Respectability Politics for Black women. Brooks-Higginbotham explicitly states that Respectability Politics, a term given to the dominant social and political ideology of Black women during the Nadir: “The women’s movement in the black Baptist church reflected and reinforced the hegemonic values of white America” (Brooks-Higginbotham 1993: 187). While this ideology was advantageous for Black women in that it gave them an opportunity for self-definition, it was also incredibly harmful in that it used this notion of Black women’s strength to blame Black women, especially mothers, for the downfall of the race: “It’s a mother’s duty to try and give her children wholesome food and an attractive home...Many a young man has left home because it was minus of attractions that his intelligence called for” (Brooks Higginbotham 1993: 202). Furthermore, as reflected in this excerpt the internalization of the notion of the Strong Black Woman has caused Black women to focus solely on political activism as it applies to “uplifting” Black men. This is a clear reflection of Melissa Harris-Perry’s analysis of the use of the Strong Black Woman trope in politics: "…even when we know that suffering is undeserved, it is psychologically easier to blame the victim rather than give up the idea that the world is basically fair" (Harris-Perry 2011: 188).

In her article for Bitch Magazine, Tasha Fierce draws parallels between this phenomenon in Black women’s political activism during the Nadir and the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement:

This history still influences the dynamics of Black women’s interactions with the current movement against police brutality…Black women are disproportionately targeted by police and face the threat of not only being shot, but of being sexually assaulted… They can continue the state-sponsored terrorization of Black women through physical and sexual assault, and they know it” (Fierce 2015).

Although the #BlackLivesMatter movement was initiated by three Black women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – the movement was started after the murder of Trayvon Martin and has remained male-oriented, as Fierce explains in her examination of Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele’s essay in which Eromosele asserts that she, as a Black woman, is privileged in that her femininity shields her from police brutality. Black women have been subjected to police violence since the creation of the police force, so these women’s choice to mobilize around the death of this young Black man may be telling of the ways in which the internalization of the Strong Black female stereotype has caused Black women to ignore their own oppression to fight for the rights of Black men.

Although both statistics and personal narratives construct a very different story, Eromosele’s article epitomizes the negative effects of the internalization of the Strong Black Woman stereotype. The focus of Black women’s activism on Black men has caused Eromosele to “misrecognize” herself and, in turn, work against her own political interest to reinforce the racialized, gender-hierarchy which values Black men over Black women.

Cover Image Credit: Everyday Feminism

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Representation Really Does Matter

Here's how one episode of 'Degrassi' changed my life forever.

I was watching "Degrassi" when I came across something that I truly felt changed me. Never before had I watched something that I truly felt I was able to relate to in regards to my gender identity. I had even spoken before with my therapist and felt moderately uncomfortable with it. I never truly felt like I could be myself or be comfortable in the skin I am in.

This changed one day when watching an episode of "Degrassi." On the screen, a young student was presented. Their name was Yael and I suddenly felt more connected with Yael than I had with any other character I had ever seen on television or cinema before. It was almost surreal to see the screen before me. It felt unnatural, almost like the person I was looking at from the comfort of behind my screen was actually me. I felt like I was watching my own life, or rather a representation of what my life could be if I dared to be who I truly wanted to be.

Yael first starts in her cisgender identity so I will be referring to her as in female terms for the beginning part of this article. As she begins to explore her journey in her non-binary/gender fluid identity she begins to feel more comfortable with they/them terminology.

At the beginning of the season, Yael starts to realize a change. Her breasts have grown bigger and this is a part of her body that she has a lot of trouble coping with. The beginning scene shows her evidently wearing ill-fitting undergarments against her rather tight shirt. She speaks in intimate detail with her friend about how this makes her feel and her friend tells her she most likely needs a bra that is better fitting for her. They go shopping and she is obviously incredibly uncomfortable doing so.

I felt every single emotion Yael was feeling during this time. As a matter of fact, as the episode progressed, I felt a lump in my throat. I heard once that maybe when you die a screen will show all the events of your life played out before you and you can watch them like a movie. This is exactly how I felt when I began watching this episode. I felt like I was watching events in my life or perhaps even getting a glimpse into my future. I have felt all the things Yael was feeling before, but I was never really able to properly put it into words. I didn't have any characters to point at and say "see? I'm like them."

When the cross-dressing and drag community first started up, it was grossly misunderstood. People thought drag queens were perverts or some sort of twisted animals. As shows like "Ru Paul's Drag Race" became popularized, awareness of what the drag community was and ultimately, LGBTQ, in general, became a lot more evident. You could pull up a video on Youtube and show it to someone if they didn't understand what you did as a drag artist. There was finally something that you could point to and say, "Yep, that's me."

As someone struggling with gender identity, I can really and truly say I've never experienced that before. I've never had a character that I could look at and explain my feelings with. I've never had anyone to look at or relate to or to help guide me in whatever direction I needed to go. However, as I sat alone in my room watching a show that had been recommended to me, I felt like I had been recognized. I was no longer overcome with isolation.

Yael buys a binder from a store and begins binding. Soon after, her boyfriend realizes that she has chosen not to shave her armpits or legs and is distraught. For the year of 2016, I decided I did not want to shave. The backlash I received was very similar to what Yael received in the episode both with her boyfriend and with the guys she hangs out with. She inquires why she needs to shave and the answer was an ignorant one that I have received an almost uncountable amount of times in my life, "You're a girl."

Just writing that made me groan.

I can almost hear the indignant, monotonous voice it is so often said in as well. A vast majority of my life has been spent with guys and Yael shares this in common with me. At a certain age, I began being told constantly by boys what I was and was not allowed to do. "You're a girl. You shave your legs. Ladies first. Girls are more sensitive. It's weird having a girl here."

My personal favorite was whenever I played Xbox Live and the pandemonium that ensued when a real-life girl began playing with them. I always felt sad, different, and outcast. The feeling was one that was often difficult to describe. However, I watched Yael go through all the things I had gone through for the vast majority of her teenage years.

Yael liked makeup. She did her hair and overall seemed like a feminine individual, however, she had extreme body dysphoria especially when it came to her chest. I felt exactly how she felt. She wore a better-fitted bra and the boys began to notice. The insecurity she experienced ran rampant. I felt for her. I really did. I watched it and realized how many times I had fallen victim to objectification and how it had only thrust me deeper into my body dysphoria. After she begins binding, she truly starts to feel how she should feel.

"I'm gender fluid." She says to her boyfriend and watches as his face falls.

"I like girls." He replies. She pauses for a moment, looking at him.

"I thought you liked me."

The truth behind these words was almost too much to bear.

I've always had to believe that whoever loves me will truly love me for me. As time has progressed, I have looked into my options of top surgery. I realize most men who identify as heterosexuals are quite attached to the idea of female anatomy, specifically breasts and not having them might make me less desirable.

However, I am also aware of the fact that my happiness is to be prioritized above all else. This is my body and it really and truly should be my choice. This insecurity that is rooted deeply within me is one I watched Yael experience, proving once again that I am not alone.

Yael cuts her hair to a length she finds comfortable which is yet another fantasy I have had. I see myself in the future with a shaved head and high fitting clothes that reveal nothing because there will be no lumps of fat on my chest, nothing to hold me down. I see that vision of myself. The only difference between Yael and I is that Yael actually took steps in order to be that vision of herself that she visualized. I have not. However, one day I would like to. One day I see myself being the person I've always desired to be.

I had never seen representation like that in TV or movies before. I have always felt so entirely alone in how I feel. The idea of be-ridding my breasts is one that almost everyone in my life has found to be so incredibly ludicrous, but as I watched Yael's journey, I saw that it wasn't. It was something that was completely ethical and something that people all over the world experience. It's just a matter of putting your story into the world so others can benefit and learn from it as well.

So I am Lizzie Bowen. I am gender queer and the concept of this was one it took me a long time to grasp. I wear makeup and do my hair, but wear big sweatshirts so that my figure can be hidden. I am not ashamed of my body or who I am, but I am ashamed that I feel the need to hide. I am ashamed that I would rather be uncomfortable in my own skin than to make changes in my life to better myself and be free of my dysphoria.

LGBTQ representation and really, representation, in general, is so so important. There are kids, teens, adults, and individuals of all ages who have never had their identity acknowledged. They live their lives in silence suffering, thinking that no one else in the world feels the way they feel. I was one of those people until I turned on an episode of "Degrassi" on a quiet weekend. No matter what your situation or identity is, know there is someone in the world who shares it. You are not alone.

You never are. Thanks, Yael, for teaching me that.

Cover Image Credit: Unsplash

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9 Things 'Type A' People Know All Too Well

To all my fellow 'try-hards.'

“You are SO Type A.”

This phrase is one that people like to say about those of us who seem a little “too organized,” try a little "too hard," or tend to be "overly ambitious" and driven. At times, this reference can sound a bit derogatory, but it’s how people like us excel in our lives and what sets us apart. Am I right my fellow “Type A-ers”?

I bet you know all too well how familiar these things are:

1.You write absolutely everything down.

Thank goodness for your planner.

2. You’re always in a rush.

And you’ve never really been a fan of slow walkers or talkers.

3. 'Competition' is your middle name.

And 'winning' tends to be your last.

4. You have a million different to-do lists.

What would you do without post its, scribbles, and reminders on your phone?

5. You plan out every hour of your day.

Including bathroom breaks!

6. You don't waste any time.

Multi-tasking while waiting for other things comes second nature to you.

7. You're constantly stressed.

Even when there's no need to be.

8. You have an insane work ethic.

Including the inability to go to sleep until you get everything done.

9. You're a perfectionist in EVERYTHING you do.

Because giving anything other than 100% is unacceptable to you.

Cover Image Credit: Pixabay

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