"Strong" Black Woman

"Strong" Black Woman

The political dangers of "positive” black, female stereotypes.
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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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'As A Woman,' I Don't Need To Fit Your Preconceived Political Assumptions About Women

I refuse to be categorized and I refuse to be defined by others. Yes, I am a woman, but I am so much more.

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It is quite possible to say that the United States has never seen such a time of divisiveness, partisanship, and extreme animosity of those on different sides of the political spectrum. Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are saturated with posts of political opinions and are matched with comments that express not only disagreement but too often, words of hatred. Many who cannot understand others' political beliefs rarely even respect them.

As a female, Republican, college student, I feel I receive the most confusion from others regarding my political opinions. Whenever I post or write something supporting a conservative or expressing my right-leaning beliefs and I see a comment has been left, I almost always know what words their comment will begin with. Or in conversation, if I make my beliefs known and someone begins to respond, I can practically hear the words before they leave their mouth.

"As a woman…"

This initial phrase is often followed by a question, generally surrounding how I could publicly support a Republican candidate or maintain conservative beliefs. "As a woman, how can you support Donald Trump?" or "As a woman, how can you support pro-life policies?" and, my personal favorite, "As a woman, how did you not want Hillary for president?"

Although I understand their sentiment, I cannot respect it. Yes, being a woman is a part of who I am, but it in no way determines who I am. My sex has not and will not adjudicate my goals, my passions, or my work. It will not influence the way in which I think or the way in which I express those thoughts. Further, your mention of my sex as the primary logic for condemning such expressions will not change my adherence to defending what I share. Nor should it.

To conduct your questioning of my politics by inferring that my sex should influence my ideology is not only offensive, it's sexist.

It disregards my other qualifications and renders them worthless. It disregards my work as a student of political science. It disregards my hours of research dedicated to writing about politics. It disregards my creativity as an author and my knowledge of the subjects I choose to discuss. It disregards the fundamental human right I possess to form my own opinion and my Constitutional right to express that opinion freely with others. And most notably, it disregards that I am an individual. An individual capable of forming my own opinions and being brave enough to share those with the world at the risk of receiving backlash and criticism. All I ask is for respect of that bravery and respect for my qualifications.

Words are powerful. They can be used to inspire, unite, and revolutionize. Yet, they can be abused, and too comfortably are. Opening a dialogue of political debate by confining me to my gender restricts the productivity of that debate from the start. Those simple but potent words overlook my identity and label me as a stereotype destined to fit into a mold. They indicate that in our debate, you cannot look past my sex. That you will not be receptive to what I have to say if it doesn't fit into what I should be saying, "as a woman."

That is the issue with politics today. The media and our politicians, those who are meant to encourage and protect democracy, divide us into these stereotypes. We are too often told that because we are female, because we are young adults, because we are a minority, because we are middle-aged males without college degrees, that we are meant to vote and to feel one way, and any other way is misguided. Before a conversation has begun, we are divided against our will. Too many of us fail to inform ourselves of the issues and construct opinions that are entirely our own, unencumbered by what the mainstream tells us we are meant to believe.

We, as a people, have become limited to these classifications. Are we not more than a demographic?

As a student of political science, seeking to enter a workforce dominated by men, yes, I am a woman, but foremost I am a scholar, I am a leader, and I am autonomous. I refuse to be categorized and I refuse to be defined by others. Yes, I am a woman, but I am so much more.

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National Coming Out Day Is Not A Requirement For LGBTQ+ Individuals

If a person so chooses, they can live their whole life in the closet.

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National Coming Out Day has been something I have witnessed for a few years now, and though I support the idea behind it, I have come to realize I am not a huge fan of the day in general.

I am all for the idea that we have a day where anyone who wants to come out and has felt ready to come out can and will be greeted with mostly open arms. The concept of a nationwide acceptance of members of the LGBT community is a great concept and a great thing in practice. This concept is not what bothers me. What bothers me is the expectation that anyone who is a member of the LGBTQ community must come out. This concept behind the day bothers me greatly.

Nobody is required to come out publicly. Nobody is required to announce to the world their sexuality and/or identity. Nobody is entitled to the knowledge of someone's sexuality for identity. If a person so chooses, they can live their whole life in the closet. Closet doors are not required to open for people in the LGBTQ community. No straight person is required to explain they sexuality for identity to people on social media or in person, so why do we have an entire day dedicated to requiring members of the LGBTQ community to explain theirs?

National Coming Out Day is not a bad thing. It is a good way to let members of the LGBTQ community know that coming out is acceptable. But to expect these individuals to come out on a day assigned to them is unnecessary.

Coming out is a personal decision from every person individually, and nobody is required to explain their sexuality or identity on an assigned day. It is always a personal decision an individual must come to on their own.

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