"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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I'm The Girl Without A 'Friend Group'

And here's why I'm OK with it

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Little things remind me all the time.

For example, I'll be sitting in the lounge with the people on my floor, just talking about how everyone's days went. Someone will turn to someone else and ask something along the lines of, "When are we going to so-and-so's place tonight?" Sometimes it'll even be, "Are you ready to go to so-and-so's place now? Okay, we'll see you later, Taylor!"

It's little things like that, little things that remind me I don't have a "friend group." And it's been like that forever. I don't have the same people to keep me company 24 hours of the day, the same people to do absolutely everything with, and the same people to cling to like glue. I don't have a whole cast of characters to entertain me and care for me and support me. Sometimes, especially when it feels obvious to me, not having a "friend group" makes me feel like a waste of space. If I don't have more friends than I can count, what's the point in trying to make friends at all?

I can tell you that there is a point. As a matter of fact, just because I don't have a close-knit clique doesn't mean I don't have any friends. The friends I have come from all different walks of life, some are from my town back home and some are from across the country. I've known some of my friends for years, and others I've only known for a few months. It doesn't really matter where they come from, though. What matters is that the friends I have all entertain me, care for me, and support me. Just because I'm not in that "friend group" with all of them together doesn't mean that we can't be friends to each other.

Still, I hate avoiding sticking myself in a box, and I'm not afraid to seek out friendships. I've noticed that a lot of the people I see who consider themselves to be in a "friend group" don't really venture outside the pack very often. I've never had a pack to venture outside of, so I don't mind reaching out to new people whenever.

I'm not going to lie, when I hear people talking about all the fun they're going to have with their "friend group" over the weekend, part of me wishes I could be included in something like that. I do sometimes want to have the personality type that allows me to mesh perfectly into a clique. I couldn't tell you what it is about me, but there is some part of me that just happens to function better one-on-one with people.

I hated it all my life up until very recently, and that's because I've finally learned that not having a "friend group" is never going to be the same as not having friends.

SEE ALSO: To The Girls Who Float Between Friend Groups

Cover Image Credit: wordpress.com

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Past Legal And Modern Social Apartheid

An opinion piece on past legal Apartheid in South Africa and how it is socially reflected in the United States.

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When stepping inside of a solitary cell at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg, I felt a tightness in my chest and wanted to leave that small space immediately; imagining a Black South African who broke the pass laws during Apartheid being in there is beyond disturbing. Due to laws such as the Native (Urban) Areas Act No 21 of 1923, the Bantu/Native Building Workers Act of 1951, and the Bantu Homelands Citizens Act of 1970, Black South Africans during Apartheid were extremely limited in where they could live, detrimentally affecting their economic and employment opportunities. When touring the former Constitutional Hill prison, the guide told us that, when Black South Africans were caught without passes permitting their stay in Joburg for the day and/or night, they spent 5 days in prison, along with murderers and others who committed serious crimes. If caught multiple times breaking these pass laws, they would spend 5 years in this prison. Most of those who violated these pass laws were unemployed or sought better employment in Joburg; this is understandable, as a person has a better chance of having a job by being there physically. When thinking further about the lack of opportunity they suffered from due to the aforementioned laws creating this effect, this legal repercussion becomes further and further disturbing. Additionally, this also directly led to the creation of "White" and "Black" areas, where Whites lived in areas of better opportunity (ex. cities, suburbia), and Blacks were subjected to living in poverty and townships where there was limited economic and employment opportunities.

This lack of opportunity is echoed in the U.S. when looking at socially designated "White" and "Black" areas. Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman essentially because he thought Martin "was not where he belonged", which was in a nice suburban area. As a person of color myself, I have been stared at in museums, followed in stores, and once at 12 years old kicked out of a shop (I did not do anything wrong), because I "stuck out". In this way, society told me (and violently told Martin) that we don't belong in those areas, that we "belong" in ghettos or prison; the racial demographics of populations in U.S. prisons will support me here. Therefore, by society socially designating where people "belong", not only do they bind themselves in their own ignorance, but also prevent people of color from sharing the same access to plentiful life and economic opportunity.

References

Native (Urban) Areas Act No 21 of 1923: Prevented Black South Africans from leaving designated area without a pass. The ruling National Party saw this as keeping Whites "safe" while using Blacks for cheap labor.

Bantu/Native Building Workers Act of 1951: Allowed Black South Africans to enter the building industry as artisans and laborers. Restricted to "Native" areas. Prevented competition between Whites, Coloureds, and Blacks. Could not work outside a designated area unless given special permission.

Bantu Homelands Citizens Act of 1970: All Black South Africans would lose their South African citizenship/nationality over time. Would not be able to work in "South Africa" due to being aliens. Black South Africans would have to work inside their own areas and could only work in urban areas if they had special permission from the Minister.


South African History Online. "Apartheid Legislation 1850s-1970s." South African History Online, South African History Online, 11 Apr. 2016, www.sahistory.org.za/article/apartheid-legislation....

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