Unfortunate beliefs about Black women
Updated: May 2
Being black in America is already hard enough, but being a Black woman is even harder. Black women deal, and have dealt, with stereotypes their whole lives, which has many negative effects down the road.
By Kimbra Owens
Where do the stereotypes come from?
All modern-day stereotypes placed on black women come from racist origins.
They were created by white landowners to defend slavery and their racists beliefs. After the end of the Civil War brought an end to slavery, even more stereotypes to prove, black people wouldn’t show restraint without slavery.
Unfortunately, these stereotypes--often contradictory even—are still around today and generally present themselves in three different racial slurs against women.
Calling a black woman, a Jezebel- is referring to her as an oversexualized woman often portrayed as a seductress.
“The traditional Jezebel was a light-skinned, slender Mulatto girl with long straight hair and small features.”
A lot of white men were attracted to this type of woman due to her resemblance to a white woman, yet still having a curvaceous body. She was displayed as seductive and overly sexual. Jezebel was sexually abused and raped by white men and was said to be “asking for it.”
During slavery, Black girls were told to have sex to prepare themselves as “breeders” in the future of slavery, which white enslavers used as evidence for the Jezebel.
“Pilgrim states that enslaved young Black girls were encouraged to have sex as part of their ‘socializations’ as future ‘breeders.’ When young Black girls became pregnant during slavery, this was just seen as evidence of their insatiable sexual appetites and their ‘Jezebel’ nature.” says Yvonne McLean of the Baptist News Global.
This stereotype was used to defend the sexual crimes that were not only used to defend the sexual crimes committed against black women, but also to defend sexual exploitation and the marriage between a white and black person.
The 'Mammy' or 'Aunt Jemimah' stereotype
Another group of stereotypes present black women as an aggressive matriarch of the family, but not sexual at all. These stereotypes were some of the first stereotypes levied against black women. Both figures were shown to be larger dark-skinned women with big lips and white teeth.
The Aunt Jemimah figure is similar to The Mammy figure; however, the roles were different. The only role for Aunt Jemimah was to cook, whereas The Mammy took on more working roles that catered to the white family. The Mammy figure raised her master's children whom she loved more than her own.
“Towards her family, 'The Mammy' was the head of the household and could control them with her temper. With that dominance, she was seen as masculine, undesirable, and a non-threat to white women.
"The Mammy was considered to be American because she was a non-threat to white people and understood the value of the white lifestyle.” (Green,).
However, there was no evidence to prove the existence of The Mammy. In fact, it was created to present slavery as a good thing, which we all know is far from the truth.
“A jolly, smiling, fiercely loyal Mammy was created so we could believe slavery was a humane institution,” said McLean.
Sapphire was, in simpler terms, the “Angry Black Women” stereotype today.
“Sapphire is a construct that labels Black women as ‘stubborn, bitchy, bossy, and hateful.’ She ‘lacks the requisite femininity to make her attractive to any man,” says Mclean.
Like the Mammy stereotype, the sapphire stereotype was portrayed a lot through TV shows in which the black woman is a bossy, headstrong woman who continuously verbally fights with her husband. She was the matriarch of her family and was extremely independent. The first time the Sapphire appeared on television was on the show Amos and Andy.
To be referred to as any of these stereotypes was an insult to black women and it was used to try and silence black women. Trying to speak up or critique something would result in becoming a stereotype, which would become detrimental in the workplace.
Those stereotypes are the root of how black women are seen and portrayed in society today.
All were created to portray black women as aggressive, strong, loud, and not in need of protection. Which would make them vulnerable to abuse from everyone.
Aligning with whiteness
White Supremacy has been spread and taught through all cultures. A lot of these ideals are still being upheld in many ways and not just by some white people.
Some black women do this by aligning themselves with whiteness.
With all the stereotypes that surround black women, they had to find ways to combat them and live a somewhat normal life. Trying to “be more white” was one of those ways because being white meant being safe.
Aligning with whiteness can be a lot of different things, but for Kaitlin Samuels, a senior majoring in chemistry at the University of Northern Texas, it was her mother giving her a white sounding name.
“Like growing up as a black kid I would always ask myself why my name is Kaitlin. Then when I asked my mom about it, she said it’s for when I apply for jobs when I’m older, they won’t know I’m black right away,” she said.
That is just one example of aligning with whiteness, giving your child a white sounding name because if she has an ethnic sounding name, or specifically a black sounding name, they will most likely not get a call back for an interview with a job.
The main theme for aligning with whiteness is that a black woman would change her behaviors and outward appearance to become more accepted in society by joining the majority. This might be by becoming successful as to not play into racial stereotype that people of color are not as smart or as educated, or generally act in ways that will make white people comfortable.
If a black woman is around a group of white people, she might not speak unless she is spoken to. She will raise the tone of her voice and use little to none hand gestures. She may also walk upright and will try not to have any flat or angry expressions on her face.
She will refrain from using certain phrases and words around white people. For example, instead of saying “I went to my mema’s house last night.” She might say “Oh I had a good time at my grandmother's house.” Or if she usually laughs and talks loud, she will bring that volume down.
“I feel like it’s assimilation,” Samuels adds. “Like you can’t be yourself, and you have to follow white people’s standards of how you should look, act, speak, to not cause any problems and to be accepted.”
For Candace Owens, aligning with whiteness is “dimming your light to allow others to feel comfortable.”
Codes witching is essentially the same thing.
Jasmine Reed-Clark, from The Financial Diet describes code switching as, “some will change the effect of their voice, their posture, or refrain from using colloquialisms when speaking to someone they wouldn’t otherwise connect with outside of work.”
Many black women use this to try and fight the angry black woman stereotype, and to make their white peers, or crowd comfortable.
However, aligning with whiteness, or code switching has its negative effects.
The black community has issues with aligning with whiteness, and when a black person does, they begin to be seen as a white person, or them bowing down to a white person, when instead they are just trying to get a job.
From the black community, Owens said she would get called an Oreo and that she dresses and speaks “white”.
Other downsides of this tactic include physical effects and mental effects as well. The physical effects on are constantly changing your hairstyle—potentially damaging your hair, consistently buying new clothes trying to make sure you’re not looking too “curvy.”
Which then leads to mental health effects because you are constantly questioning yourself and always in your head about if what you are wearing is appropriate.
Societal effects on Black women
Stereotypes play a big role in how black women are viewed and portrayed in society today.
Society has been flip floppy on these stereotypes. For black women to wear their natural hair or in some type of protective style, like braids or cornrows, or to wear certain clothes, or to have long nails, etc… is deemed as unprofessional and are immediately stereotyped. But for someone other than a black woman to have a style like that is seen in society as ‘Trendy’, or fashionable.
In an article by Essence Magazine, Elizabeth Wellington says,
“What’s difficult to digest is this “praise” of all things black – from cornrows and large booties to acrylic nails, door-knocker earrings, and tribal fabrics – only becomes “chic,” “trendy,” and “epic” when worn by white women. When these same cultural markers are on black women, they are “ghetto,” “urban,” and “ratchet” – meaning, unpretty.”
Everyone thinks it’s cool to look like a black woman, but they don’t want those same struggles that come with one. Black women are imitated and mocked almost all the time of stereotypes that only make up a small percentage of black women. You see it both online and offline.
“Well if you look at the media nowadays everyone wants the black girl look.” Said George.
“In every race everyone wants the black girl look. If you look at gays and other girls that want to be ethnic and how they act, they pick off of who’s speech patterns…black women. Black women are talked down the most out of all races, yet they’re the most heavily imitated. Even by black men for profit. All you have to do is look at social media,” He adds.
Not only does society treat these stereotypes like they’re the latest fashion, but they also do a complete 180 and treat them badly in the workplace.
For Shannon Eaves, an African American Studies professor at the College of Charleston, she understands the things she says can be used as a representation for the entire black community.
“As a black woman in a majority white workplace, I am acutely aware that I might be one of the few black people with whom my colleagues or students interact on a regular basis," Eaves says. "It is possible that the things I say and do may be attributed to black people as a whole.”
How society treats stereotypes in the workplace, was how Samuels learned why her mom gave her a white sounding name.
“But now that I’m older I get it now. Because people will for real be denied jobs because their name sounds black."- Kaitlin Samuels
As for Mrs. Owens, she noticed when she applied for jobs, when she comes in they are shocked to find she isn’t white. “When I apply for jobs, my name isn’t ethnic and I sound white therefore when someone meets me face to face… they are shocked.”
Because of these stereotypes, black women have to work harder to get the same results.
“We have to work twice as hard on the same playing field." - Candace Owens
In fact, black women earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men, while white women earn 78.7 cents, according to the U.S Department of Labor.
Black women not only have to work twice as hard, but they have to endure the terrible treatment from most of society.
“Stereotypes of black women have evolved over time. Today, many black women, especially in the workplace, are characterized as being angry or uncooperative, especially when they question or challenge authority or point out injustices," Eaves said.
The professor notes she is very conscious of the "angry Black woman" stereotype.
"And it does have an influence on my interactions with others. I do not hesitate to point out injustices in the workplace or in my personal life, but I am aware that people may characterize me as an ‘angry black woman’ when I do." - Shannon Eaves
Whenever black women stand up for themselves from receiving any mistreatment, they get called angry. Whenever we speak out against any injustice they get called angry.
For example, During the US Open final in 2018, she received a code violation because they thought she was being coached, she then received both a penalty point and game penalty for breaking her racquet and calling the umpire a thief. On top of all that she still had to pay a $17,000 fine.
Williams tried to defend herself and acted as anyone would during a final tennis match, yet she was punished harshly, which could’ve lost her the match. Memes and comic strips went viral; the comic strips depicted her as very masculine with her screaming. One meme said “She puts the man into woman.”
All this negative treatment due to a natural reaction to receiving a coaching penalty, which also can affect her integrity in the eyes of many. But because she is a woman, a black woman, the world made fun of her and was treated as a stereotype.
Mental health impact on Black women
Mental health effects are another side effect of these stereotypes.
Having to deal with racism stemming from being stereotyped can affect them mentally. Having to constantly code switch can eventually affect your mindset. Having to constantly be something and someone you are not can have many mental effects.
The American Psychology Association mentioned “A wealth of psychological research shows that discrimination can exacerbate stress. Moreover, discrimination-related stress is linked to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, even in children.”
Some of these mental effects come into play at such a young age due to the oversexualization and the adultification of black girls. Young black girls are often seen as “too grown” and therefore are left unprotected. Because of that, young black girls are taught how to act around white people, and how to not be a stereotype.
For Eaves, she said “Black people employ the politics of respectability to dispel stereotypes with hopes of ending discrimination and police violence."
My parents taught me that how I behaved in public spaces, especially predominately white spaces, mattered." Eaves
Learning that you could possibly die or end up in jail due to microaggressions and stereotypes can cause a decline in mental health.
According to an article by JD. Warren “Among Black adolescents, discrimination has been shown to increase risk for poor mental health, academic problems, and substance use,” they said.
Young black girls around the world learn how to code switch by learning from their parents or learning from being the only black kid in an all-white environment. Samuels learned how to act around white people when she found herself being the only black girl at a school she shadowed.
“So I went to Casady for a shadow day and the first time I walked in there, I was like ‘I’m the only black kid’,” she said. Like I grew up around a whole bunch of black kids, at the time I didn’t have a lot of exposure to other races. But on the shadow day, I remember some kids were rude to me,” she added.
“But that was a culture shock, I’ll say, because that was like the first time in my life where I was the ONLY black person. Then I kind of had to learn from those situations. Like ‘How do these people perceive me and how do I act around them’” - Kaitlin Samuels
Growing up, young Black girls are often robbed of their childhood due to these stereotypes, and eventually they internalize them and either become them, or they spend their lives trying to fight them. Either route leads to mental health issues developing, if they hadn’t already.
Experiencing discrimination due to these stereotypes will always give black women, and just people of color in general, more stress which can lead to poor health. You become more self-conscious as you become more aware of the discrimination.
According to the American Psychology Association,
“Hispanic and Black adults (31 percent and 29 percent, respectively) are most likely to say they feel a need to take care with their appearance to get good service or avoid harassment.”
Living in White America, it is easy to internalize stereotypes which can lead to mental health issues and stress. “Black women who internalize the “strong Black woman” stereotype are more likely to have higher rates of distress, depression and anxiety and to utilize binge eating to quell psychological distress (Abrams et. al).” says Jennifer Bates.
For Owens, she’s constantly thinking about how to present herself.
“I’m constantly in my head making sure I present my best self,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the impression I leave affects those who look like me and come after me. Also, because I make white people feel safe, they feel comfortable to be themselves and sometimes their true self is ugly and racist."
Carrying the weight of pressure to succeed and trying to combat racism and all the other curveballs life throws at you can be too much.
“I do find it burdensome that I must be aware of how other people interpret my presence in certain spaces,” said Eaves.
To protect myself from the consequences of other people's suspicions, I must be aware of how I speak or how I move my body.”
For example, she says she never goes into a clothing store without money because she’s been followed around by sales associates worried she was going to steal something.
“Though I should not have to do this or even think to do this, it makes me feel as though I have a layer of protection or a weapon against their stereotyping in the event they accuse me of stealing,” she added.
“Someone might say I am just being paranoid, but I have had too many experiences of sales associates watching me with suspicion. My response is a product of my experiences. Indeed, it is an unearned burden.”
All these stereotypes cause black women to question themselves and feel burdened with having to be a Black woman.
Stereotypes affect black women of all ages both in society and in the mind. Racism plagues this group more and more every day. It makes us change who we are inside and out to combat stereotypes that have been rooted in racism and are used to discriminate black women.
It is hard to align with whiteness and remain true to who you are, but black women do it. They do it every day because they must. These stereotypes will never go away, especially with the way they are glamorized in the media for everyone other than a black woman to appropriate.
But black women persevere every time because they are strong. They always have been and always will be.