Racial Stereotyping: Black Women and the Need to Shift the Narrative

Three of the main racial stereotypes applied to black women today were formulated to rationalize the treatment of black slave women by white owners. These stereotypes—Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire—were crafted to assuage owners who treated slave women atrociously. By asserting that female black slaves were overly lewd or angry, white slave owners justified raping

"Honey, I'm Waitin' Fo' You"
“Honey, I’m Waitin’ Fo’ You”

and beating women to themselves [1]. Rewritten history created the subordinate, matronly Mammy who was loyal and happy in her position [2]. Not only do these exaggerated misrepresentations skew the lens through which we study the past, but these stereotypes continue to influence the way black women are viewed and, therefore, treated. In order to dismantle these stereotypes, new narratives which more accurately reflect the individual need to be developed.

Melissa V. Harris-Perry, author of Sister Citizen, conducted focus groups with forty-three black women in New York, Chicago, and Oakland in which the participants were asked to determine stereotypes associated with modern black women. While the three aforementioned stereotypes were consistently included, participants identified Jezebel and Mammy as the most prominent. Focus group member Margaret noted: “We are supposed to be from the jungle and like to have wild sex…Folks think we’re hot to trot. Or they think we’re Aunt Jemima. It’s never in between” [3]. Both of these stereotypes are obviously inaccurate to black women as a group, and can cause low self-esteem, chronic health problems, and psychological distress [4]. The Jezebel stereotype in particular could have more dangerous consequences as it distorts how women view themselves and “invites” sexual violence.

Jezebels, with their exaggerated curves, serve as a sexual toys for men. In most rap and hip hop videos, Jezebels strip down and compete for the attention of the rap star along to lyrics which continue to perpetuate the stereotype [5].  The

"African American Women in Music Videos"
“African American Women in Music Videos”

objectification of women in these videos maintains the assumption that black women are promiscuous and do not need to be sexually respected. Women should have the right to express themselves sexually, even if that means showcasing their bodies in a hip hop video. However, typecasting black women into the Jezebel role creates a “vicious cycle between the media and the demographic being stereotyped” [6]. Young black women learn from these examples, and will continue to try to fit these distorted images of their identity if these stereotypes are allowed to dominate perceptions of black women.

The influence from the Jezebel stereotype translates from screen to reality. Maureen Evans Arthur, writer for The Washington Post, admitted that she has been propositioned on a regular basis by white men who assume that she is a prostitute simply because she is a black woman on a white man’s arm. Although she is married, Arthur is continuously humiliated and disrespected by men who deem her as a sex worker for no other reason than the color of her skin—and Arthur is not alone. She writes: “The creation and perpetuation of a racist myth that black women are promiscuous, sexual animals and Jezebel temptresses has been used to justify their sexual, economic and social subjugation” [7].

While assumptions of Jezebel-like behavior can be emotionally harmful, it can also be physically dangerous. During slavery, the Jezebel character was thought of as sexually insatiable. Black men could not slake their sexual needs and so black slave women wanted relations with white men. By this logic, white men claimed that they were not raping black women [8]. This has a direct impact on rape victims and survivors today. Dr. Carolyn West suggests that black women receive a “double dose” of cultural rape myths, “those that target all survivors and those that claim that Black women are especially deserving of sexual assault” [9]. The “loose” Jezebel is more likely to experience lewd comments or behavior because she is perceived as “wanting it,” and less likely to be believed if she claims rape. The Jezebel stereotype clearly has a very real impact on the safety and well-being of Black women.

The asexual Mammy figure, the hypersexual Jezebel, and the angry Sapphire stereotypes are perpetuated through

Imani Perry
Imani Perry

advertisements, movies, television, music videos, and even politics, sometimes with dangerous results. So, how can we dismantle the stereotype while encouraging black women to be themselves? Why should black women feel the need to police themselves in order to avoid being a stereotype? Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University, avers: “The only way that stereotypes begin to be eroded is through narrative shifting when the dominant narratives are contested with alterative narratives of who people are, of what range of humanity exists within that group” [10]. How, then, can we break down stereotypes of all people so that they are viewed as individuals and not as a collective? What tools can we employ to develop positive and accurate impressions of modern black women?

  1. “Worth 102: Understanding the Roots of Stereotypes,” last modified March 28, 2013, http://theworthcampaign.com/worth-102-understanding-the-roots-of-stereotypes/.
  1. Carolyn M. West, “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls: Developing an ‘Oppositional Gaze’ Towards the Images of Black Women,” in Lectures on the psychology of women, 4th ed., edited by Joan Chrisler, Carla Golden, & Patricia Rozee. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 298.
  1. Melissa V. Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 33.
  1. West, “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls,” 288.
  1. Taylor Gordon, “Black Women in the Media: Mammy, Jezebel, or Angry,” Atlanta Black Star, March 4, 2013, accessed March 10, 2015, http://atlantablackstar.com/2013/03/04/black-women-in-the-media-mammy-jezebel-or-angry/.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Maureen Evans Arthurs, “Women of color stereotyped, stigmatized as sexually available,” The Washington Post, November 17, 2014, http://www.kentucky.com/2014/11/17/3543457/women-of-color-stereotyped-stigmatized.html.
  1. David Pilgrim, “Jezebel Stereotype,” from the Jim Crow Museum of Racial Memorabilia, 2012, http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel.htm.
  1. West, “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls,” 295.
  1. “Beyond the ‘angry black woman’: Why do black female stereotypes continue to resurface in the US?” in Al Jazeera, February 28, 2013, http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201302280230-0022574.

14 thoughts on “Racial Stereotyping: Black Women and the Need to Shift the Narrative

  1. I think that you raise some important questions Christine. While it is important for society to think about people as individuals and not as stereotypes, I think there is something to be said for recognizing the collective, unique experience of black women. This line from Harris-Perry’s “Sister Citizen” struck me: “Even if there is no single, universal black female experience, there are enough shared identities, beliefs, and experiences to offer insight into African American women as a group” (47).

    1. I agree with you, Carly. There is a unique, collective story that I think many black women share. I think the concern here is that “black women” are considered by some as one unit without also considering the individual.

  2. This post makes me think of the other reading about Blues Legacy and Black Feminism, and how the stereotype of hypersexual black women is treated in both readings. This article shows how harmful the stereotype can be, while the Blues Legacy reading talked about black women reclaiming their sexuality. It make me wonder if the stereotype is so destructive, why would some women choose to highlight and display their sexuality? I think it’s a matter of personal choice and control; if you choose to highlight your sexuality, you’re asserting your control over your body. It’s an interesting issue, and one I’d like to learn more about.

    1. Great connections, Emily. I think what makes the stereotype destructive is that it is exaggerated for some and then does not apply for others. All women should be allowed to claim their sexuality however they see fit, but it is difficult when that stereotype is applied to women who chose you express their sexuality in different ways.

  3. I think one way of combatting pernicious stereotypes is to increase representation in the media. Well-rounded, whole, complex characters portrayed on television and in movies can only ameliorate the situation. People who believe harmful stereotypes could be prompted to let go of their racism/misogyny. More importantly, public representation has a powerful, uplifting effect on those being represented. Whoopi Goldberg, when asked what inspired her to become an actress, cites Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura. She remembers the feeling of revelation at seeing a black woman on tv who was not playing a maid. There are millions of young girls today waiting to see themselves in a character on screen. I hope they are not let down.

    1. As I was reading this I was thinking the same thing Miranda. Dialogue and open communication is obviously a very important part of breaking down stereotypes. However, more people look to TV and movies for entertainment and leisure then almost anything else. It is these outlets that are shaping our ideas of others and ourselves. I think you said it perfectly when you said, “well-rounded, whole, complex characters portrayed on television and in movies can only ameliorate the situation”. Creating these characters and highlighting real women in these roles helps society rethink the stereotypes they have created. It challenges these ideas and breaks down barriers.

      1. I agree with this thread. Increasing representation will spark conversation. However, I think even if medium is focused on entertainment, there is a chance that this character will subtly change ones’ perception of the stereotype. People remembers people. The only issue is that these characters has to be somewhat prominent to be remembered.

        I think this article is a great addition to this conversation: http://forward.com/articles/214063/animation-archer-and-the-art-of-offending/?p=
        Though this article brings up a good question, does the entertainment has to be “offensive” to be discussed?

      2. I totally agree with you, Melissa. The sad reality (as indicated by my research shows) that TVs and movies continue to exploit these stereotypes because of their entertainment value. Shows such as The Real Housewives of Atlantic seem to fuel rather than fight stereotypes. There needs to be an intentional switch to develop stronger black female characters that are role models in this medium.

    2. Good point, Miranda. This came up a lot in my research, which indicated that many shows portray black women filling one stereotype or another. There clearly needs to be more diversity of characters to show black women in situations that transcend the stereotypes.

  4. I think this is an important topic to explore for black women especially, but for women of all races as well. I agree with Miranda that it is important for young girls to see women portrayed in strong roles, so as to see what they can become in their own lives. Our culture responds so strongly to what we see on TV and the internet, and believe there are many strong role models shown via these mediums today. It will take time to debunk these long engrained negative stereotypes, but it is possible that future generations can be influenced by a new positive representation of black women.

  5. This post really got me thinking of how the Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes were, and possibly still are, attempting to find a (subservient) role for black women in the white-dominant culture or to cast them as the man-stealing sexual deviant that has no place in society. You’re in or you’re out and you can’t choose your role either way. From a young age we must allow people their own experiences and to own their unique identity, and I think what Imani Perry is doing is helping foster that environment.

  6. I found this week’s readings really interesting, especially learning about the origin of these stereotypes. They still have such a strong influence on black women today, both individually and collectively. I agree with Miranda that one way to combat this is to increase the amount or representation and types of characters in mainstream media.

  7. I agree this post brings up issues of how women are portrayed in the media. When I hear most rap songs I feel disgusted. The way the songs depict black women and women in general puts them down. The songs depict women as sex objects and women are constantly having to defend themselves against this stereotype. Being a Hispanic woman I also feel like Latino women are also strongly sexualized in the media and that they are considered jezebels. I really appreciate the points you make about how black and women of color are depicted in the media.

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