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
and beating women to themselves . Rewritten history created the subordinate, matronly Mammy who was loyal and happy in her position . 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” . 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 . 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 . The
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” . 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” .
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 . 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” . 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
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” . 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?
- “Worth 102: Understanding the Roots of Stereotypes,” last modified March 28, 2013, http://theworthcampaign.com/worth-102-understanding-the-roots-of-stereotypes/.
- 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.
- Melissa V. Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 33.
- West, “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls,” 288.
- 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/.
- 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.
- David Pilgrim, “Jezebel Stereotype,” from the Jim Crow Museum of Racial Memorabilia, 2012, http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel.htm.
- West, “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls,” 295.
- “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.