Worth 102: Understanding the Roots of Stereotypes

Worth 102 is the second installment in your introduction to The Worth Campaign. This lesson is intended to educate young women of color about the roots of three dominating stereotypes: the Jezebel, the Mammy, and the Sapphire.

The Jezebel

According to Harris-Perry, the Jezebel ideal originated when Southern slaveowners needed a reason to legitimize the forced nakedness, physical “commoditization,” and coerced sexual relations between them and their female slaves. In order to justify the rape and dehumanization of these women, they had to be depicted as wanton, over-sexed, whorish, and seductive. How were these poor slaveowners to deny these big breasted, chiseled bodied, and perpetually available Black women whose sole desire was to sleep with them? These women were cast as animalistic in nature. Sexual prowess was just a Black woman’s natural instinct toward physical gratification. Disgusting right?

stereotypesNowadays, this stereotype’s insidious nature manifests itself in movies, hip hop culture, rap music, entertainment, and politics. How many movies have you seen where there’s that hoey Black girlfriend? She just can’t help herself right? Everytime she tries to stop laying up with guys, she falls victim to her true nature again. And, as soon as she denies her natural propensity toward whorishness, ratchetness, and trick-itude, she magically finds “Mr. Right.” Cool how that works hunh? When a Black woman does this, it is her nature. But, when White women do the same, what is it called? Hooking up. Interesting right? Hooking up sounds minimal, trivial, and inconsequential. It is a term near and dear to many a college or high school student. But, the stigma associated with Black women “hooking up” is no where near as small or remote.

Take the politics of reproduction for example. The Jezebel is the chick with the multiple kids out of wedlock from several fathers. She has the welfare status, the loser boyfriends, and the general lack of appeal outside of her physical frame. She might be called the “baby mama,” the “round the way girl,” the “pretty young thang,” the “side chick,” the “dime piece,” and just flat out, the “hoe.”

The Mammy

To understand the stereotype of the Mammy, one must first understand her humble beginnings. She came to be after slavery ended. And, her era lasted for almost a century. Many like to refer to the formal compromise between the North and South as the official end of slavery in 1877. In a magical place far removed from history, Black Americans became equal to their white counterparts at this time. But, in actuality, Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, and forced segregation did not legally end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. This means that the South was still very segregated and blacks were still susceptible to lynching, rape, murder, enslavement, and violent racism. And, the general southern white populace was still looking for an answer to their “Black Problem.”

hattie mcdaniel mammyIn the early 1900s, after slavery had been formally abolished for almost thirty years, subservience from the black population was still expected and legal through the Jim Crow laws of the South. Black women were “lovingly” referred to as mammies. And, though these women were often sent out to white homes in their teens when they were still of birthing age, the most recognizable figure for this illusory character is shown in the graphic to the left. She is older and rounded with big red lips, un-effeminate features, and a generally unappealing exterior.

This was the caricature of the Mammy. Foul smelling, totally unsavory, and the last thing a white man should find even remotely attractive. Perhaps, the most well known mammy was Hattie McDaniel who was the first black woman to win an Academy Award for her role as “Mammy” in the 1939 highly acclaimed film Gone With the Wind. To date, her performance, even the film itself, is seen as a fantastic adaptation of the Old South. And, critics, across the board, praise the movie for its time-tested appeal. The most interesting thing about this role is that McDaniel’s crowning-glory came from a performance where she was generally unattractive, portrayed as unintelligent but caring, and genuinely insignificant to most around her. This, it seems from all the hullabaloo the film received, was the role she was born to play.

They were frumpy, assexual, absent from their own homes and entirely devoted (as it would seem on the surface) to their white families. Harris-Perry discusses this blind devotion to whites in her book.

 ”Enslaved women working as domestic servants in Southern plantations were taken from their families and forced to nurse white babies while their own infants subsisted on sugar water. They were not voluntary members of the enslaver’s family; they were women laboring under coercion and the constant threat of physical and sexual violence. “

When black women realized that they were being put in a “trick bag,” they responded with militance and self-worth endeavors. They became angry and adroit with demands of redress. They found culpability with others who had unfairly put them in a crooked room and subjected them to askew images of themselves. They straightened their backs a bit and got pissed off. Thereby generating the stereotype of the Sapphire…

The Sapphire

Harris-Perry notes the resounding wavelengths television images have cascaded on real-life black women.

“The academic literature on stereotyping traces the popular representation of black women as uniquely and irrationally angry, obnoxious, and controlling to the 1930s Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show. The nagging, assertive Sapphire character on Amos ‘n’ Andy gave rise to an oft-repeated trope in popular culture representations of black women, from Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son to Pam on Martin. The brash, independent, hostile black woman rarely shows vulnerability or empathy…the angry black woman has many different shadings and representations: the bad black woman, the black ‘bitch,’ and the emasculating matriarch.”

While I am inclined to agree, I find that the stereotype has a much more expansive and gargantuan base. Black women are seen as combative, violent, and aggressive in the eyes of the law as well. Black women, like black men, are more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned. And, in most cases, their offenses are repetitive and less egregious. So, though it is convenient to look solely to television images and those in movies, real-life truly mimics this trope. And, not only does the angry black woman creation trickle down to normal human beings like me, you, and a host of others, the image is reinforced in every school bus video on YouTube that depicts a violent altercation between a black woman and a black man, or woman, or whomever. Why? Because we have been taught that the image is true.

The angry black woman trope exists in the workplace too. Harris-Perry finds that this stereotype results in employers fearing that black women will be “unreliable or irascible”. And since this is a generally accepted stereotype, the misnomer has also made its way into modern medicine.

“Therapists are less likely to perceive a black woman as sad; instead, they see her as angry or anxious.”

And, to sum up Harris-Perry’s spot-on analysis of the angry black woman, she makes it extremely clear that society’s prevalence toward this unfounded stereotype has had real influence on black women’s lived phenotypes.

“[Black women’s] anger is not experienced as a psychological reality but is seen through an ideology that distorts black women’s lived experiences. The angry black woman stereotype hamstrings sisters who find that they cannot forcefully and convincingly advocate their own interests in the public sphere…because their passion and commitment are misread as irrational.”

It is society’s pre-conceived (and ill-conceived) impression that drives many black women to extremes. They may retract in order to disprove the stereotype. Or, they may simply espouse it since the crooked room tells them to. The former might get them further in a social sense, but it will do little to insulate them from the perceptions of others. The latter will likely garner the response expected: exclusion, hatred, loathing, and revilement. But, they may deem that safer in a crooked room with little oxygen for their true persona. Thus emerges the two-ness that W.E.B. Du Bois so remarkably articulated in The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

This is the brilliance of the Sapphire. Not only does it cause black women to understate their accomplishments in an effort not to emasculate the men around them, it also leaves many feeling as though any uttering in their own defense will be seen as being angry just for the sake of being angry. It desensitizes others to the various plights of black women including rape and misogyny culture, single-parenthood, and statistically unequal wealth outcomes. And it shames black women who strive to carve out their true space in the American social sphere…

These three stereotypes, though often used specifically regarding black women, affect women in general. And, young women are especially vulnerable to the impacts of these labels.

It is the intention of The Worth Campaign to de-legitimize these stereotypes and root out the sources from which they originate. Let’s move on to Worth 103: When Shaming Becomes Action.

worthSignature