This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Culture & Gender course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Psychology.” To that end, each student has to prepare three 1,000ish word posts focusing on particular stereotypes, their impact, and ways to reduce the negative aspects of stereotypes.
The Impact of Stereotypes on African-American Females by Shauna Weides
Dealing with racial stereotypes along with gender stereotypes can have an extremely damaging influence on the development of African American women that can follow them throughout their lifetime. Stereotypes impact the way African American women view themselves and are viewed by others, their sexuality, relationships, educational and employment opportunities. This is, however, not an all-inclusive list. These stereotypes color everything they are and do and can have a negative impact in every aspect of their lives.
Differences in African American women as well as white women’s options for work, family, and domestic labor, as well as experiences of discrimination and stereotyping, have created a set of race-related gender norms that are likely to influence how these women value and perceive their own gender. One study suggests that African American women and white women view womanhood as comprising many of the same components: gender-based mistreatment and perceived advantages. Inner strength emerged only for the African American woman. Both groups of women felt that they were vulnerable to being mistreated in most areas of their lives; personally, academically and professionally, which likely intensifies the negative impact of such experiences. The psychological impact of this mistreatment included feelings of fear, mistrust, and anger.
These two groups of women felt that there are some perceived advantages and asserted that, compared to men; some things were easier for them because they were women. Many of the examples reflected sexist beliefs and practices. They described characteristics of benevolent sexism, which refers to being taken care of by men. They also discussed ways in which they could use their sexuality to “get away with things” when dealing with men. These behaviors may reflect the internalization of sexist beliefs or they may be deliberate strategies to redress a relative lack of power in many areas of their life. A potential cost is that these behaviors may reify the belief that women will use their sexuality to gain power over men. Such actions are conceptualized as a component of hostile sexism, and both types of sexism are status-legitimizing ideologies that satisfy men’s and women’s notions of men as protectors and women in need of protection.
Participants in the study discussed the idea of inner strength in terms of the image of the “Strong Black Woman”, thereby linking this concept to their gender and racial status. Consistent with the stereotype image, being a strong Black woman consisted of certain behaviors such as caring for one’s family while working and supporting the family economically and also certain personality traits such as resolve, self-reliance, and persistence. Some participants felt that racism directed toward Black men made it more common for them to be absent from the household, furthering the need for Black women to be strong and self-reliant. These women also noted the emotional burden of having to be strong. The idea of the strong Black woman, also termed the “Superwoman” stereotype is associated with emotional and psychological costs. It has been linked to unhealthy overeating and lower self-esteem.
The over-sexualized stereotypes of African American women displayed in the media and in the broader society have helped to shape the perception of women’s and girl’s sexuality. They may shape the way in which they view themselves as well as influence the way others value and interact with them. Across ethnicities, women are sexualized and objectified through media images. Although women of other ethnicities have also experienced sexual victimization, the legacy of slavery associates the sexual exploitation of African American women with degrading and dehumanizing practices. In order to justify their sexual violation, the role of sex object was ascribed to African American women.
The stereotype “Jezebel” was one of the most overtly sexual images that emerged and is often perceived as a woman who is seductive, unable to control her sexual drives, and manipulative. This image reflects the exploitation prevalent in their sexuality. The modern Jezebel stereotype was related to attitudes toward sexual activity, such that endorsement of this image was related to a perception that risky sexual behaviors were less harmful. However, this image puts them in greater danger. Currently, African American girls are one of the fastest growing groups to contract HIV, with rates exceeding even those of African American boys. The emerging face of the Aids epidemic in the U.S. is now young, Black, and female.
Numerous cultural and historical factors have made relationships between African American men and women increasingly complex and tenuous. Stereotypes have labeled African American men as unreliable and lazy and African American women as too domineering for the good of her man and she is viewed as the central figure in his emasculation. Both of these groups of men and women have accepted this stereotypic view as documented fact of mutual inadequacies.
Society has historically defined manhood and womanhood differently for African American men and women than for their Caucasian counterparts. During slavery, African American men were limited in their roles and essentially removed from positions of power in the family and workforce. Likewise, if femininity for the Caucasian woman was valued, frail and protected, then, “the Black woman had to be released from the chains of the myth of femininity” and “annulled as woman” for slavery to work. This made her equal to her man and in some cases, superior to him in terms of permission to manipulate the system for the good of her family. The result of this has been the social equivalent of what Berne labels “Lets You and Him Fight”, a game that can end badly for everyone. This game maintains the victims in a continual posture of opposition and blaming without ever focusing on the real persecutor, the system that offers unequal access to education and employment as vehicles for success. As a result, they often find that “the tension of living in a racist society filters into their most intimate relationships.”
Confronted with the harsh realities of mate selection, African American women often pursue education as a path to economic and social security. However, African American women as well as Caucasian women must contend with negative stereotypes about their abilities in many scholastic domains, primarily in math and the physical sciences. Where bad stereotypes about them apply, they can fear being reduced to that stereotype. This predicament can be self-threatening. Negative stereotypes about them bear on important academic abilities. Those who are identified with domains in which these stereotypes apply, the threat of these stereotypes can be sharply felt and can hamper their achievement.
If the threat is experienced in the middle of a domain performance- test-taking or classroom presentation- the emotional reaction it causes could directly interfere with their performance. When this threat becomes chronic, it can pressure disidentification, a reconceptualization of the self and of one’s values so as to remove the domain as a self-identity, as a basis of self-evaluation. Disidentification offers the retreat of not caring about the domain in relation to the self. It can undermine motivation in the domain, an adaptation that can be costly when the domain is as important as schooling.
If the African American woman can make it through the negative stereotyping educationally, she still has to contend with the stereotypes in the workforce. One study examined the influence of mediated stereotypes on perceptions of the African American woman. Participants in this study observed a mammy, jezebel or nonstereotypic image on video, then observed a mock employment interview involving either an African American woman or Caucasian woman. Participants associated the African American woman more quickly with negative terms than with positive terms. When evaluating the African American interviewee, participants who observed the jezebel stereotype video responded more quickly to jezebel-related terms (e.g. sexual) than positive, negative and mammy (e.g. maternal) terms.
All women face different stereotypes which can have a lasting impact throughout their lives. The African American woman can face sometimes double or triple the oppressions of other ethnicities. These stereotypes impact the way they view themselves and are viewed by others. They can also impact their sexuality, relationships, educational and employment opportunities. Stereotypes can influence every aspect of the African American woman’s life and can create a severe amount of damage that can be felt through the generations. As a society, we have a lot of work to do to help curb the impact of these stereotypes and create more opportunities for success.