I am reading The Obamas by Jodi Kantor at the moment for a review and I have consequently been thinking a lot about black women in power and how they are perceived. This led me to the book, Sister Citizen, which I would love to read when I find a copy. Here is the author of Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry on how she couldn’t write about black American women’s politics without also writing about the psychological pain for black women of racist and sexist stereotypes:
Yale University Press: In writing about black women’s politics, why did you focus on psychological and emotional questions rather than resource inequalities, institutional practices, or traditional forms of political participation?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I wanted this book to contribute to our understanding of black women as citizens. At first, I expected to write a more traditional political science text about women who organize in communities and run for office. But my research efforts kept bringing me back to black women’s internal emotional experiences. The women I interviewed were keenly aware of race and gender barriers, resource disparities, and limited opportunities, but when they talked about themselves as Americans, they focused on psychic pain, emotional stress, debilitating shame, and the pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations. Many felt that they were trying to “do politics” in an environment where no one was willing to see them accurately or compassionately.
YUP: Sister Citizen discusses several stereotypes about black women. What are they, and why did you choose to explore them?
MH-P: In Sister Citizen I focus on three of the most pervasive and damaging historical stereotypes: Jezebel, Mammy, and the Angry Black Woman (Sapphire). Jezebel is an old myth asserting that black women are hypersexual, lusty, and wanton. This stereotype continues to influence public policy discussions about welfare assistance and reproductive rights. Mammy is the hypercompetent but completely nonthreatening black woman. The image of the devoted Mammy who uses her talents and skills to benefit the white domestic sphere is an epic stereotype promulgated in advertising, popular culture, and politics. Sapphire is a more contemporary archetype characterizing black women as aggressively and irrationally irate. It can be difficult for black women to get a fair hearing of their views if their passionate expressions are filtered through this negative assumption. Finally, I explore the myth of the strong black woman. Unlike the other stereotypes, which black women agree are negative and false, many African American women both believe and embrace the idea that they are endowed with a superhuman capacity to conquer overwhelming challenges. We might see this myth of strength as a positive counter to the negative stereotypes, but there are adverse consequences for black women who are determined to don the mantle of strength. Overall, I try to understand how black women’s attempts to manage both the negative stereotypes and this presumably empowering myth can influence how they feel as they approach their political lives.
I find that last bit about the myth of strength fascinating. Such an alluring fantasy and yet so self-punishing. When there exists a myth about your strength there is no expectation that your deserve support, and there is also no forgiveness when you fail to deliver on that strength. A similar myth exists about mothers (and I imagine it exists tenfold for black mothers).