An old adage claims that experience is the best teacher. Some argue that education is the key to enlightenment. However, research indicates that combining the two produces the best results when seeking to change attitudes surrounding racism (McClellan and Linnander 27). Yet many people rely on either one or the other when trying to learn about other cultures. We have all met people who believe that they are not prejudiced because they “have friends who are black (or Hispanic or Asian, etc.).” I was one of those people for most of my life.
Based on my interactions with family, friends and acquaintances of African descent, I thought I understood how black people experience life in the United States. Recently, while participating in an intergroup dialogue between people of color and whites, I discovered just how little I knew. That insight, among other things, led me to a class entitled "Images of Black Women" at Portland State University.
Prior to this course, my impression of African-American women was that they came in every shape, size and shade; that some were ideologically conservative, others liberal, and still others in the middle. My impression of African-American women was that, intellectually, some were smarter than I, some less so, and most right around the same. My impression of African-American women included people in every profession, from police officer to maid; from U.S. senator to waitress; from doctor to stripper. I could not imagine a profession in which a woman’s race would be a consideration, though I was aware that there were people who made choices based on race, presumably out of their own personal prejudices.
My impression of African-American women was that most are Baptist. Economically, I was aware that African-Americans are overrepresented in social entitlement programs and often stereotyped as welfare-dependent, even though numerically whites still comprise the majority of those receiving government assistance. In terms of personality, my impression of African-American women was that some are outgoing, others shy; some are relationships-orientated while others are ruggedly individualistic; some are highly organized and methodical, others more laid back and spontaneous. My impression of African-American women’s communication style was that many are more straightforward and assertive than white women, but that many are not.
Having completed this course, I stand by most of my original impressions of African-American women, with a few adjustments. Based on this and other college courses, plus what I have learned through intergroup dialogue, I now see that it is not merely personal prejudice that inhibits a black woman’s professional options, but institutional and cultural racism, as well. In terms of religion, I can see how movies and television have influenced me toward a Baptist assumption. After all, though some of my black family members and friends are Baptist – most are in Texas, after all – many were Methodist, some Seventh-Day Adventist and others Lutheran. My black friends in Oregon include Muslims and atheists.
Further, this course has demonstrated how those in power manipulate cultural standards and encourage cultural racism in order to maintain their elite positions (Jewell 4). I was aware of the power-elite’s manipulation of the American public in other areas, but I did not see the intentionality behind racial stereotypes. Nor was I aware that I had bought into them. Because of what I learned about Mammy and Aunt Jemima, I have a new reason to reject the film “Gone with the Wind,” with which I had already begun to feel discomfort. Further, I have changed my brand of pancake syrup because I believe that my voice is most clearly heard when it affects the power-elite’s wallet.
I had never heard Jezebel used as a stereotype of black women. I was familiar with the Biblical story from which the name derives, but I did not associate it with race. Understanding this stereotype and the damage it inflicts on black women caused me to reconsider the film, “Imitation of Life,” in which a Mammy-type character ignores her mulatto daughter in favor of taking care of a white family; the mulatto daughter reacts by trying to pass as white and seduce white men.
Though I was familiar with the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” I was unaware of several of the traits ascribed to her in our course. I was especially surprised by the emasculating aspect of her character, although I now recognize how much I enjoy that particularly damaging humor. The most painful learning from this course surrounded internalized racism. I have heard the term a few times, but did not have a framework for it until I interviewed my friend for the mid-term presentation. Before the interview, I primarily considered internalized racism in terms of little girls who preferred white dolls or wished that they had straight, blonde hair. However, after listening to my friend, whom I’ve known for more than 20 years, personally identify with Sapphire and express her opinion that the caricatures are not stereotypes at all, but based in truth, my heart broke. The conceptual framework required for understanding something I have not experienced was in place with a vengeance.
In terms of an African-American woman’s culture, I was fairly ignorant prior to this class. I only recently learned that I had been applying a color-blind brush to my perceptions of people of color, so all I knew was that I did not know. Taking this class has helped to give me an appreciation for some of the cultural influences on black women in America, including influences which pre-date African women’s captivity by slave traders. Further, I learned about some of the direct impacts that slavery has on African-American women even today, such as the intentional fracturing of black families in slave owners’ attempts to break the spirits of both husband and wife.
I believe that the story of black women in America over the next 25 years will be one of accelerated progress in terms of societal perceptions and, as a result, they will see increased professional and economic parity and an increase in access to resources previously reserved for those deemed more worthy by today’s generation. Though I do not expect there to be any fewer struggles than they have faced over the past 200+ years, I do foresee more successes than previously experienced. Despite the high number of stereotypes perpetuated in the media, we also have black women in visible positions who can and do inspire today’s young African-American women.
Michelle Obama is an excellent role model, not because her husband is the president of the United States, but because of all that she had accomplished in her life prior to his election. Further, as she has fought for acceptance as our “First Lady,” Obama has repositioned herself from the successful professional image to the more traditional wife and mother role. Though she faced criticism for this, Brittney Cooper points out that even this image challenges stereotypical myths of black women as bad mothers (50).
Recently, Lieutenant Colonel Merryl (David) Tengesdal flew a U.S. Air Force U-2, the first woman to do so (Burton). Also in aviation, Captain Rachelle Jones, First Officer Stephanie Grant, Flight Attendant Robin Rogers, and Flight Attendant Diana Galloway made up the first all African-American female flight crew in the United States (CNN.com).
Right here in Oregon we have Avel Gordly, who served in the Oregon House of Representatives and in the Oregon Senate. Senator Gordly is perhaps best known as the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon Senate. However, her list of accomplishments is long, broad and deep. Most recently, she added “author” to her repertoire (Avel Gordly Biography). Senator Gordly’s visible success, as well as others, will inspire the African-American women of the upcoming generation to achieve even more.
Regarding portrayals of black women in the media, there is always Oprah Winfrey, who is a savvy businessperson, as well. I am in the process of evaluating characters of my favorite television shows, such as Caroline Julian and Camille Saroyan on “Bones.” While researching for this paper, I discovered an online article which suggests that positive African-American women can be found on television. The author listed several television shows with which I am unfamiliar and suggested that the problem is not availability of positive representations, but that viewers of all races prefer the sensational to the sensible (Arceneaux).
The simple existence of this class and similar courses in colleges and universities across the United States encourages me. That I am not the only white in the class encourages me. As we all become better educated on issues surrounding gender and race, and interact with those of other ethnicities in classrooms and conference rooms, we can pass what we learn on to others not only of the next generation, but to those in our own generation. As other adults see the need for change and work to make that change in their own lives, they too may teach their young ones of a better way of interacting with people. Further, when enough of us get angry enough, movements similar to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century will once again arise, demanding change from those who least want to see it.
Arceneaux, Michael. “Yes, There Are Positive Images of Black Women on Reality TV.” The Root. Web. 14 July 2011.
Avel Gordly Biography. Portland State Black Studies. Web. 14 July 2011.
Burton, Von L. Real African American Heroes. Web. 14 July 2011.
CNN.com Transcripts. CNN Newsroom, 27 February 2009. Web. 14 July 2011.
Cooper, Brittney. "A'n't I a Lady?: Race Women, Michelle Obama, and the Ever-Expanding Democratic Imagination." MELUS. 39-57. MELUS, 2010. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 July 2011.
Jewell, K. Sue. From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.
McClelland, Katherine, and Erika Linnander. "The Role of Contact and Information in Racial Attitude Change among White College Students." Sociological Inquiry 76.1 (2006): 81-115. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 July 2011.