Diane M Adams & Elana H Lott. Women & Therapy. Volume 42, Issue 3-4. 2019.
There was considerable discourse during the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s about the role and position of Black women within the movement, the place of feminism in the movement, and Black male-female relationships. As two Black women, a mother and daughter, generations apart, we were curious and somewhat dismayed to find as we talked that in the new civil rights movement of today, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, there continues to be discourse about these same three domains of concern. Now, over 50 years later, some of the same paternalistic issues and rhetoric have surfaced again. Our curiosity and dismay prompted us to delve deeper; has this discourse evolved, what’s changed, what’s remained the same, and importantly, what can we learn from this discourse about the gender oppression of Black women? Although much of the literature written about Black women focuses on White racism and the forms and systems of White racism perpetuated against Black women, much less attention has been paid to sexism and misogyny within the Black community. However, these have been persistent issues for Black women. In this article, we examine the discourse around these issues and explore the systems of misogyny and paternalism affecting Black women within the Black community. This is a topic that is often taboo. However, due to hetero-patriarchal ideologies and power relationships within the Black community, we believe it is important to consider the historical and political relationships of Black women to Black men, as well as to White women, and White men when considering the position that Black women occupy in U.S. society. These relationships and ideologies are internalized and can be the source of a great deal of mental anguish and conflict.
In examining the discourse about Black women in the 60s civil rights movement and in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we use intersectional and social movement theory as lenses for discussion. We explore the evolution of this discourse and its meaning for understanding the confluence of gender and race in the oppression of Black women. We found that our exploration of this discourse served to highlight some of the major psychosocial concerns of young Black women and to illustrate how they are situated both within the Black community and within the larger fabric of U.S. society.
Social Movements and Discourse
Social movement theory holds that social movements create competing discourses within a society (Brush, 1999). However, both the Black and feminist movements of the 70s failed to provide a counter dialog articulating the gender oppression of Black women. Neither movement provided discourse that legitimized Black women’s experience of gender oppression or the language to articulate it (Brush, 1999). The inattention of feminism to racism and the inattention of the Black Movement to sexism resulted in a subordination of Black women’s concerns during this time (Crenshaw, 1991; Davis, 1983). Discourse during the Black civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s focused on racism and Black liberation, not on gender oppression. Discussions of sexism, particularly those involving misogyny in the Black community, were discouraged and suppressed (Wallace, 1980). In contrast, the #BlackLivesMatter movement started over 50 years later with a stated intention to affirm the experiences of Black individuals marginalized in the earlier Black liberation movement (Garza, n.d., “Broadening the Conversation,” para. 1). Although certain themes persist, this intersectional approach has in some ways changed the discourse. Discourse in the Black Lives Matter movement has also been affected by the digital age. Online interactions have altered communications and served to broaden and publicize numerous types of discourse and issues affecting the movement. As we examine discourse in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we will turn to social media to capture the contemporary voices of the Black community and Black women.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and 70s
The Black civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s was a defining time in the development of a Black consciousness and identity. It provided a competing discourse about Blacks in this society, about their African heritage and ancestry, their history of oppression, and the structures and beliefs within this society that support that oppression. Discourse about Black history, pride, and solidarity became the source of a new collective identity and provided language, symbols, and ideas used to articulate, celebrate, and protest the Black experience (Brush, 1999). However, in some ways, the dialog about Black women perpetuated and legitimized the gender oppression of Black women (Staples, 1979; Wallace, 1980). This discourse centered on the three domains of concern we identified earlier: the role and position of Black women; Black male-female relationships; and the role of feminism in the movement. We briefly recap this discourse as a basis for comparison when we examine similar topics and discourse in the current #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The Role and Position of Black Women in the Movement
Discourse on the role and position of Black women in the 60s and 70s centered on Black women taking a backseat. Black women were behind-the-scene leaders, yet Black men took the lead in articulating the needs of the Black community (Brush, 1999, p. 124). The role of the Black woman was marginalized and overshadowed in favor of the Black male experience (Cazenave, 1983; Chisholm, 1972), and Black women were actively encouraged to step back and take a backseat to Black men in the public’s eye and in leadership. This rhetoric was fueled by the myths of the Black matriarchy (Moynihan, 1965) and the powerful privileged Black woman (Wallace, 1980). The myth of the powerful, privileged Black woman characterized Black women as inordinately tough, domineering, bitchy, and lacking the fears and weaknesses of other women (Wallace, 1980).
This characterization was compounded by the myth of the Black matriarchy which emerged during the 60s and instigated by a government report by a White social scientist (Moynihan, 1965), which called attention to a so-called crisis in the Black family and community and blamed the position of Black women as heads of household. These myths, coupled with earlier images that portrayed Black women as loud, overbearing, and emasculating, were used to justify the need for Black women to take a back seat to correct the damaged image of Black men and to heal strained Black male-female relationships (Cazenave, 1983; Wallace, 1980). Although these myths were partially debunked (Rodgers-Rose, 1980; Wallace, 1980), they were paradoxically enacted in the politics of the day with pronouncements that it was time for Black women to step back and let Black men take the lead (Chisholm, 1972).
Black Male-Female Relationships
A great deal of dialog centered on Black male-female relationships, much of it uncomplimentary. The Black woman was viewed as being complicit in compromising the manhood of Black men (Wallace, 1980). During the civil rights movement, the restoration of Black men’s image and authority was a goal Black women were expected to support. Black women accepted this premise and, for the most part, kept silent and lent their support. There were allegations that Black women had participated in the “social” castration of Black men and in keeping the Black man down (Cazenave, 1983). Black women were blamed for alleged negative relationships between Black women and men. And, while this time period rang with the slogan “Black is beautiful” and the appellation Black African Queen was liberally applied to Black women in the Black community, differential standards in beauty, both within and external to the Black community, and persistent issues of colorism belied these proclamations.
The Role of Feminism in the Movement
During the civil rights movement, talk about feminism and misogyny was suppressed. Many Black women at the time took the position that the “Women’s movement was a White woman’s thing and the role to which White women were assigned was of no concern to Black women” (Chisholm, 1972, p. 125), or the point of view also prevalent at the time that women’s liberation wasn’t for Black women because Black men needed Black women supporting them in the fight for liberation of the race (Brush, 1999). Emphasis was placed on Black men and women presenting a united front. Discourse about racism trumped discourse about gender oppression, liberation first critics exclaimed (Chisholm, 1972).
Gender, Race, Oppression, and Intersectional Theory
The civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s focused on Blacks as a group and the oppression of Black people because they were Black rather than for any other reason. Well-known discourses at the time pointed to White society’s lack of distinction in class, gender, or education when it came to discrimination against Blacks. The conversation went that it did not matter whether or not you had a Ph.D., you were still just another Black person, although Black was not the word used, and subject to oppression for that reason. “It was not until the 80s that researchers and thinkers began to recognize that when we have studied blacks we have studied Black men and when we have talked about women we usually meant white women” (Smith & Stewart, 1983, p. 4). The category Black often excludes the experiences of other groups within that category, such as the experiences of women (Schug, Alt, Lu, Gosin, & Fay, 2015). One consequence is that the Black experience has most often been equated with cis-gendered heterosexual Black men’s struggles and experiences (Cole, 2009). Thus, the concerns of Black women are often marginalized and invisible. Perhaps this is why in the social sciences literature, and online, as Black women talked about their subjective experiences, we found that themes of being invisible, unheard, unseen, and misunderstood arose again and again. In the late 80s and early 90s, Crenshaw (1991) introduced the concept of an intersectional approach as a way to explore the unique confluence of racism and sexism in the lives of women of color.
Intersectional theory recognizes that the intersection between racism and sexism produces a unique outcome. This approach takes into account the unique experiences and perceptions of individuals who belong to more than one subordinate or marginalized group and recognizes that gender, race, class, and sexuality are all identities that intersect and influence each other. Within this paradigm, it becomes important to consider the meaning and consequence of multiple categories of identity, difference, and disadvantage simultaneously. These multiple identities depend upon each other for meaning and “encapsulate historical and continuing relations of political, material, and social inequality and stigma” (Cole, 2009, p. 173). We found that for Black women, societal myths, images, and stereotypes encapsulated and carried many of these meanings and conveyed historical and continuing racist caricatures of Black women which persisted over time. We also found these myths, both externally and within the Black community, played an important part in shaping patriarchal politics in the 60s.
Social Media and Discourse
As we turn to an examination of contemporary discourse, we will be asking the question: what, if any, changes have taken place in the Black community surrounding Black women’s issues within the civil rights movement of today, commonly referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement? Specifically, we will be using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, along with online articles and comments to capture and examine contemporary discourse concerning the same and similar issues as discussed in the 60s movement. The online nature of social media and comment sections can create anonymity, a challenge when specifically discussing Black issues. We relied heavily on posters self-identifying, and unless otherwise noted, only comments from posters who self-identified as Black were used. Online articles were included because they are often read in lieu of regular newspapers and posted to social media as a way to share information and generate discussion. All the social media platforms used are share-based; they thrive on the idea of “digital sharing”, allowing users to post articles, images, video, and links to digital content which ranges from personal to entertainment to political or any blend thereof. When a certain post or hash tag (#) becomes ubiquitous across platforms and pushes into popular consciousness, it’s referred to as “viral.” The hash tag “Black Lives Matter” is an excellent example of this and of the power of social media to bring an idea into mainstream discussion.
#BlackLivesMatter: The New Civil Rights Movement
The hash tag Black Lives Matter was created after the shooter of Trayvon Martin, a 14-year-old unarmed Black male, was acquitted in 2013. This sparked a national debate on the prejudice against and systematic de-valuation of Black lives. This conversation was pushed further into the spotlight in August 2014 by the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer. Through the use of Twitter and #BlackLivesMatter, such incidents were catapulted into the national media, making headline news, sparking protest, and introducing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement into national consciousness. Since its inception in 2014, #BlackLivesMatter has been applied to multiple high profile police shootings or fatalities involving Black men and boys: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and a few Black women: Sandra Bland and to a lesser extent Rekia Boyd. Given the obvious disparity in gender representation in the public face of the movement, it might surprise some to learn that the founders of Black Lives Matter are three queer Black women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors. On their website Garza states:
Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extra judicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement. (Garza, n.d., “Broadening the Conversation,” para 1).
Clearly, the intention from the inception was to take an intersectional approach and, interestingly, to purposively redress the lack of an intersectional focus in the earlier Black liberation movement.
Issues of Invisibility
If intersectionality and inclusion were the intended focus, the question becomes why headlines became dominated by Black men. Discourse about this question centered on the relative invisibility and marginalization of Black women and people with other intersecting identities in the Black community within the public face of the movement. The answer is to blame White patriarchal, male-centric, media coverage or to claim that Black males experience worse suffering than Black women at the hands of the police. In the current dialog about women of color and violence, the danger and misogyny of this old viewpoint is being highlighted. Black feminists and activists note that the exclusion of Black women upholds the patriarchal notion that the gendered violence Black women face at the hands of police, such as sexual assault, physical abuse in police custody, and lack of protection during domestic violence disputes is of lesser concern and value to the liberation movement than the violence experienced by men (Crenshaw, Owens, & Nanda, 2015; Crenshaw & Ritchie, 2015). They also note this behavior erases Black women from the conversation, undermines their work on behalf of the community, and, in doing so, excludes them from justice, raising again the issue of invisibility (Crenshaw et al., 2015; Crenshaw & Ritchie, 2015). The exclusion of Black women and their concerns from the face of the BLM movement has not gone unnoticed. A prominent case in point is the death of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Black woman fatally shot in her own home. The Black Lives Matter movement took on Gaines’ case and pressed for more media coverage and accountability; however, the Black community’s adoption of #BlackLivesMatter to support Gaines was not as widespread as it had been for others and stood in stark contrast to the outcry and sympathy given to Philando Castile just weeks earlier, who was shot and killed by police in his car under similar circumstances.
The Role and Position of Black Women
When we talk about the civil rights movement of an earlier era, the charismatic leaders of the past spring vividly to mind: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey P. Newton. Although they had different viewpoints and took different approaches to the civil rights movements in their era, they were all Black men speaking on behalf of the entire Black community. Currently, the Black Lives Matter movement is often called leaderless because it lacks the charismatic male spokesperson of the earlier civil rights movement (Cohen & Jackson, 2016). In the early days of the BLM movement, Black men in a familiar manner assumed leadership. After the events in Ferguson, both the shooting and protest, assuming a leadership role, Al Sharpton (a figurehead from earlier times) arranged a march in Washington, DC and a male-dominated panel to speak to the media for the Black community (Laslo, 2014). Similarly, Shaun King, a biracial male journalist, gathered a massive following, formed two (now defunct) groups, and garnered a huge amount of mainstream media attention, both positive and negative, as the assumed leader of Black Lives Matter (Garcia, 2016, para. 3). When he shut down his nationwide organization under questionable circumstances involving transparency, integrity, and accountability, the conservative media and BLM detractors tried to tear down the movement based on his failures and still often refer to the BLM movement as leaderless and disorganized.
In an interview with Dissent magazine, Dr. Maria Chatelain, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown, said: “It isn’t a coincidence that a movement that brings together the talents of black women—many of them queer—for the purpose of liberation is considered leaderless, since black women have so often been rendered invisible” (Chatelain & Asoka, 2015, para. 27). The implication being that if there was no visible male leadership, then the movement was leaderless. Other concerns were expressed about the subordinate role and position that Black women were being expected to play in the BLM movement by the Black female leadership within the movement. Johnetta “Netta” Elize, a leader in the BLM movement in an interview with The Atlantic said:
In the beginning, the first 21 days, when we were under militarized police occupation, I can say for sure it was way more women than men in those streets. So many black women put their bodies on the line for this cause… So, it is interesting to see the dynamics change when it was time to have meetings and private phone calls… I’d go to these places and it would be predominantly male, predominantly heterosexual black men. There would be little representation of everyone else that was out there in the streets (Berlatsky, 2015, para. 6).
She went on to say that Black women were relegated to the traditional female role of caretaker, allowed to speak only as the bereaved wife, girlfriend, or mother, while in fact they were victims of the same type of violence and were out in the streets putting their lives on the line (Berlatsky, 2015).
She pointed out that Black heterosexual men often tried to control the dynamics at meetings, particularly in community meetings, where policy reforms were discussed and drafted, speaking for or over her instead of asking her opinion. So, what said the commenter Mortarmouth: “When you’re the directly affected demographic, i.e., the victim. I don’t see an issue with your voice receiving pride of place, regardless of who is marching. I don’t think this is a particularly contentious position” (Berlatsky, 2015, “Comments: Mortarmouth,” para. 3). This statement embodies the idea that Black cis-gendered males suffer more at the hands of the police and is a reductionist view founded on the myth of “Black male exceptionalism” (Bulter, 2013, p. 485). This myth embodies the premise that Black men and boys fare worse than any other group in the United States, “and that by almost every index of inequality; Black males are on the bottom, exceptionally burdened and marginalized” (Bulter, 2013, p. 485). The statistical inaccuracies of this myth have been pointed out, but as current discourse indicates, it seems to still be influential in individuals thinking and to have made its way into contemporary dialog (Bulter, 2013; Crenshaw & Ritchie, 2015). The danger of comments and thought patterns which grant Black men “pride of place” is that they perpetuate a system that ignores the suffering of Black women and can contribute to a lack of support. Mortarmouth’s comments, while giving away pride of place, did not acknowledge the work of Black women in the movement.
A similar premise permeated the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Images based on the real persecution of black men “haunted” Black women (Wallace, 1980, p. 31): “visions of …castrated black men hanging by their necks from trees…carcasses floating face down in the Mississippi…black men shining shoes” haunted Black women whenever they encountered misogyny and “stopped them cold” (p. 31). “Every time … [a Black woman] starts to wonder about her own misery…to shake off her devotion and feeling of responsibility to everyone except herself, the ghosts pounce” (p. 31). The mythology and misogyny of this premise lie in the notion of exceptionalism and in overlooking that slavery was dehumanizing for both Black men and women. Although inhumane treatment took gendered forms, it was equally inhumane. Black women were also brutalized: beaten, raped, intimidated, killed, and humiliated. This way of thinking that subscribes to the myth of Black male exceptional suffering uses that fallacy to support the idea that Black men deserve to be the leaders and spokespeople for Black suffering and the liberation movement; they deserve “pride of place.”
The Role of Feminism
In an interview in the The Atlantic, Johnetta “Netta” Elzie was also asked to provide her opinion on the position of women in the Black Lives Matter movement and on the role of feminism in the Black liberation movement (Berlatsky, 2015). She shared her own ambivalence about being labeled a feminist and including feminism in the Black Lives Matter movement. When the interviewer stated that she seemed conflicted, she responded:
“I am conflicted (laughs)… I was talking to Erika Totten and Jamilah Lemieux from Ebony… and [they] have eloquent ways of describing feminism and black feminism, because there is a difference between black feminism and feminism… it’s about addressing issues that face black women, black trans women, and I get it when they say it. But when it’s me by myself, I don’t know what I think about feminism. (Berlatsky, 2015, para. 15)
The tension between the role of feminism, Black women, and the Black liberation movement still exist and Black women are conditioned to choose between identities in a way that heterosexual Black men are not; this includes Black women from all along the gender spectrum.
In response to Elzie’s comments in The Atlantic, a commenter, Edtastic, wrote: “The people crying misogyny are agents of division who have lost the plot. Sexism is the least relevant identity issue in social justice today unless we’re talking about the crisis level negative outcomes facing poor men which are ignored because they are male” (Berlatsky, 2015, “Comments: Edtastic,” para. 20). This was a statement of opinion despite the fact that studies show that Black women are poorer than both White women and Black men (Bulter, 2013). Taking the issue further and challenging the role of feminism in the BLM movement, Edtastic raised an alarm about the potential damage of inserting discussions of misogyny into the current movements discourse, drawing upon the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s as an exemplar of how the issue ought to be handled, he said: “Sexism wasn’t important. Fighting white supremacy was a priority. This petty revisionism from feminists has done nothing to advance the interest or welfare of black people” (Berlatsky, 2015, “Comments – Edtastic,” para. 49). This statement by Edtastic equates the category of Black with the needs of Black males and the needs of the Black community with the needs of Black males. In this equation, the gender oppression of Black women is not only superfluous, it’s divisive, and needs to be ignored in favor of the greater good.
Black Male-Female Relationships
Black women and men responded critically to both Mortarmouth’s and Edastics’ comments and used social media to call out the lack of support for Black female victims like Korryn Gaines. They pointed out that people utilized a separate hash tag, Say Her Name, created by Kimberle Crenshaw in 2015, to specifically highlight Black women who have been victims of police brutality. Criticizing the lack of response from the Black community to Korryn Gaines the Kinfolk Kollective tweeted, “Suddenly Black men take the cops’ word at face value when a Black woman is shot, huh?” (Kinfolk Kollective [knflkkollective], 2016, para. 1). While HGCApparel, a Black-owned clothing business, posted a scathing message to its Instagram account:
Dear Black men, we need to talk. Whenever a Black man is killed by police under questionable circumstance’s, we are ready to hit the streets…screaming “fight the power!” but when a Black woman is killed under the exact same circumstances, far too many Facebook Panther’s turn into Fox News correspondents talking about “We don’t have all of the facts!” or “Well, if she had only complied with officers…we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for doing that. (HGCApparel [HgcApparel], 2016, para. 1)
The message went on to say “Black women feel alone and undefended…So this is me making it plain: if you don’t stand up for Black women…when you are turned into a hash tag, I won’t be there for you either brother. I’ll save my marching shoes for a worthier cause” (HGCApparel [HgcApparel], 2016, para. 4). This message was so controversial it had to be removed from their Instagram account.
In those instances, when Black men stand accused, Black men and the Black community rally to his defense (Bell, 1992). This phenomenon has been referred to as the Black Men’s Club (Bell, 1992). Examples of this phenomenon include Anita Hill, who was vilified when she came forward and accused Clarence Thomas, the Black Supreme Court nominee, of sexual harassment early in the 1991, and more recently, Ray Rice, a prominent Black male athlete, who assaulted his girlfriend and dragged her unconscious body out of an elevator where the assault took place. In both these cases, Black men rallied to the Black man’s defense. He was considered innocent, and the Black woman was considered to be guilty by virtue of lying, misunderstanding, or perhaps being deserving. In the case of Ray Rice, only after a full exposure of the video showing the assault would Black men grudgingly acknowledge his fault. In the process, the women victims’ stories were minimized or dismissed. There was no rally to protect them. In a blog for the Washington Post about Ray Rice, Julian Long (2014) addressed Black men and said their behavior damaged Black women’s “feeling of safety with you. You reinforce the perception that they are alone in their struggle…even more vulnerable in a society that so often leaves them behind” (para.15).
One Black woman watching the judicial hearings that unfolded investigating Anita Hill’s accusations said:
Anita Hill represented me when she testified. All the pathological labels and mythologies attributed to Hill revealed how society perceived me: The wanton sexually promiscuous woman; the scorned Black woman out to get revenge…The hearings left me feeling vulnerable. My identity as a Black woman had been denigrated, and no one came to my defense in a way that affirmed my identity. (Bell, 1992, p. 365)
She went on to say “I received an extremely powerful lesson from the hearings: When a Black woman is hurt, wounded deeply inside, no one comforts her cry” (Bell, 1992, p. 365). This outcry from the 90s was essentially echoed in the 2016 statement of the Black woman online, quoted earlier, who said “Black women feel alone and undefended” (HGCApparel [HgcApparel], 2016, para. 4). The protection of the image of Black men continues to be a theme in current discourse and often contributes to the disbelief and minimization of Black women’s encounters with sexual harassment, physical and sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence.
Colorism and Self-image
Images of Black women have evolved in different ways than images of White women. Although there are some overlaps between general White images of femininity, such as self-sacrificing and nurturing, and historical images of Black women, there are also significant differences. Because of Black women’s history of hard labor, sexual harassment, exploitation, and physical and sexual abuse during slavery, Black women have been excluded from dominant views of femininity, such as the television housewife image of June Cleaver, who is depicted as both nurturing and attractive, while demonstrating a feminine softness associated with minimal hard labor and lack of worldly knowledge (Donovan, 2011).
Images of Black women as inordinately strong and lacking the fears and weaknesses of other women prevail. Currently, the Strong Black Woman (SBW) image depicts Black women in this way as well as self-sacrificing, loyal, nurturing, and worldly-wise. The view of Black women as tough and unfeminine has had many repercussions for Black women, some harsh like facing extraordinary suffering at the hands of police who view them as “superhuman” (Crenshaw & Ritchie, 2015, p. 9), and also has implications for their perceptions of self and others perceptions of them. Issues like colorism which dictate that European features are more feminine and desirable can be internalized by Black men and Black women and can be damaging to Black women’s relationships with self and others.
There is a great deal of contemporary dialog about the phenomenon of colorism. Colorism is a term used within the Black community to address favoritism shown towards people, particularly women, with more “European” features, including a lighter skin-tone, straighter hair texture (also known as “good hair”), thinner facial features (smaller lips and noses), and lighter eye color. When Black women have been foregrounded, both within the Movement for Black Lives and in the general media, the preference for lighter skin or more Euro-centric features have been obvious. In a series of Twitter posts Pax Jone’s, a Black Sri Lankan woman known for developing a hash tag campaign which highlighted colorism in the Asian community, asked: “are we going to acknowledge that the face of young feminism is the light-skinned, bi-racial aesthetic?” (Black Girl with Long Hair, 2016, para. 2). Colorism and the representation of non-Euro looking women as the standard for Black beauty has not only been an issue in wider society for Black women, but has long been a struggle within the Black community. Despite the rhetoric of Black is beautiful, colorism was an issue in the 60s and went unresolved… “too often underneath this rhetoric, remained the old favoritism towards lighter skinned women” (Black Girl with Long Hair, 2016, para. 3).
Sexism, along with colorism, ran rampant, and, as before, it was the lighter Black woman who was in a familiar way favored (Okazawa-Rey, Robinson, & Ward, 1987). Light-skinned women who fit more closely with the American standard of beauty and were in closer proximity to the White ideal were allowed to escape some of the more negative traits associated with Black women’s femininity and beauty. Pax Jones in her tweet went on to point out that darker skinned women were being stereotyped for speaking out and cast as strident, angry, and aggressive… “Dark gurls have always spoken up, but don’t get into vogue and receive praise for being opinionated. If ur dark, ur just mad” (Black Girl with Long Hair, 2016, para 3). Mad, angry, and bitter are often words used to describe Black women, especially dark-skinned Black women, who raise female-centric issues like patriarchy or misogyny and are used to silence their legitimate concerns.
Although there is a lot of discourse around differential standards and representation in mainstream media, the issue although pervasive within the Black community is rarely discussed publicly (Black Girl with Long Hair, 2016, “Comments: Osinachi,” 2016, para. 46). Jones’s tweets sparked a huge discussion on social media within the Black community. She received thousands of comments and retweets, and Son of Baldwin, a progressive Black Facebook page, reposted the tweets to their page and called for discussion. In framing the conversation, the Son of Baldwin page asked their followers to be “kind” while discussing a “painful, often traumatic, triggering topic” and went on to ask that non-Black women/femme commenters be respectful of those directly affected by the issue and not hi-jack, dismiss, or undermine their personal experiences (Son of Baldwin, 2016, para 5). These comments highlight the personal and emotional nature of this issue and the importance of Black women being allowed to define themselves and be heard.
Discussion and Conclusions
In reviewing both the social science literature and the voices of Black women online issues of invisibility, feeling unheard and not seen or understood, and of hurt (“Who will hear my cry and comfort me?”) arise again and again. The subjective experiences of Black women emanating from the issues we explored are a subjectivity which is often unknown to or hidden from Whites, including White women therapists. Yet, these experiences engender strong emotional reactions. These issues are often not brought up in a mixed race therapy dyad because the client assumes that the White therapist does not know, and would not understand, or would misinterpret through a filter of White privilege and superiority. Or they are not brought up because the client sees doing so as an inappropriate airing of dirty linen, a violation of the racial credo of presenting a united Black front. Therapists need to be cognizant of these issues, how they manifest, and the kinds of concerns and the conflicts they engender in Black women. This is true also for having an awareness of historical and contemporary images, myths, and stereotypes of Black women. These images provide invitations for identification for young Black women and figure prominently in the ways Black women are perceived. For example, Black women who have internalized the image of the SBW may experience conflicts about self-sacrifice and self-care. Others may see Black women as strong and tough and be unable to experience the full range of their feelings, such as helplessness or being unable to ask for help.
Self-image and Colorism
Beauty, skin color, and hair texture have proven to be important considerations in young Black women’s standards of beauty (Capodilupo & Kim, 2014) and to be of concern in both individual and group therapy for Black women (West, 1995). Colorism is an issue in the lives of Black women which is not publicly discussed outside the Black community, but that causes a great deal of conflict and stress. Recent research (Capodilupo & Kim, 2014) indicated that young Black women’s self-images and their concerns about them were influenced by their families and their perceptions of Black men’s preferences which manifest in the Black communities’ standards about beauty. A suggestion for therapists for addressing the concerns of young Black women about image and physical appearance is that the therapists can explore the roles and expectations of the client’s families about these characteristics and the messages they are hearing from others (West, 1995). Young Black women experience conflicts about the mixed messages they receive from Black men (i.e., Black is beautiful on the one hand, but colorism on the other) and messages from family that conflict with messages about body image prevalent in wider society when, for example, family members value a curvier body shape, while society advocates going to the gym and losing weight (Capodilupo & Kim, 2014). Self-definition and self-affirmation are important for Black women because so much of who they are, how they are seen, and how they see themselves has been defined by others. Therapy needs to be affirming of their experiences as Black women, including their experiences with colorism, and encouraging of self-definition, sometimes in opposition to what others expect of them, but based on their own realities, experiences, and resources.
Myths, Images, and Stereotypes
Myths, images, and stereotypes become an important ingredient for understanding a psychology of Black women. They are difficult to alter, effect the recipient and the stereotyped individual, and influence the power dynamics in interpersonal interactions (West, 1995). It is important for therapists to remember that they too have internalized these images and stereotypes and that they too are complicit in issues of colorism. Color-consciousness in the Black community is supported by wider society where racism upholds notions of White superiority (Okazawa-Rey et al., 1987). It is important for therapists, particularly White women therapists, to examine the degree to which they have internalized issues of colorism, stereotypes, and images of Black women and to examine their attitudes of superiority. The image of the Strong Black Woman is a prevalent contemporary image of Black women. This image, although it has been criticized for its emphasis on strength and preclusion of weakness, can also be viewed as one way Black women have self-defined that fits the reality of their experience. Identification can be a way of coping. If you aren’t heard, why not be loud; if you are subjected to vicious circumstances, then why wouldn’t you be tough; and as a Black woman, like other oppressed groups, there is certainly enough to be angry about. Therapists working with young Black girls need to recognize these realities and the unique pressures on young Black women as to what kind of a Black woman to become. The notion of what kind of Black woman to become is myriad and complicated, comprising many different aspects of potential identifications.
Feminism and Black Male-Female Relationships
Certain structures, systems, symbols, and language supporting the oppression of Black women emerged from our examination of discourse about the role of feminism and Black male-female relationships. Language and symbols supporting that oppression were the Black Men’s Club (Bell, 1992), the myth of the Exceptional Black Male (Butler, 2013), rhetoric about the divisiveness of feminism, and misogynistic ideals about the traditional American woman. During the civil rights movement of the 60s, Shirley Chisholm (1972) noted “proponents of ‘Black liberation only’ envision that Black women will someday play the same kind of role that White women now play” (p. 125). She went on to describe that role in terms of a traditional “American woman” (p. 125) stereotype. This stereotypical role was reflected in the leadership struggles and interpersonal dynamics in the current civil rights movement in attempts to cast women in caretaking roles and allow men to be the face of the movement.
However, there seems to be a change in both leadership style and the willingness of young Black women to articulate and protest their oppression rather than suppress it. For example, Netta Elize, one of the on-ground leaders and organizers in Ferguson, interrupted Sharpton’s speech, “telling the crowd of the rubber bullets she was hit with while protesting” and legitimizing her work, and claimed her role as leader (Laslo, 2014, para. 4). There is also a less hierarchal approach to contemporary leadership; some of the criticism of Black Lives Matter as “leaderless” is generational (Chatelain & Asoka, 2015). The very structure of the Black Lives Matter movement eschews the version of central leadership that was so crucial to the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Black women and Black Lives Matter’s supporters have rejected this old leadership model. In this new model, “women are leading without suggesting they are the only leaders or that there is only one way to lead” (Chatelain & Asoka, 2015, para. 28)
The Rise of Intersectionality and a Glimpse of Black Feminism
Intersectional theory has influenced the contemporary civil rights movement. The stated intention of the founders, three Queer Black women, was to address issues of intersectionality and marginalization within the movement and to advance these issues in ways that redressed the lack of attention they received earlier. Since the 60s, coalition politics have become common, definitions of multiculturalism and diversity are more inclusive, and a great deal of discourse has taken place about gender, the gender spectrum, and attitudes about gender. These cultural movements and discourses seem to have changed the approach in the Black civil rights movement of today. In spite of tensions within the movement, the BLM leadership and membership have staunchly reiterated its commitment to an intersectional approach. When the membership brought forward issues with Shaun King, they stressed that they were working to bring consensus around issues that impact all of us (JT30, 2015, para. 13) and stressed the importance of diversity, intersectionality, transparency, and collaboration in the movement. The new civil rights movement, although sometimes troubled by ideas regarding Black women’s role and position that are similar to old misogynistic ideals that plagued the earlier civil rights movement, has challenged this role for women and affirmed an intersectional approach.
There is still some reluctance about raising issues about feminism and misogyny. As stated previously, this reluctance was voiced by Nettie Elize when she was asked about the role of feminism in the movement. She responded, “I am conflicted” (Berlatsky, 2015, para. 15). Too often in the dialog about feminism, Black women are asked to choose between their Blackness and gender. Asking someone to choose between their identities is damaging and creates conflicts in identity and a false dichotomy, allowing issues between these intersectional identities to be silenced or deemed trivial. Empowering this discussion can inspire healing, social change, and have a positive impact on the overall Black community. The public nature of social media has created a place for conversation, sharing, and dissent with a wide audience. Social media keeps these issues in consciousness both within and outside the Black community. It also provides a venue for discussing Black issues in the Black community. A broad range of Black women can share their experiences with other Black women, and it becomes harder for others, Black men and Whites, to silence, nullify, or belittle their experience. It is also a place to express positivity and collectively self-define and uplift. This can be seen in popular hash tags like #blackgirlmagic, #melanin, and #blacklove. This is a hopeful circumstance because the struggles continue.