Category Archives: Black feminism

5 Controlling Images that Affect Black Women

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins introduced controlling images in her 1986 Social Problems article “Learning from the Outsider Within” to describe the stereotypes that provide the basis for the dehumanization of Black women and the exploitation of their labor. Collins expands on this concept in “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images,” the fourth chapter of her book Black Feminist Thought.

Part of the mission of Black feminism, according to Collins, involves challenging the controlling images that affect Black women. Controlling images result from binary oppositional thinking that emphasizes and then reinforces differences among social groups. Such thinking implies superiority and inferiority in social relationships, leading to the objectification and domination of one group over another.

Oppositional binary thinking as reported by Collins leads society to devalue Black women due to the cult of true womanhood. Society thus upholds middle-class white women as the symbol of purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. Black women, on the other hand, have to grapple with five different controlling images: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother, the Black lady, and the Jezebel. In this blog, I summarize each of these stereotypes as described by Collins in Black Feminist Thought.

The Mammy

The controlling image of the Mammy characterizes Black women as domestic servants who epitomize faithfulness and obedience. Typically, people think of Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind.

Source: GIPHY

This portrayal depicted how the Mammy serves as the ideal relationship between Black women and white men in positions of power. According to Collins, the Mammy operates at the center of the intersectionality of race, gender,  class and sexuality. Society, particularly during the colonial era, uses this controlling image to justify the social positions of multiple groups.

The Mammy teaches Black children to subordinate themselves to whiteness. The Mammy also teaches that Black women lack sexuality and desirability, making them good surrogate mothers for the children of white women whose position aligns in subordination to white men as their ideal partners. This controlling image serves to justify paying Black women low wages for service and care work.

The Matriarch

I have written about the myth of Black matriarchy before because the idea seems relatively popular among Black nationalist circles as an explanation for a multitude of perceived ills against and within Black America. The matriarch refers to the idea that Black families headed by unmarried mothers caused rather than resulted from the poverty and concentrated disadvantage that envelops most of Black America.

The actress Mo’Nique Hicks portrayed perhaps the most iconic contemporary representation of this trope in the 2009 film Precious.

Collins writes that the Black matriarchy thesis emerged as tensions began to arise between the mid-twentieth century feminist and Civil Rights movements. Since Black mothers worked, unlike their white middle-class counterparts, the matriarch failed to embody true femininity and instead stood too strong relative to underemployed or unemployed Black men. This imagery therefore exacerbates gender relations in Black communities due to the insistence that the structural inequalities that present Black women a means to more consistently support their families financially amounts to a cultural deficit.

Hard-working Black mothers, therefore, emasculated Black men as they failed to embody the passivity of the mammy. The belief that Black mothers behaving badly explained economic disadvantage got legitimized by the federal government in the 1965 Moynihan Report. Thus, this controlling image brings together the intersections of class, gender, and race to explain away the true causes of racial oppression in the U.S.

The Welfare Mother

Mo’Nique’s character in Precious also invokes another controlling image – the Welfare Mother. This imagery characterizes poor, working-class Black mothers as responsible for the diminishing quality of life in the contemporary capitalist society as a whole. According to Collins, this perception of Black women extends all the way back to slavery, related to an image of Black women as breeders for the labor force of plantation owners.

This trope encompasses the intersections of race, gender, and class just like the matriarch. It also shifts blame for contemporary inequality to Black women as a form of social control of their fertility through targeted federal social welfare policies.

The Black Lady

The Black lady centers on the politics of respectability of middle-class Black women in professional careers. Claire Huxtable played by Phylicia Rashad in the Cosby Show exemplifies this representation.

Source: GIPHY

Collins describes this controlling image as a modern mammy because it implicates Black women as working too hard and therefore acting too strong for men to desire them. Additionally, this perception of Black women entering middle class status leads to resentment of the gendered dimensions of affirmative action as men claim Black women have taken career opportunities away from them. In particular, Black men contend the Black lady has gained her position in the workplace because white people perceive her as less threatening.

The Jezebel

I have written about Jezebel before due to how intimately it relates to my own research on the sexuality of Black women. The Jezebel operates at the center of the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality to characterize Black women as hypersexual and hyper fertile. This controlling image persists today in reality television or rap music video as the hip hop hoe.

Collins writes that the Jezebel functions to normalize binary oppositional thinking in relation to sexuality by normalizing the sexual tastes of cisgender, heterosexual men. It masculinizes Black women by treating them as a “racialized, gendered symbol of deviant female sexuality” (Collins 2009: 91). This characterization leads to a portrayal of Black women as sexual freaks who move between the boundaries of heterosexuality and same-sex desire.

Controlling Images Today

The five controlling images Collins outlines in Black Feminist Thought result because science and popular culture portray the sexuality of Black women as a problem. Furthermore, these controlling images hinge on standards of beauty that rely on binary thinking of white women and Black women as opposites in terms of beauty and attractiveness. Black women then either internalize these images or seek to resist them through the development of unique sexual politics.

The Matrix of Domination and the Four Domains of Power

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins coined the concept matrix of domination in her book Black Feminist Thought to describe four interrelated domains organize power relations in society. This approach to an analysis of power informs us about how structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power shape human action.

According to Collins, these four interrelated domains of power serve different purposes in relation to maintaining the status quo. In this blog post, I summarize these four domains of power based on the chapter in Black Feminist Thought titled “Toward a Politics of Empowerment.”

The Structural Domain of Power

The structural domain of power in the matrix of domination organizes oppression in society. Collins argues that the organization of interlocking, large-scale social institutions reproduce the subordination of Black women. For example, residential segregation prevents most Black women in the United States from having access from certain educational and job opportunities. I myself had to travel about an hour each way from my predominately Black suburban neighborhood to a predominately white Magnet program in suburban Atlanta from the time I was eight years old until I graduated high school.

Collins suggests that the way to empower Black women through the structural domain of power involves transforming social institutions. One way to go about this involves dispensing with colorblind or gender-neutral rhetoric and instead of acknowledging how social systems impart different outcomes depending on one’s social status.

The Disciplinary Domain of Power

The disciplinary domain of power manages oppression. The organizational practices of social institutions manage power relations and control certain subpopulations. Collins notes that social policies and rulings determined by government bureaucracies and surveillance technologies shape the modern social organization. For example, Black women academics who embrace Black feminist thought might find themselves relegated to the academy and subject to monitoring of their radical potential.

To empower Black women within this domain, resistance to such practices must come from within the organization itself.

The Hegemonic Domain of Power

Hegemony refers to the system of ideas developed by a dominant group that justifies their practices. Collins writes that in this domain of power old ideas that uphold the system get refashioned as society changes over time. Through ideology, culture, and consciousness, the beliefs of the dominant group get normalized as common sense ideas that support their position. Additionally, many members of subordinated groups might endorse these ideas as well. 

Social institutions that perpetuate these ideologies include schools, churches, community organizations, families, and mass media. These social institutions shape consciousness through the manipulation of ideas, symbols, and images of various social groups. After the Civil War, for example, the characterization of Black men as hypersexual brutes seeking to rape white women justified the lynching of countless Black men.

Empowerment within the hegemonic domain of power comes through choosing self-definition over societal definitions about one’s personhood.  For Black women, this means generating ideas that inspire disbelief in racist and sexist ideologies about Black womanhood. Furthermore, they have to develop a dynamic, critical consciousness that unpacks hegemonic ideologies and constructs new knowledge about what Black womanhood means.

The Interpersonal Domain of Power

The interpersonal domain of power in the matrix of domination affects all of us in everyday life. This domain of power refers to how our individual consciousness perpetuates the subordination of others. Collins states that through routinized daily practices of interaction at the microlevel of social organization, individuals uphold the subordination of others.

Empowerment in this domain looks like taking conscious actions to change everyday relationships. According to Collins, this looks like adopting a point of view that embraces a sociological imagination that empowers individuals rather than using one’s knowledge to exploit, commodify, or objectify members of marginalized groups.

Married to Medicine L.A. and What Dolls Represent for Black Girls

Now that I am officially Dr. Brown, I’ve been catching up on all the pop culture I’ve missed out on while working on my dissertation. If you know the format of reality shows that revolve around wealthy women and their lives, there’s always somebody throwing a party or an event at their home. Sometimes they have themes like the party based on dolls thrown in a recent episode of Married to Medicine L.A., the West coast spinoff of the Bravo reality show based in Atlanta.

During this episode, the group of Black women medical doctors and wives of medical doctors that the show centers on gathered together at the home of one of their own, Jazmin Johnson. For this event’s theme, Jazmin asked that the women come dressed as a doll and only a handful of the women complied. After the women gathered together at a table, Jazmin asked the group what they felt about the doll-centric theme.

Dr. Noelle Reid, a cast member who works as a family physician, opened up that she felt the theme was problematic. She referenced research that shows that dolls have negatively affected Black girls and described her own struggle of encouraging her daughter to see herself despite the limited options of toys that reflect Black girls.

The Clark Doll Experiment

I am assuming that Noelle was referencing the study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, a married pair of Black psychologists, who did a groundbreaking experiment later cited in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. During the experiment, the psychologists showed children a set of four dolls – two white and two black – then proceeded to ask them how they felt about the doll and how they felt about themselves. The children, regardless of race, responded that they preferred the white dolls over the Black dolls.

Yes. You read that right – both White and Black children expressed a preference for the white dolls and their features. Furthermore, the children associated the white dolls with goodness while they associated the black dolls with bad. While this study was done during the 1930s and 1940s, recent replications in the twenty-first century show that this is still an issue (see video below).

What Married to Medicine L.A. teaches us About Biracial Black Girls and Dolls

Some of the Black women gathered at the table during this episode appeared to have observed similar struggles in their daughters or experienced it for themselves. For example, when the topic of her came up, they discussed how Black some are pressured to straighten their hair because of the way society associates beautiful hair with length, blondness, and lack of texture.

However, what I did not expect to see, was the perspective of the biracial Black women at the table. Jazmin and another cast member, Dr. Britten Cole, explained that dolls caused a tension for them too albeit for different reasons. Both women are what some members of U.S. society would describe as racially ambiguous. To be more specific, they are the type of Black people that everyone assumes are mixed or not Black at all, depending on their own level of investment in the one drop rule and the Black-White racial dichotomy.

Jazmin and Britten expressed that for them, black dolls represented what they aspired to be seen as because their European features made people make assumptions about them and their Blackness. Jazmin went on to explain that the theme and the party itself were an intended to move beyond those assumptions, as she also had the brown-skinned women in her family including her mother and sister seated at the table with her. In addition,she described how people would not allow her to have a sense of self by denying her her own family, questioning whether or not she and her sister were related at times when they went out together.

The Importance of Representation Among Dolls for Black Girls

Even though its 2019, Married to Medicine L.A. shows us the lingering effects of negative socialization about Blackness and beauty for women and girls. Some people might think dolls are just harmless objects. However, one important observation the women in this episode made is that these dolls reflect what society teaches people is desirable and worthy. In conclusion, when there is limited representation of Black women and girls in media, Black women and girls searching for themselves are left wanting.

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engine Results Represent Black Women and Girls

Black Feminist Technology Studies

In her book Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Noble, an associate professor of Information Studies and African American Studies at UCLA, proposes Black feminist technology studies as an alternative framework for the analysis of racialized and gendered identities on the internet. Through this framework, scholars can examine the way the internet mediates power relations through the matrix of domination.

Noble emphasizes that Black feminist technology studies can offer new narratives around Black people and technology. This approach differs greatly from the framework of the digital divide that presumes technological deficiency among Black internet users. Instead, Black feminist technology studies bring attention to the need for control over one’s personal and social identity on the internet.

How the Google Search Engine Represents Black Women and Girls

Through a close reading of results from Google’s search engine, Noble uses a Black feminist perspective to explain how algorithms replicate longstanding social inequality. The documentation of Black women and girls in search results shows how technology can adversely affect Black people, thus challenge the colorblind rhetoric of neutrality popular in Silicon Valley. Google as a corporation relies on commercial content moderation to control and profit from the information. Through mechanisms like AdWords, other corporations invested in generating traffic to their site exploit the identity of Black women and girls. This has led to an information ecosystem wherein the most popular search engine results for Black girls were those that led to pornographic websites.

Noble contends that the contemporary tech landscape presumes that the white male gaze dominates the use and creation of information and communication technologies. Through this gaze, this pornographic depiction arises through cultural practices of the sexualization of Black women rooted in the controlling images of the Jezebel. As a result, Google profits off the sexual representation of Black women.

How Search Engines Perpetuate Racism

Noble notes that the pitfalls of racial and gender classification aren’t new to search engines. Search engines are a modernization of the Dewey Decimal System and import its biased classification practices onto the internet. Search engines reflect how tech companies in Silicon Valley monopolize information through neocolonial projects that exploit the digital divide.

Noble refers to the case of Dylan Roof to address how information on Google is filtered through a white racial frame, referencing Jesse Daniels‘ work on cyberracism. This approach uses race as a framework to examine unequal distributions of power related to the internet. What if search engines had a classification system that identified sources of information in a manner that helped distinguish white nationalist websites from scholarly discussions of race? Technological racialization results from Google acting as what she describes as a “broker of cultural imperialism” and an information gatekeeper for representations of race mediated by the internet.

Alternative Approaches for Information and the Internet

One way Noble uses Black feminist technology studies is to propose the use of public policy for the development of a noncommercial public search engine.  Additionally, Noble points out corporate search engines currently do not have an obligation to delete or destroy records as a means to protect individual privacy. Beyond that, they offer little transparency on their methods of data retention. Public policy like right to be forgotten laws could potentially resolve some of these issues, but such laws do not exist currently in the United States.

Overall, Algorithms of Oppression help us think about the way contemporary neoliberal discourse around the coding gap affects Black women as technology users and producers. The presumption that Black women in tech are uniquely positioned to address algorithmic bias fails to recognize how engineering curriculum in the United States largely ignores the matrix of domination. As a result, the reproduction of controlling images of Black women on the internet continues.

A History of Black Women in Fashion

Like most twentieth century kids turned twenty-first century adults, I rarely consult hard copies of encyclopedias or dictionaries either. I do, however, reflect on the experience of using these reference tools fondly especially as a researcher today. So I was excited to come across Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia in a secondhand book store.

“The Loom Room”: The Role of Enslaved Black Women in the Early Fashion Industry

I was intrigued by the entry on Black women in the fashion industry written by Patricia Hunt-Hurst, a dress and fashion historian at the University of Georgia. Hunt-Hurst writes that the fashion industry emerged in the U.S. during the 19th century. Some free Black women worked as dressmakers for Black and White clients, but most Black women who worked with cloth and textiles at that time did so as slaves. 

Enslaved Black women picked the cotton and other raw materials for cloth, did needlework for plantation owner’s households, or worked as the seamstress and dressmakers. Some plantations had a separate “loom room” where these women worked. Enslaved women also used dyes, weavers, spinners and other tools to produce textiles. Most enslaved women who did create clothing did so for other enslaved persons. Sometimes they also created clothing for the families of plantation owners.

The Needle Trade: Black Women in the Fashion Industry After Slavery

Black women in the fashion industry entered the needle trade (seamstress, dressmaker, tailor) after slavery. Years of forced unpaid labor meant that immigrants and white women outnumbered Black women. However, some cities provided Black women fashion entrepreneurs  opportunities to gain a wide range of skills and specialties.

Racial discrimination prevented Black women fashion entrepreneurs from having full access to the industry. However, Black newspapers and magazines provided outlets for these women to advertise and feature their work. Additionally, Black colleges and universities provided courses in these fields. As a result, dressmaking was considered one of the top twenty-seven occupations for Black women in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

As the twentieth century progressed, however, makers of clothing increasingly relied on sewing machines and industrial tools to produce clothes. Black women who worked in textile and clothing factories usually worked in the pressing room. Otherwise, they had to find piecemeal work to do at home.

The History of Designing and Modeling Among Black Women in the U.S.

Black dressmakers kept up with the latest fashions through fashion and women’s magazines.   Some of them attended elite fashion schools like the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design. Black women designers usually worked for themselves and sold their goods to department stores and boutiques.

Some gained a reputation for their work including Elizabeth Keckley and Anne Lowe. According to Hunt-Hurst, Elizabeth Keckley learned to sew while enslaved in Virginia and later in life created the ball gown Mary Todd Lincoln wore to her husband’s presidential inauguration. Anne Lowe also did work for a first lady when she designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. Black-owned magazines documented the careers of these and other Black women designers in the fashion industry.

Black women made progress in the field of modeling during the twentieth century as well. Josephine Baker posed for some of the leading designers in France during the 1920s and 1930s. Another Black woman wouldn’t reach Josephine Baker’s level of acclaim until Naomi Sims in 1969. More Black women gained notice in the modeling industry from the 1970s onward including Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks. 

Unless otherwise stated, this essay summarizes Patricia Hunt-Hurst‘s entry ‘Fashion Industry’ in the Second Edition of Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia

Black Feminism Defined

Since embracing Black feminism, I have observed people express some of the most uninformed sentiments about what Black feminism is.

Some accuse Black feminism of encouraging a matriarchy that destabilizes the Black family. Others claim that Black feminist theories like intersectionality are divisive, contradicting the actual concept of the matrix of domination – the way a person experiences a combination of privilege and oppression, based on how independent social structures interact.

I read news articles, blog posts, comments on Facebook, tweets, even academic articles with a look of confusion with some of the claims people leave in print that just leave me confused.



Where do these perspectives come from? I started reading Black feminist authors and found that the misrepresentation of Black feminist thought had historical precedent. The erasure, silencing, and gaslighting was nothing new. Books like Fighting Words, Dark Continent of Our Bodies and Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman revealed the roots of some of these claims, though why they have proliferated across the media in the twenty-first century remains a question.

So, what is Black feminism? Firstly,  Black feminism has multiple expressions. The feminism the diaspora shapes is vast, complex, and irreducible to just one concept. Regardless, Black feminism will always be a few things*:

  1. Centered on Black women’s experience and the way the matrix of domination shapes them
  2. Rooted in Black communities
  3. Theorizes agency for Black women
  4. Promotes a humanistic visionary pragmatism

While academia informs much of the modern conversation about Black feminism, the Black feminism not publicized or problematized in print is what matters the most:

Through participating in struggles to retrieve the reality of Black women’s lives from the periphery of the margin of African and African-American experiences, Theorizing Black feminisms simultaneously challenges these limited experiential theoretical visions and traditional Western ways of theory-building.**

Black feminism offers a way of analyzing and understanding the world. As the quote attributed to Angela Davis goes “When black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society.” So why does misinformation about Black feminism persist?

I think any set of knowledge the explicitly refuses to begin from a universal position tends to unsettle people. It’s a social psychological phenomenon, after all, to choose information that supports your worldview. People feel resistant to a perspective that out the gate does not claim to tailor itself to the way most people, through the long reach of colonialism, have learned to view the world.

I encourage people interested in Black feminism or intersectionality to read the work of Black feminists and about Black feminism’s history. Check out this brief list of resources on the blog below:

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* This list is adapted from Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women.

** James and Busia 1993: 4 Top Blog Posts of 2017

I started this blog as a writing accountability tool as I moved from my comp exams to my dissertation proposal. I came into grad school wanting to study Black women. I’m happy to report this year my dissertation committee gave me the okay to do just that. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading, subscribed, and shared my blog posts far and wide. I appreciate you keeping up with my writing and thinking process. Check out the most viewed blog posts ranked below!

Intersectionality 101: A Reading List

I wrote this post after noticing the way intersectionality got misconstrued across social and mainstream media platforms. I saw the similar treatment of both the concept and intellectual tradition as what I experienced as a graduate student. I felt empowered when I learned more than the introductory texts and I hope it did to the people who made it my best performing post.

Books on Black Feminisms: 50 Recommended Reads

I want to be an expert on Black women because I think if someone had taught me what I know about Black womanhood now as a child, I think I would have understood the world around me better. I learned about Black feminism back in the days when you had to personally know a Black feminist (shoutout to Dr. Kecia Thomas) to ever get exposed to the information. I want the digital girlies to find these books and cite these women!

39 Books by Black Women Academics 2017 Edition

This blog post had an unexpected outcome, thanks to #AcademicTwitter and one of my faves Dr. Tressie Cottom. Librarians from multiple universities used the list as an impetus to stock their universities books with hard copies of these Black women’s books. This is the type of stuff I write for. I just want Black women to be seen, ya’ll!

5 TV Shows About Black Women to Watch in 2017

I haven’t done too many pop culture or personal posts. I’ve used most of my blogging this year to practice improving my writing style. It’s important to make time for play too though, so I also like to think about the ways Black women are seen in media too. If you’ve checked out my Twitter, you know I love Beyoncé, Cardi B, and a wide range of Black women pop icons. Issa Rae’s success inspired me to shout out all the Black women on the small screen I enjoyed this year.

20 Theories by Black Women

Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson kicked off Black Theory on Twitter this year, so of course, I thought “Well, what theories do we get when we center Black women?”  Stories often get told from one normative perspective that serves as the presumed standard by which all get measured, defined as deviant.  A certain set of scholars like to ask what about the people thinking from the margins?

Race Porn – A Brief History of Race and Sex on Film

I’m going to tell people a thing that they may not know since they frequently wind up here looking for it and this ain’t that kind of website. If you search keywords and may search engine optimization matchup, I’m gonna know you came here looking for something I do not have to offer you on this here site. I hope you stuck around to read the history of why you have those particular preferences though :).

Strip Clubs and the Sociology of Racism

I actually really love doing literature reviews. I love learning what the people who have similar thoughts reflected on before me, not even from a critical perspective, but in a common pursuit of knowledge kind of way. Siobhan Brooks’ article on racism in the strip club seemed like a great start for my dissertation so I summarized it. picked it up and shared it since one finding was about how biracial and multiracial received a wage premium in the clubs.

Black Matriarchy: The Myths and Truths about Black Mothers

I don’t think I realized how much of problematic distortions of Black nationalistic rhetoric relied on the logic of long-dead academic and intellectual men. I wrote this particular piece after finding that many conversations I have about Black people get derailed with this particular sentiment, among others. It’s so surprising how many people truly believe it’s an original idea to blame Black mothers for the effects of colonialism.

Women of Color in Hip-Hop: The Pornographic Gaze

While collecting data, I realized how integral rap music is to the identity of Black women dancers in strip clubs. Whenever I see something new in my data, I go back to the literature and see what others have said about what I think I’m seeing. I found this study and decided to summarize it since I saw similar dynamics in my data.

Black Women Sex Workers: Identity, Black Feminist Consciousness, and Acculturated Stress

My dissertation centers Black women sex workers. My hometown of Atlanta has more (Black women-friendly) strip clubs than I think I’ve seen anywhere in my life. Further, I grew up during the rise of Atlanta hip-hop, which required the strip club as a site of performance and a metaphor in lyrics. However, I hadn’t heard too much that spoke from the perspective of Black women sex workers until I read women like Stephanie L. Tatum.

Is Society Fascinated with Black Women’s Body Types?

Colonialism introduced Europe as the cultural/aesthetic authority on values including beauty. While doctors in ancient times warned against obesity, diet culture began in the 1800s. Weight turned into a cultural status marker that considered fat to be negative. Whiteness as the epitome of beauty imposes a standard that devalues body types by race, gender, shape, size, and color. Society teaches women to deal with fatness through exercise. Nevertheless, Black feminists see Blackness as the site of resistance to the standards. 

Society interprets Blackness as indicative of moral, sexual, and racial pollution. For example, a society threatened by Black women’s reproductive capabilities, 19th century Europe likened Black women to prostitutes through the controlling image of the Black Venus, which characterized her as the perpetual prostitute. Society discouraged coupling between Black women and White men through “blood discourses”  that projected the fear of Blackness onto mixed-race children. Some sociologists remarked on this phenomenon with  Meghan Markle.

Society treats Black women’s bodies as a danger to social order. On the one hand, they might displace white women as the archetypical love and sex object. On the other, they threatened the patriarchal order of workers by having the status of worker and woman. 

The Body Types of Fat Black Women

Society robs fat Black women of their sexual agency

Sociologist Shirley Anne Tate discusses how we can read the iconic Venus statue as a fat Black woman. This perspective reveals which Black women’s bodies society reads as fat and how they represent them. Tate embraces an ‘alter/native’ view of Black women to highlight the multiplicity of body politics around Black womanhood. Society treats Black women’s bodies as other to white women’s and does so by making their forms hypervisible. This process simultaneously renders the whiteness of other women’s bodies invisible. As a result, Shirley Anne Tate argues this perspective: “enable[s] us to see that there is a corporeality of white class (Bourdieu, 1988) and gender with thinness as its epitome” (Tate 2015: 80).

The Mammy portrays Black women as undesirable sexually and desirable for service work. The Mammy symbolizes the status of a domestic servant to a white woman through her girth and dark skin. This controlling image reinforces the perception that white women were superior.  For example, Hattie McDaniel played a Mammy figure in Gone With the Wind. The UK has a similar portrayal of Black women as “Big Mama. Fat Black women live in a society that paints them as undesirable and worthy of disgust. These beliefs divided fat Black women into domestic and care workers and thin white women into domestic and care overseers.

Society ridicules Black women for their fatness

In the UK racist humor often revolves around fat Black women. In the 19th century White men dressed in drag to mimic Black women for racist ridicule, making fun of the notion of a desire for this body through minstrelsy. Far from being just a joke, racist humor has more sinister implications: 

“Humour is not a harmless or benign form of communication. Rather, ‘racist humour, jokes may act as a type of coping mechanism for the racist, in the form of a palliative because the effects of joking allow for the expression, reinforcement and denial of racism’ (Weaver, 2011: 12). “ (Tate 2015: 91). 

Additionally, Some White women performed minstrels too. Originally, minstrels arose from white racial fear of Black men. Minstrelsy thus demonstrates simultaneous racial aversion and desire.  Fatness and Blackness place Black women outside of beauty. Rhetoric in the U.S. frames Black women in terms of discipline, relegation, marginalization, imprisonment, and segregation away from white life, comfort, embodiment, and being. Treating Black women’s bodies as inferior meant colonial labor and gender roles placed Black women in the lowest rung of the social order. 

The Body Types of Muscular Black Women

Society treats muscular Black women with dark skin with fear

Whenever the former First Lady chose to wear a sleeveless outfit, some members of White society reacted to Michelle Obama’s muscular arms:

The struggle over Michelle Obama’s ‘right to (bear) bare arms’ shows that the USA is far from being post-race as the respectable femininity of the First Lady is judged by white, middle/upper-class privilege which insists on lack of musculature on women (Tate 2015:93).  

Shirley Anne Tate argues Michelle Obama’s body defines norms of white upper/middle-class respectability. Her very presence creates a space of resistance that represents a deviation from the somatic norms of the U.S. First Lady. As a result, she endured constant surveillance of her body, viewed as an outsider. Therefore, this fascination transforms her into the Black First Lady. 

Why do people fetishize muscular Black women?

Black women’s muscle as a spectacle dates back to the racist pseudoscience of the 18th/19th  century. Shirley Anne Tate describes Black women’s bodies as a site of fascination.  A person compares themselves and others to a norm. As a viewer, a person extends their own bodies through their gaze. They interpret others through points on their body like their face, muscles, or skin. Comparison of one’s body parts to another leads a person to determine how close or different body types are to others:

Inassimilability or extension into the other does not mean that fasci- nation ceases. Fascination continues in the desire to find out the why of assimilation and the untranslatability of the body. Why can’t I be like her? Why do I want to be like her? What have I become? Is my becoming accompanied by fear, disgust, contempt? Fascination makes us look at ourselves first and foremost, at our very lives, to find out why we are fascinated by bodies/body parts. It is in the exchange between bodies, in the matching and untranslatability that we can begin to know ourselves, begin to understand our fascination as a pull to knowing the other, to get behind the façade that is the skin to ‘the real them’ beneath (Tate 2015: 94).

Fascination leads to a desire to find out why the body types of center women do not conform to the norm. However, narcissism motivates this fascination. Hence, people recenter themselves as they gaze upon others’ bodies to construct a sense of self. Therefore, the incorporeality of fascination makes it a fluid, simultaneous process of becoming and unbecoming through comparison to others. 

From Fascination to Black Women’s Body Types to Fear

How does the fascination with Black women turn into fear?

Fascination is a multisensory experience that has varying degrees of effect and affect, motivated thus making the gaze a result of both desire and disgust. Therefore, fascination compels a response on the part of a viewer as it occurs not only through the senses but also through imaginings.  

As a result, people pursue a means to satisfy their fascination. For example, this fascination extends to dark-skinned Black women who have muscular bodies. This affects interpersonal interactions across racial lines. Stereotypes about Black women motivate people to approach them with a feeling of insecurity or a desire to avoid her at all costs. So when Black woman’s bodies get policed in this manner, they are cast as evil and transgressive to indicate they fall outside the norms of appropriate ways of life.  

Tate writes that “once it is set outside the norm it remains as it is cast, an unknowable hyper-known, knowledge of which remains within the colonial stereotype.”  White people project their fear of getting displaced in society’s racial hierarchy onto Black women through a racialization process that involves creating zones of containment by labeling her a source of fear.

How is fearing Black women racist?

Groups use fear to maintain racial regimes through the restriction of the movement of others’ bodies. Additionally, they expand their own movement. However, this involves a “racial regime of visible whiteness [that] must be kept in place to ensure that the borders of whiteness are kept firm.”Furthermore, this produces a fear of racial mixing. Rather than mix interracial, they develop resemblances through what Tate names racialized aesthetic profiling: 

So expert surveillance is set up of Black women’s bodies, noses, lips, hair, skin colour, breasts, bottoms and muscles so as to mark difference and develop racialized aesthetic profiling. Racialized aesthetic profiling means that fear can be materialized in all Black women’s bodies irre- spective of who they are. This ensures the continuation, circulation and amplification of fear of the Black woman’s body as she begins to move outside of the borders established through the phenotype and stereotype (Tate 2015: 98). 

One such Black woman who suffers this fascination is Serena Williams.  Serena, in particular, embraced a “girly” sports aesthetic, which contradicted social norms about appropriate muscularity for women. Yet, society characterizes women with darker skin as undesirable. Serena faces derogatory comments for posing as feminine. Nevertheless, muscular Black women experience fetishization just as fat and slim women experience hypersexualization.

Race and the sociology of emotions

The white affective matrix confers and questions womanhood as they view Black women’s bodies with varying degrees of adoration and disgust. As a result, Black women experience different treatment based on their body type.

Mental Health and the Aftermath of Police Violence

Much of the national conversation around social justice for victims of police violence focuses on law enforcement reform. Police departments and local governments across the United States have responded with several new initiatives.

For instance, a mayoral task force in Baltimore, Maryland proposed that the city equip 100 of its officers with body cameras in a pilot program. This proposal comes in response to outcry over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Gray’s death led to protests and calls for police reform alongside demonstrations in Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities across the United States.

Freddie Gray’s hometown of Sandtown-Winchester represents a number of communities in the United States in which similar incidents of police violence led to protests and police reform.

DeWayne Wickham gives a glimpse of the residents and their relationship with law enforcement:

More than half of the people (ages 16-64) in this area are unemployed. In 2012, 49% of its high school students were “chronically absent,” 61% of the population 25 and older lacked a high school degree, and a third of this community’s houses were vacant. Even more disturbing, it has more people in Maryland’s prison system than any other community in the state. Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $17 million a year to keep 458 people from this Census track in prison, according to a recent Justice Policy Institute report.

In addition to police reform, the city has also made a concerted effort to provide mental healthcare resources for members of Freddie Gray’s community.Acknowledging the mental and emotional effect of Gray’s death, mental health practitioners in Baltimore seek to help residents cope as they continue their lives in the aftermath of violence. As the _Baltimore Sun _reports:

“Our clients generally have limited resources and limited access to care,” said Barbara Anderson, executive director of the Pro Bono Counseling Project. “So many of those people who were directly affected by what happened in Baltimore should be our clients. These people have so few resources and that’s why they are so distressed. We want to help.“

The effect of police violence in Freddie Gray’s community demonstrates how racial and economic inequality affects one’s physical and mental wellbeing. “As a psychologist working with college students in the DC metropolitan area, I have had a chance to observe how students of Color are affected by the unrest in Baltimore,” notes Dr. Carlton Green, a psychologist at the University of Maryland. “In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, I’ve talked with dozens of students from Baltimore who live with constant worry about their neighborhoods and the safety of their loved ones.”

Dr. Green believes these students may be experiencing post-traumatic stress: “They experience sleeplessness and difficulty concentrating, as well as guilt related to being away from home at such a critical time.”

Unfortunately, people from these communities face various barriers to access to mental healthcare including residential segregation and economic disadvantage. As Dr. Green notes, “It is rare that the trauma response of people of color make the news headlines. Instead, the focus is generally on the violent and the victims of violence.”

Indeed, much of the response to cries of injustice within communities affected by police violence have led to law enforcement taking steps to reform their policies and procedures. Though these efforts to reduce police violence will hopefully lead to fewer incidents, a broader conversation about mental health access must begin. As Dr. Green notes:

The community members, who witness the violence, are presumed to be unaffected in the long run. The accumulation of these types of events, coupled with mental health stigma among people of Color and the legacy of racism that has minimized pain experienced by people of Color, almost guarantee that the pain will continue.

Why does addressing racial and economic inequality in our healthcare system matter? 

One reason is the relationship between social justice and healthcare access. If race and socioeconomic status determine mental and physical wellbeing, good intervention programs must acknowledge that disparities exist in order to provide a reasonable and appropriate response to trauma.

Another reason is to that race and economic inequality relates to education, income, and health. Professor Jonathan Purtle writes:

A lack of income may increase disaster exposure by creating communities in hazardous, and thus inexpensive, areas and also increase mental health vulnerability by serving as a chronic stressor.Low-education may also decrease employment opportunities, causing some to seek self-sufficiency in the illicit economy.

These various forms of inequality when combined, make people’s lived experience particularly difficult. In the absence of adequate access to healthcare, people often end up within the prison system. This appeared to be the very case with Freddie Gray, who suffered from lead poisoning and was deemed “incapable of leading normal functioning” life as a result, ultimately facing over a dozen arrests before his death.

Baltimore serves as an example of how to local governments can help their residents move forward from police violence. This takes access to financial resources and a commitment on the part of government officials to respond to their community needs.

However, the effort to improve mental healthcare access has not fallen on local and state governments alone. Nationally, the Affordable Care Act has succeeded in starting to bridge the gap in access. According to the White House:

Because of more than $100 million in funding from the Affordable Care Act, community health centers have expanded behavioral health services for nearly 900,000 people nationwide over the past 2 years.

Efforts to improve mental healthcare access will better equip people exposed to police violence, but mental healthcare access must not end with community residents alone. As recent research shows, officers with PTSD are at greater risk for police brutality. Thus, the problem of mental health and police violence not only affects all involved.

As members of communities, law enforcement, and government officials try to rebuild in the face of police violence, mental health must be a central part of the conversation. Mental healthcare for officers must be part of this conversation as well.

Some police departments have taken steps to better equip their officers with knowledge through crisis intervention training. Such programs aim to teach officers to assess the situation and deescalate when confronted with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Overall, the link between mental health and police violence is complex. It represents larger social issues about inequality in the healthcare and criminal justice system. While members of Sandtown-Winchester must contend with devastating loss of Freddie Gray, barriers to adequate mental healthcare only serve to reinforce rather than reduce the violence that affects this and similar communities.

However, as the progress Baltimore makes in the face of these events shows, the answer to resolving police violence not only includes reform of current practices and procedures used by law enforcement, but also providing mental health resources to support grieving members of the community.