Korryn Gaines, a twenty-three-year-old Baltimore resident, became the 9th Black woman killed by police in 2016. The circumstances surrounding her death have left a void of unanswered questions about why a woman who failed to appear in court for a traffic ticket ultimately lost her life. Some reports allege Korryn refused to exit her apartment with her five-year-old son and threatened police with a shotgun.
‘The Sapphire’ Is a Controlling Image of Black Women
Some descriptions of Korryn in the media, both social and mainstream, frame Korryn’s actions and behavior as aggressive, volatile, and reckless. These characterizations of Black women are nothing new. Indeed much of the criticism of Korryn is rooted in a stereotype of Black women as angry referred to as ‘the Sapphire‘:
…the Sapphire, which refers to a talkative, dramatic, bossy Black woman who is full of complaints and mistrust for others (Bell & Nkomo, 2001)…One major characteristic of the Sapphire is her ability to talk back and respond to people in a stinging and overly assertive tone (Jewell, 1993).1
Like other stereotypes about Black women, ‘the Sapphire’ represents what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins calls a controlling image. Controlling images help facilitate the objectification of Black women by solidifying the racist ideology used to justify how they are treated:
As part of a generalized ideology of domination, stereotypical images of Black womanhood take on special meaning… These controlling images are designed to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life. 2
Questioning Media Narratives of Black Women
Current portrayals of Korryn Gaines that fit the Sapphire stereotype are not applied to just her alone. When Sandra Bland died in police custody in Texas, some responses to the video released of her exchanges with police during a traffic stop suggested that she was too outspoken and should have behaved with mild manners.
The deaths of Black women and girls in police custody reveal the more sinister implications of ‘the Sapphire.’ For instance, police brutality claims the lives of Black girls as well, including seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones and sixteen-year-old Darnisha Harris. Additionally, the school-to-prison pipeline ensnares the lives of young Black girls. Some research finds that Black girls get suspended from school more than Black boys and White children.
Black women and girls face unique stereotypes that label them as combative and violent. The danger of the controlling image of the Sapphire stereotype is that it follows black girls into womanhood. Thus, throughout their lives, Black women must negotiate social interactions with people premised to view them as a problem.
Seeking Social Justice for Black Women and Girls
The apparent difficulty some people may have acknowledging police brutality against Black women and girls may in part result from existing cultural beliefs about Black femininity. Movements like #SayHerName seek to bring visibility to the lives of Black women and girls like Korryn, Sandra, and Aiyana. In 2015 the African American Policy Forum (AAPF)began this movement in response
to increasing calls for attention to police violence against Black women by offering a resource to help ensure that Black women’s stories are integrated into demands for justice, policy responses to police violence, and media representations of victims of police brutality
The AAPF, led by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, pursues intersectional social justice. They center their work on goals to uplift marginalized groups, taking into account how social characteristics such as race and gender do not operate separately in their effects on people’s lives. Thus, the work of #SayHerName aims to bring to light violence against Black trans women as well.
To protect Black women and girls from police brutality, intersectional social justice provides strategies against the controlling images that justify their treatment. This includes organizing protests as marches as well as advocating for policy that meets the needs of Black women and girls. Additionally, intersectional social justice like #SayHerName builds on the work of Black feminism. Thus, intersectional social justice endows Black women with the tools to negotiate oppression and critique how social inequality affects their lives.
- Reynolds-Dobbs, Wendy, Kecia M. Thomas, and Matthew S. Harrison.2008. “From Mammy to Superwoman: Images that Hinder Black Women’s Career Development.” Journal of Career Development. ↩
- Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images.” Pp. 69-96 in Black Feminist Thought – Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment ↩