Black Women and Girls Are Not Caricatures

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Hashtags such as #SayHerName and Black Lives Matter, the organization and movement, rightfully uplift the names of Black women killed by the police. These are the names often erased from mainstream media and general national discussion. The recent publicized treatment and deaths of women like Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman have amplified the amount of attention and scrutiny over the way Black women and girls are treated by the media, racist members of society, and the overall perceptions of Black women and girls.

Despite this, the realities of their deaths represent a peculiar tradition in America. Black women are not granted the joys and rights of “Victorian womanhood” regulated for white women. Black women occupy an intersectional space where our race is gendered and our gender is raced. Furthermore, many Black women also have aspects of their identities (e.g. sexual orientation and class) that are integral, and yet, not part of the cis-heterosexual white framework so often used to validate or invalidate our existences. Racist stereotypes of the “uncivil”, “hostile” and “angry” Black woman persist and inform the way people engage with Black women.

Unregulated to colonial times, Black bodies continue to be policed and deemed “dangerous”. They continue to be perceived a threat to society regardless of reality or how respectable that individual is may to be. It is a large factor on why Tamir Rice,  Aiyana Jones-Stanley, Mike Brown and Rekia Boyd are no longer alive. It is why women like Sandra Bland are perceived as “difficult” and unruly- and why women like her are never allowed to fully experience normal human emotions even in the face of injustice. Black anger-no matter how justifiable- is not actually perceived as respectable or justifiable. The bodies of Black women, specifically, have historically been devalued and seen as unworthy.  Under hegemonic femininity, Black women are at the bottom of the gender hierarchy because they are not men but also do not meet the clear cut characteristics of hegemonic white femininity. This devaluation further enables the erasure of Black women in the national discourse surrounding violence and brutality.

This limit on emotional expression reflects the boundaries placed upon Black womanhood. Black women are regularly depicted in ways that do not allow us to be victims or even perceived to feel pain. Thus, Black womanhood can be an abstract notion instead of a verifiable fact, as is the case for white women. This is reflected in the way media depicts stories concerning Black women or violence against women of color. The systematic erasure of our stories is a direct representation of the systematic minimization of Black womanhood. This very erasure enables our deaths at the hands of domestic partners, the hands of strangers, and the hands of police to go unnoticed and without fanfare. Caricatures of Blackness perceive Black bodies as devoid of humanity and thus, without value or virtue. Black bodies are always constructed as the antithesis of white and hence the antithesis to our society’s “normal”. Specifically, Black womanhood is viewed under white supremacist racism and patriarchy simultaneously. As a result, Black womanhood is not constructed under the same banners of respectability and privileges of white womanhood.

This difference is important when examining the ways in which the bodies of Black women are easily commodified and made into simplistic caricatures for society’s consumption. It is why when Sandra Bland challenged her treatment by the officer, it was deemed threatening. Her question was a challenge to the notion that any dehumanizing treatment she was receiving was unjust.

Mainstream perceptions of Black women contest this idea by promoting the notion that Black women are unable to be victimized. Any sign of aggression, indignation, or anger is used to justify these notions. Black women are not “proper” victims or targets of violence. The victimization of Sandra Bland, of Charlena Cooks, and of countless others are supported by the dehumanizing caricatures of Black women being “aggressive” and “rude”. Since Black women historically and contemporarily are not seen as “real” women - any injury, pain, and even death is seen as “our fault”. It is why many can laugh at the emotional abuse, the sexual coercion, and even physical abuse women of color face on TV shows like Love & Hip Hop. It is why people clamored to call Sandra Bland “mouthy” and accused Rihanna of provoking her own physical abuse. Perceptions of Black womanhood make us the “imperfect” victim and perceptions of so-called “aggression” mean violence against us is somehow justifiable. It is easy to ignore someone’s humanity when they are reduced to a subhuman existence by a racist and sexist society. This is what happens when your identity is viewed as a mere caricature.

Black women and girls are not caricatures. If we want to progress as a society and change the way Black people and people of color are treated by the police, and by the larger society, we have to care about the most vulnerable among us. We have to care deeply for the humanity of little girls and grown women. We have to fight for their right to live full, free lives with complete agency over who and what they are in this world. The constant dehumanization of our communities means the stories of the countless Black women and girls in our communities are erased.  As a result, Black women and girls will continue to suffer in a world that barely recognizes their humanity.  It is no coincidence these historic racist stereotypes continue to pervade our media and, thus, our interactions with one another. Black women are not a stereotype. We, too, deserve to be treated with respect and ultimately deemed worthy of protection and reverence: on and off the screen.

Angel Walters is an avid reader, a writer, and anti- Domestic Violence advocate. She has a passion for and studies social justice and the ways in which trauma affects marginalized communities. She utilizes this passion as part of Truth In Reality's Digital Media team. You can follow her on Twitter at @aisha_amplified!

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