Almost exactly a year ago to this day, I was scrolling down my Tweetdeck timeline and saw that it was lit up like the New York skyline with angry responses to the horrific #stopblackgirls2013 hashtag that was trending on Twitter. To be fair, every culture was taking a hit: #stopwhitegirls2013, #stopasiangirls2013 were also making their way across the internet, but there was a difference between how White and Asian women were being portrayed and Black women. For White and Asian women, their behavior was the focal point of the “joke”. For example there were images of a three car pileup on the highway (ostensibly because Asian women can’t drive”, or a White woman worshipping at her poster altar of Justin Bieber).
But for the posts targeting Black women, there was a subtle difference in the characterizations. In addition to spotlighting questionable hair and clothing choices, there were a number of visual comparisons to animals, such as monkeys or hippopotamuses. The dehumanization expressed in many of the images exposed the fundamental disrespect that exists in our culture for Black women. It is no surprise that this culture of misogyny has produced staggering statistics of gender based violence.
Domestic violence in its most basic form is a method of dehumanization. Batterers believe that his partner is “property” and that he is entitled to use whatever means necessary to control her. Through a pattern of controlling and coercive behaviors, a batterer seeks to dominate every aspect of his partner’s life. In order to justify abuse, all batterers must at some point dehumanize, or refuse to acknowledge the humanity of their victim.
The practice of dehumanizing and degrading black womanhood in America is something that began during the days of chattel slavery and continues to this day. Historically, the idealized aspects of virtue and womanhood, such as domesticity, chastity, fragility, and timidity have been ascribed to White women. Black women were their polar opposite: wanton, lustful, physically strong, and domineering.
The depiction of Black women has changed very little over the past century. If anything, it has degraded during the past decade in large part because of the popularity of an entertainment genre that recycles historical stereotypes such as the “Jezebel”, “Sapphire”, “Angry Black Woman”: reality television. With the constant fighting, bickering, gossiping, and social climbing, the “Crazy Black Reality Show Chick” has created resurgence in the myth that Black women are by nature more violent than women of other races. The truth is that Black women more likely to be victims of gender based violence than any other race in America. Black women suffer from the highest rates of intimate partner homicide, sexual assault, domestic violence and teen dating abuse. It is so commonplace that when a Black woman is attacked or beaten there is no shock or outrage, in large part due to social acceptance of their dehumanization.
Media stereotypes such as the “Crazy Black Reality Show Chick” enable people to transfer responsibility for a batterer’s actions onto the victim because she “made him do it”. This concept of the unsavory nature of Black women is so deeply entrenched in our collective psyches that even in the face of overwhelming evidence and conviction for the assault of a Black woman (such as Mike Tyson or Chris Brown), victims are still convicted in the court of public opinion. Found guilty of being nothing more than another lying, scheming black bitch perpetuating a lie upon the perpetrator and the judicial system for financial profit.
But a far more insidious consequence of media stereotypes is the effect they have on how a victim sees herself.
“Victims internalize the images they see and then use that to rationalize the abusers behavior. So things that their abuser may be telling them in their relationship that is wrong with them, is reinforced in TV, magazines and other forms of media, which results in women saying to herself “This my fault, there’s no hope for me. I’m stuck in this situation.” says Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a national organization that provides crisis assistance and information to victims of domestic violence. “What we see on TV really reinforces the belief that we are responsible for our partner’s actions, behaviors, feelings, when in fact we are not.”
As a survivor of domestic violence, I know all too well how easy it is to internalize blame for your partner’s abuse. Although it has been nearly eighteen years since I was last battered, I can still vividly remember what it was like to be treated less than human by my then-boyfriend. One of the most painful aspects of that time in my life was discovering that there were people who couldn't or wouldn’t believe that I had been abused. For some, it was impossible for them to imagine that a woman as “strong”, “outspoken” and “feisty” as me could be a victim of domestic violence. The reality is that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. Even unsympathetic, brash and outspoken women.
It is clear that the racist, negative messages about the inherent defectiveness of both black men and women have been incorporated into our consciousness. The lack of compassion that accompanies stereotypes can harm, maim, and kill. For this reason, I founded the grassroots media advocacy organization Truth in Reality to fight the negative stereotypes that certain reality shows promote of women of color, with the goal of reducing our cultural acceptance of gender based violence.
One of the methods we use to engage people in dialogue around the misrepresentation of Black women in media is through our #RealityTVCheck tweet chats. In one of our prior chats we had Rinku Sen, Executive Director of Race Forward and Publisher of Colorlines.com join us as guest co-host. During the chat I asked her the question, “Why do you think that it is so socially acceptable for Black women to be degraded in all forms of media?” Her response was pointed, “Because it's acceptable for Black women to be degraded elsewhere. At school, at work, in Congress. And because too many media power players know little about Black women.”
Domestic violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum; there are a myriad of societal factors that allow it to flourish in our community. One of the ways in which we can take a stand against is to stop tolerating and tacitly supporting harmful media stereotypes like those shown on WorldStarHipHop.com or minstrel shows like Love & Hip Hop. But there are far too many of us who don’t understand the intersectionality between media violence, misogyny, racism and gender-based violence. As part of our educational efforts Truth in Reality created the Redefining HERstory campus social action program as a way to spread awareness and educate students of color on university and college campuses on the effect that the media they’re consuming is having on their real-life behavior. Redefining HERstory isn’t just limited to students – anyone and EVERYONE is encouraged to join this national Movement to change the representation of women of color in the media and reduce our cultural acceptance of gender-based violence. We hope that you will use your voice to create social change. Join Truth in Reality as we Wake Up, Speak Up, and Rise Up against the exploitation and denigration of women of color in the media!