Thursday, July 6, 2006

"I Got a Woman" - Black Women and Negative Stereotypes

Now I have a question that has been bothering me lately. I’ve lived abroad for almost six years. During that time I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve definitely learned a lot. I’ve also had my beliefs challenged and my view of the world has just opened up tremendously. I’ve always been a smart one, but as I get older I’m more impatient with people though. I tend to think ahead, strategize and plan for contingencies. I also realize that stereotypes can be good general guides, but you really fall into an unproductive trap when you stop using them as guides and instead view people strictly through the lens of stereotypes.

Now being an African-American female, I get a litany of stereotypes thrown at me on a daily basis. Being an African-American of the fairer sex in Asia is hilarious because some of the stuff that’s been said to me is crazy. I’ll save the funny stories for later, but trust me, most of it makes me laugh it’s so silly. I’m pretty much used to it, but over the last year some interesting things have happened. I’ve found myself being stereotyped as the defensive or angry black woman, which (most of the time) I’m not. This wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time it came at me from someone close to me. It really bothered me, and still does when I think about it hence why I’m blogging about it.

This is the thing. I was listening to the John Mayer Trio's* version of Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman. The pertinent lyrics are as follows:

I got a woman way over town that's good to me oh yeah
Say I got a woman way over town good to me oh yeah
She give me money when I'm in need
Yeah she's a kind of friend indeed
I got a woman way over town that's good to me oh yeah

She saves her lovin’ early in the morning just for me oh yeah
She saves her lovin’ early in the morning just for me oh yeah
She saves her lovin’ just for me oh she love me so tenderly
I got a woman way over town that's good to me oh yeah

She's there to love me both day and night
Never grumbles or fusses always treats me right
Never runnin’ in the streets and leavin’ me alone
She knows a woman’s place is right there now in her home

That’s the thing. That song isn't about white girl Becky or Lucy Liu (who I just love, btw). Now I'm not saying that it can't describe other women of races, but I think I'm safe in betting that if the song was inspired by a woman, it was most likely a black woman. I really do see myself as a giving, nurturing, positive person. I’m seen as that by friends back home. In fact, I had one friend tell me point blank that he knows that I’m tough and can take care of myself, but he also sees a nice person who sometimes needs help. I’ve also had men who have been attracted to me for my nurturing qualities as well as my independent ones.

Yet, here in Korea I see myself fighting the expectation that I’m aggressive, to be feared, divisive and negative. I think one reason is I’m dealing with people who, for the most part, haven’t really ever dealt with a diverse range of people before, so they do view people in stereotypes. I can accept that, but it hurt to have it come from someone I considered closer than close. I honestly don’t think being assertive is negative in most situations. It can be as I’ve seen some over the top behavior. I just tend to say what I think, and, as I’m able to explain what I think fairly clearly and defend my arguments or reasoning, I’m seen as hyper-aggressive. That’s weird to me because a man with the same disposition is seen as, well, just articulate and well-spoken.

Listening to this song and mouthing the lyrics reminded me that, in spite of the stereotype of the African-American woman as this aggressive, hyper-sexualized, and not so bright thing that there are songs and stories about us being sweet, loving, nurturing and there for our men just as women of other races are. I also have black women in my life who are sweet, loving, nurturing and definitely there for their men. They're very much my role models, so when I get hit with this negative image I question where it's coming from.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a classmate who, I believe, is of southeast Asian descent who said to me quite smugly that she was Asian, and Asian women are taught to please their men. Well, okay, but so are French women and so are other women. I think that, depending on your culture, we do this in different ways, but I find living in Korea that I am fighting this negative stereotype. In general, the Korean woman is seen as a woman who will go much further to please a man than a Western woman would. I would say in many ways that’s true. But what this belief or expectation fails to recognize is that Western women, at least some, do put a priority on the men in their lives being pleased and satisfied. Now I’m not ignoring modern history. Of course, feminism has influenced the modern Western woman. Yes, we are more independent and have more choices, but I grew up in an Ozzie and Harriet existence. My mom was a full-time homemaker who chose to stay at home to raise me and make our home pleasing. She did a great job and I would be honored to follow in her footsteps. Yes, that means I have no problem whatsoever with possibly being a homemaker. Now, what feminism and the civil rights movement has done for me is give me more choices. I can choose to be a homemaker, but I can also choose to have a career or choose a combination of both.

My thing is my mother was a “pleaser” in the sense that my classmate above used it and she did pass that on to me in some ways. She’d cook huge meals and invite everyone in my family over. She’d go shopping and buy me cute little outfits and put matching satin ribbons in my hair. She’d hug me and my dad and was just overall keen on keeping harmony her home. She was no one’s doormat however and God help the person who’d piss her off. Like her, I’m nobody’s doormat, but when I’m in a relationship I known to do things very similar to my mother like cook meals, straighten up (and all my friends know I keep a messy home) and, in general, assume a very stereotypically female role. This works for me, and I like it. But it's amazing to have people be completely shocked that I'd view homemaking as an acceptable career. That angers me because it is definitely something an educated woman can choose to do without shame.

I’m a Libra, so I like balance. I’m together, I have my life in order, I tend to plan and it’s rare that I’m surprised. I have people here assume that I don’t need help because I have my life in fairly good order. In contrast, I find that here women who play up the helpless female get help even when they don’t need it. Back home, women like that get dumped and women like me tend to be in demand. I find the reverse is true here (and, no, I'm not looking for a man, but it's not difficult to notice). I find that as an African-American female people assume I’m simply not capable of a stereotypical female role.

Listening to
I Got a Woman made me wonder when did that expectation for black women change?

Ray Charles sung about a woman who pleased him and who made that her priority.

  • So why is it that black female characters in books, movies, songs, etc. so over the top now?
  • Why is it that when I go through my day, if I disagree or voice the slightest objection people classify me as aggressive?
  • Why is it that people assume that I don’t need help simply because I tend to have it together?
One example of this was when I worked at an English camp teaching a class of pre-teens. I’m pretty strict with discipline, but I’m a fun teacher. I just lay down the law at first so that the kids know who is in charge. I find that classes go much easier if you establish who is in charge initially. Anyway, at the end of the camp one of my kids gave a speech. He talked about the various teachers, including me. In general, he was very complimentary towards me, but I was annoyed when he said “she’s scary when she’s mad”. Why is it that I’m scary here when I’m angered but other women of other races are seen as harmless or even cute? I had an ex who pretty much thought it was the cutest thing when I was upset. In Korea when I'm upset I have people diving for cover.

I’m not trying to create a race issue where there isn’t one as I’m the last person to play the race card. But this is something that hit me hard when someone close to me came at me with every negative stereotype in the book. I was seen as catty or mean where, in contrast, a Korean woman who was incredibly rude and mean to me was just “culturally ignorant”. I didn’t need help when I was having problems wrapping my head around some course material because I'm smart and already have a professional degree, but another Korean woman who had a presentation due needed the help of a professor to prepare for it. Worst of all, knowing that I was being hit with all of these negative expectations, when I asked an indirect question with the aim of trying to not be confrontational it was misinterpreted as a veiled threat (I won’t go into the whole story as the accusation is still so hurtful it makes me cry to think about it). Basically, it was assumed that I was going to go out and track some Korean girl down to hurt her. I was shocked and saddened because as someone who has suffered much loss in my life, I'd never harm someone. In all of those situations, I was seen as mean, unassailable, menacing and straight up violent. Whereas, in contrast, in situations where it was pretty clear that the Asian women were purposefully and intentionally stirring shit up they were presumed to be harmless, merely culturally inept or in need of help or protection.

I was really surprised by all of this. I had to figure out where that was coming from. I’d known him for four or five years, but suddenly all of this stuff was coming my way. Now, he wasn’t the only one. It was just having it come from someone so close to me, I became sensitive to it and started watching people. The same thing has happened at school where I do tend to be someone who will speak up if the students have issues, so now I’m seen as the person to call whenever someone needs a mediator or needs someone to be tough. Now that’s fine, but my thing is why is it that people tend to view me as, firstly, one dimensional? I mean yes, I won’t take anyone’s shit, but I’m not running around on the defensive all the time. Second, why is it that even though I’m not manifesting a hyper-aggressive and violent personality that I’m being seen as that?

My theory is that one big thing going on here is that in modern pop culture black women aren’t being sung about in the way Ray sung about us anymore. Unfortunately, it's the rare hit song that casts us as nuturers. There are songs like that, but most are showing us as materialistic, booty shakers with not much on our minds. Therefore, the world sees us as caricatures that we really aren't, and black women end up having to fight much harder to be seen as normal people with the same emotions, needs and desires.

Yes, it has more layers and complexities (but, come on, I think it's time to wrap this post up). We’re stereotyped as hyper-sexualized, hyper-aggressive, superwomen who don’t marry, aren’t educated, aren't nurturing and raise our children alone. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of black women instead of being critical of that stereotype buy into it also (which is a post for another time).

This is all very rough as this occurred to me just today while listening to a song on the bus and watching the rain come down. But it is something I’ve been thinking about…


More on the Sapphire stereotype and others at Arte Sana:
...Sapphire, the wise-cracking, balls-crushing, emasculating woman, is usually shown with her hands on her hips and her head thrown back as she lets everyone know she is in charge.


Finally, in the stereotype of Sapphire, African American women are portrayed as evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful. In other words, Sapphire is everything that Mammy is not. "The Sapphire image has no specific physical features other than the fact that her complexion is usually brown or dark brown." Unlike other images that symbolize African American women, Sapphire necessitates the presence of an African American male. The African American male and female are engaged in an ongoing verbal duel. Sapphire was created to battle the corrupt African American male whose "lack of integrity, and use of cunning and trickery provides her with an opportunity to emasculate him through her use of verbal put-downs."

Ernestine Ward popularized the Sapphire image in the Amos and Andy television series. Ward played a character known as Sapphire, and her husband, Kingfish, was played by Tim Moore. Sapphire's spiteful personality was primarily used to create sympathy in viewers for Kingfish specifically and African American males in general. As a result, many African American women suppress these feelings of bitterness and rage for fear of being regarded as a Sapphire.

Essence Magazine's Take Back the Music Campaign
We at ESSENCE have become increasingly concerned about the degrading ways in which Black women are portrayed and spoken about in popular media, particularly in popular urban music and music videos.
NYTimes: An Image Popular in Films Raises Some Eyebrows in Ads
Sista in Tokyo: Update: Earthquake Preparedness Images Re-Drawn!


More on Ray Charles:

The Literary Thug's Why Ray Charles matters


More on John Mayer:

*John Mayer is an absolutely brilliant musician, and I love how he's bringing the blues back to the mainstream and to people who might otherwise not listen to the genre. BTW, he has a new blog on his website. I'll put the link up on the left, so you can get it when this post rolls off the main page. (See? Ain't I sweet?)

I recommend the John Mayer Trio Try CD. I wasn’t all that into his initial stuff. It was good, but smacked too much of groupie bait for my tastes. However, he’s upped his game a level and has shown he can throwdown with the best of them.

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