From The Grio — I hadn’t been born yet when Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox laid down the now-classic track” Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”. “Now this is a song to celebrate, the conscious liberation of the female state…the inferior sex has got a new exterior, we got doctors, lawyers (yes we do), politicians too” they sang, joining a number of their female contemporaries to touch on themes of independence and success for women of all races in the politically charged 1980s.
Today, more than 25 years later, there’s still a great need to publicly celebrate women of color who are “doin it for themselves”. When it comes to public portrayals and representations in the media, black women have been known to get the short end of the stick, often being cast asvillains or scapegoats rather than successful career women and girl power gurus, as Franklin and Lennox once did. From “loud” to “angry” to just plain “unattractive”, we’ve had to face a whole host of negative labels and stereotypes that have surfaced about us and our abilities, some of them with deep-seeded cultural and historical roots.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear about the findings of Katherine Phillips, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and an expert in workplace diversity. She recently presented data as a visiting scholar at the Stanford Graduate School of Business demonstrating that black women are actually excelling in education and business, due at least in part to the ways that we are publicly portrayed in popular culture and the media.
During a talk at Stanford this month titled, “Black Women and the Backlash Effect — Understanding the Intersection of Race and Gender”, Phillips said that on the whole, black women are viewed as “independent, competent, and demanding of respect in the workplace” — and that these are all considered “classic leadership traits”. It is these impressions of black women that help explain (and contribute to) some of their recent success in education and business: Two-thirds of African-American college undergrads are female. And, between 2002 and 2008, the number of businesses owned by black women rose by 19 percent — twice as fast as all other firms and generating $29 billion in sales nationwide.
Notably, some of the very racism and sexism that has fueled offensive and inaccurate representations of us in popular discourse has helped to create these impressions, and contributed to our ability to reach these new heights in academia and the workplace.
If it seems counter-intuitive, consider some context. Public attacks on black women have been leveled frequently and offensively, especially in recent months. Late last year, for example, a series of animated ‘Black Marriage Negotiations’ videos went viral, in which a black female professional presents unreasonably high standards for a mate, suggesting it is black women’s own fault for not being able to find or keep a partner.
Diane Lucas, an attorney in New York who writes about race and gender for the website Feministe, explained that “not surprisingly, the video depicts black women as abrasive, overly demanding, and hyper-aggressive…it’s relying on some pretty tired stereotypes…It only serves to perpetuate the all too pervasive image of the unlovable, undateable black woman.”
And of course, it’s hard to forget that now-infamous Psychology Today article, which used faulty logic and sketchy studies to attempt an explanation of why black women are “objectively” less attractive than women of other races. The article has since been removed from the website, and its author, evolutionary psychologist and racial provocateur Satoshi Kanazawa, was fired from the site. But in many ways, the damage had already been done for black women, who found ourselves on the defensive yet again in regards to our beauty and desirability.
According to Phillips, racist and sexist public events like these have an upside, of sorts: there is evidence that black women’s status as double minorities might actually afford us unique opportunities to avoid common prejudices and instead carve out our own niche. In other words, rather than stacking up and contributing to an increasingly disadvantaged status for black women, these prejudices may simply cancel each other out.