Sunday, July 12, 2020

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Part II. Implicit Bias in Schools' Inadequate Responses to the Needs of Black Girls and Young Women who have Experienced Sexual Harassment

“Judgments about aesthetics do not exist apart from judgments about the social, political, and economic order of a society.” Evidence from social psychology and implicit bias research greatly informs the connections between stereotypical portrayals of African American women and girls and the consequences of these depictions for Black girls and young women in today's society. Furthermore, implicit bias theory illustrates the defeminization and dehumanization of Black girls and young women, laying the groundwork for the condoning of violence against them.

That people live and attend school in racially segregated spaces amplifies the effects of implicit bias, as it leads people to gather significant amounts of information about those of other races and cultures based on secondhand knowledge and stereotypical media depictions. For example, stereotypical depictions of Black women and girls as self-sacrificing Mammies, sexually promiscuous Jezebels, and emasculating Sapphires regularly appear in popular media. This becomes particularly problematic when positive characterizations of Black women are absent in the media and media producers rarely give Black women and girls major roles. The effect of misrepresentation and underrepresentation is that many people have biased perceptions of Black women and girls. Stereotypical representations also affect those within the African American community who may experience reduced self-esteem and self-perceptions. This Section breaks down how implicit bias operates on a psychological and structural level.

As of 2010, most people in the U.S. still lived and attended school in racially segregated neighborhoods. For this reason, many non-Blacks receive the majority of their information about African American girls and women through vicarious experiences like those offered by word-of-mouth stories and the media. Within this context, examining stereotypes of African American women and girls present in media becomes crucial for identifying the production of prejudice and for understanding the maintenance and condoning of violence against Black girls. As Orbe and Harris stated, “mass media images [[both] reflect societal values and ideas about race/ethnicity . . . [and] reinforce or shape widely shared ideals.” This effect results when media producers perpetuate “patterns of (1) invisibility, (2) underrepresentation, (3) stereotypical depictions, and (4) misrepresentations” in the content they create and share.

Media images and representations of African American women and girls have historically been used to subordinate them. These images and representations persist in modern political discourse and popular consciousness. Three dominant stereotypes of Black women have been identified as (1) Mammy (also known as “Aunt Jemima”), (2) Jezebel, and (3) Sapphire. Scholars have also identified the stereotype of pickaninnies, which is specifically associated with Black children.”

The Mammy stereotype originated in the South during slavery, where Whites enslaved Black women as domestic workers in their homes. Mammy is a stereotype of a dark-complexioned, overweight Black woman with a large bosom and buttocks. She has been depicted as a fiercely loyal domestic servant to White slave owners, often nurturing the master's White children more than her own Black children. She is constantly self-sacrificing, happy with her station in life, and obedient to her master or employer. The Jezebel stereotype also originated in the South during slavery. The image was born out of “white slave owners' . . . almost complete control over Black women's sexuality and reproduction.” Jezebel was portrayed as a “seductive, hypersexual, exploiter of men's weaknesses.” She is known as the “bad-Black-girl.” The Amos and Andy radio show reinforced the image of another stereotypical Black woman, known as Sapphire. Sapphire was a “hostile, nagging wife.” She was “iron-willed” and “contemptuous of Black men.” Her “primary role was to emasculate Black men with frequent verbal assaults . . . loud, animated, [and] verbose.” Sapphire is the opposite of Mammy. She is “the wise-cracking, balls-crushing, emasculating woman, [and] is usually shown with her hands on her hips and her head thrown back as she lets everyone know she is in charge.” Sapphire is frequently portrayed as “evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful.” The image of pickaninnies is a stereotype specifically associated with African American youth. It portrays Black children as “dirty, unkempt, [and] animal-like.”

These stereotypical images of Black women and girls implicate dominant beauty standards. Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, Carolyn M. West, among others, has described the ways in which greater societal value has been placed on straight blonde hair, blue eyes, a thin physique, and fair skin. Black women and girls who attain an image closer to these racist beauty standards are “afforded greater access to education, financial opportunities, and societal resources” and are generally perceived as more feminine and attractive.

Although related to one another, stereotypes of African American women and girls are distinguishable from stereotypes that have historically subordinated African American men and boys. Many of the media and cultural stereotypes of Black males portray them as criminal, threatening, aggressive, poor, unemployed, physically fit, hypersexual, and skilled at sports, entertainment, and music. Angela Harris writes of African American men's long history of being “‘emasculated’ by white supremacy,” and their cultural response:

African American men have been denied the privileges of hegemonic masculinity, including patriarchal control over women, jobs that permit one to exercise technical mastery and autonomy, and the financial and political power that enables control over others. . . . In response to this denial of access to “full” manhood, African American men have constructed rebellious forms of manhood, such as the inner-city “cool pose” that presumes black superiority and white impotence. Building on and subverting racist stereotypes, working-class and poor black men may aspire to a masculinity that emphasizes physical strength, mental control, and sexual prowess. Or they may aspire to a masculinity of physical grace, personal style, and creative artistry.

The stereotypes of Black females and Black males affect the political consciousness of both groups but pose particular problems for Black girls in confronting intersectional forms of subordination. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading scholar in critical race feminism and a Professor of Law at UCLA, found that “the racial context in which Black women find themselves makes the creation of a political consciousness that is oppositional to Black men difficult.” In other words, acknowledging violence against Black women and girls frequently implicates Black men and boys as perpetrators, while Black women who speak out about such violence in the community may be considered traitors to their racial group.
This tension between racial allegiance and acknowledging the realities of Black women and girls' experiences with gendered violence is particularly important when it comes to an analysis of sexual harassment in school and the role that stereotypes may play when school administrators are tasked with responding to violence targeted at Black girls. In a society that no longer permits slavery or laws that facially discriminate on the basis of race, many would like to believe that the negative representations of Black women in media have become a historical relic, a problem that no longer affects society.

Instead, research rooted in the fields of sociology, social psychology, and critical race feminism confirms the persistence of implicit bias against African Americans and the real-life effects of such bias. For example, while overt racial animosity is almost non-existent in the media, implicit bias and skewed imagery of Black women and girls remain. In particular, research on television over the past fifty years has shown that it reflects negative and historically derived representations of African American girls and young women by both inclusion and exclusion.

The imagery and historical stereotypes of African American girls have real-life implications as they alter the way our minds perceive Black girls and young women. Implicit bias research has empirically measured the effects of such stereotypes, including biased perceptions and decision-making aimed at Black women and girls. This science provides insight into the root causes of school administrators' inadequate responses to the sexual harassment of African American girls.

Implicit bias theory helps describe the structural and psychological mechanisms by which violence against African American girls is condoned and ignored. Common perceptions of Black girls and young women include that they are more masculine than women of other races and less worthy or in need of help as other victims--themes which are reflected in the Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel caricatures discussed earlier. Unfortunately, no empirical implicit bias studies have explicitly centered on Black girls and young women, though inferences can be drawn from studies of Black adults. One way researchers have studied these biases is by showing images of Black women and men to participants in psychology experiments and tracking their responses. The findings support the notion that biases that Black girls and young women are somehow inferior to people of other races and that they are more masculine directly influence the ways in which decision makers in school respond to their sexual victimization and harassment.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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