of the Modern Black Woman Evonne Smith
Botherations of the Modern Black Woman A zine illustrating everyday instances of oppression
This zine is intended to shed some light on a few issues today’s Black American women face. It’s meant for those who have little knowledge in this area—if you’re a white American, that probably means you*. With some help from Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America,” I’ll be covering a small portion of how Black women are perceived and perceive themselves in areas of Black identity, physical appearance, and the media. All text from “Shifting” will be denoted by the following symbol (†).
*Having one Black friend doesn’t change that.
Section One: “You don’t act Black.”
Section Two: “You’re pretty, for a dark
skinned girl!” Section Three: “Can I touch your hair?”
h e games of childhood are universal. Girls and boys from all walks of life play jacks together in a schoolyard corner. They pick teams to play baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and then take to the field. The playground is a rainbow. Black, White, Latino, and Asian children share games together, as differences of gender, race, and ethnicity fade away into their play. But there is one game today that still seems the domain of Black girls. Two jump ropes fly toward each other, slicing the air, slapping the concrete milliseconds apart. The girls rock back and forth, waiting for the right moment to leap in. They jump. They skip, turn, and shout. They can hardly catch their breath, soaring, singing, laughing all at the same time. Double Dutch, more often than not, still belongs to America’s little Black girls. That separate game of courage and timing, that separate place with its own rules and challenges, resonates onward into adolescence and adulthood. For so many Black women, it’s a powerful memory, and a powerful metaphor, because life, they say, seems so often, perhaps too often, like that childhood game. As girls, then as adults, Black women tell us again and again that they must struggle to keep their balance as they straddle the twin identities of race and gender, shifting their step, altering their rhythm, devising a new move at a moment’s notice. Many do it with grace, navigating the intricacies of two realities: I am Black! I am woman! †
reo” is the mildly offensive slang term referring to a Black person whose speech, behavior, and/or preferences align with those regarded to be held by White middle-to-upper class people. For example, speaking Standard English where others speak African American English (often called “Ebonics”) or listening to country music instead of rap could earn a person this title. People dubbed Oreos are often also “Onlies”—members of the only Black family on the block, the only Black people in class, and so on. Onlies are often assumed to possess “Negro Expertise”. Their peers and colleagues see them as all-knowing spokespeople for the African American race and often turn to them for answers to such burning questions as, “Do Black people have afros ‘down there’ too?”
Black on the outside, white on the inside
Code Switching: To customize style of speech and behavior to the person or group being addressed.
or an African American woman, perhaps no act is critical to successfully counteracting the myths and stereotypes that swirl around her as changing the way she speaks. The pitch of her voice (whether it is deemed too loud or just right), the rhythm of her speech (undulating like a blues or popping in a crisp staccato), and the vocabulary she uses (calling a coworker “triflin’” as opposed to “irresponsible”) can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. A phrase (“you so crazy”), an “incorrect” verb (“He be trippin’”), or a simple inflection (“Say what?”) can shape the listener’s impression of her, often in ways she may not have chosen. ...[W]hat you say and how you say it is often the first and most important way that other people—Black or not—size you up, determine where you stand, and decide how to treat and deal with you. If you always speak “White”, you may win respect in the conventional White world, but end up alienating your Black friends and family. If you always speak “Black”, you risk being perceived as less intelligent and sophisticated than you truly are, and assimilation into the outside White world may become close to impossible. And if you flow back and forth deftly between the two forms of language, you may find a measure of acceptance from everyone, but woe unto you if you’re caught speaking the “wrong” form of English in the wrong place. †
Do you mean a POP? Can I have a soda? 8
epresentations of Black women in the media have historically been driven by stereotypes and generally presented in a negative light. These depictions are so flat, the majority of Black female characters portrayed in media can usually be encapsulated with one of six caricatures: Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, Ghetto Queen, Mama Africa, and the Sassy Black Woman.
Mammy The desexualized matriarch with an overly emphasized maternal nature. Dark-skinned and obese, the Mammy often carries a jolly disposition and is content with a position of servitude. Aunt Jemima is one of the most well-known examples of the Mammy.
Sapphire Infamous for her hostile attitude, the Sapphire prides herself on her independence. Often standing with her arms crossed or akimbo, she ridicules the people close to her (especially Black men) and is generally difficult to get along with.
Jezebel Today known as the â€œ[Music] Video Hoâ€?, the Jezebel loves to show plenty of skin. She is known for her exotic mulatto appeal and insatiable sex drive. She is constantly devising her next scheme to assume power using sexual cunning.
Sassy Black Woman Wielding her signature neck roll and catch phrase, “Oh NO you didn’t!,” the Sassy Black Woman takes crap from no one and stands up for herself and others. Her verbal slander of any offender primarily serves to provide comedic relief.
Ghetto Queen Confident yet unattractive, this woman can be of any age and is always of a low socioeconomic status. She heavily uses slang or African American English and is a trend-setter in the knockoff designer clothing and accessories field.
Mama Africa Kind and soulful, she dreams of her people’s return to the Motherland. Mama Africa can often be found selling handmade jewelry and incense at the flea market. The term “Afrocentric” doesn’t do her justice. 15
This is what we call the “lily complex”, the belief that the only way to be beautiful is to look as close to “White” as possible.
lack girls are literally not the fairest of them all. Rather, their hues range from eggshell to midnight. They often fill out their blue jeans with ample rumps and wide hips, sport thick, kinky locks, broad noses, and full lips. Many are the opposite of the rail thin, blonde actresses and models who peer out from the movie screens and magazine covers. In a society where the standard of beauty remains European, where beauty still too often defines a woman’s worth, many Black women struggle to feel attractive and thus secure and valued. The pressure to look like someone other than themselves is enormous, pushing black women to obsession over their hair, skin tone, and increasingly their body size and shape. This is what we call the “lily complex”, the belief that the only way to be beautiful is to look as close to “White” as possible. † As Black women deal with the constant pressure to fit a beauty standard that is inauthentic and often unattainable, the lily complex can set in. In changing her physical appearance to meet the mainstream ideal, her sense of self may start to disintegrate as she rejects and even grows disdain for her natural, physical self. By reshaping her outward appearance, or feeling that she should, she alters her psyche as well. She internalizes the mainstream message that says Black is not beautiful, believing that she can only be lovely by impersonating someone else. † Back in the days of slavery, darker-skinned slaves were assigned hard labor in the fields while fairer-skinned slaves were given lighter housework. Internalizing such practices, many African Americans began to view skin tone as a valid indicator of superiority. As recently as the 1950s, Black groups such as churches, schools, parties and fraternities required any person seeking membership to pass a test. The test was simple: a brown paper bag was held up to the person’s arm, and if his or her skin was darker than the bag, he or she would be denied entry. Today a subtler exercise, this skintone-based discrimination is called colorism.
Black woman’s hair is often linked to her identity, regardless of whether she considers it to be a significant factor. For some, taking care of their hair becomes a lifestyle while for others, it is an afterthought at most. Many spend copious amounts of money and subject their hair to heat and harsh chemicals in pursuit of Eurocentric beauty ideals. Generally, a Black woman can identify her hair as “natural” or not. “Natural” hair means something different to everyone, but most agree it includes hair that is not chemically straightened or altered. For example, an Afro or braids are examples of “natural” hair, whereas permed hair is not. Though non-natural styling options often leave a woman’s hair damaged and prone to fall out, many salons charge higher prices for styling natural hair because they believe it is harder to manage.
The Andre Walker Hair Typing System classifies hair by the curliness of the hair strands. Each hair type requires a different care regimen. 19
Non-natural Hair Styling Methods Hot Comb Metal comb that is typically heated up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit in a special hot comb “oven” or on the open flame of a gas stovetop. As the comb is run through kinky or curly hair, the heat burns the hair into straightened submission. The scalp is at high risk for burns from direct contact with the comb or from steam generated by the burning hair.
Relaxer A relaxer is a cream or lotion that chemically straightens hair by breaking down and altering the hair shaft. Though the process damages hair, it helps Black women get closest to attaining the beauty ideal that glorifies straight hair. Some women develop a dependence on the substance despite its risks—earning it the nickname “Creamy Crack”. Fun fact: Pepa of rap group Salt-N-Pepa claims she inadvertently started the half-shaved head trend in the 80s when a relaxer caused some of her hair to fall out.
“Natural” Hair Styling Options Dreadlocks Dreadlocks is the hairstyle created when hair is twisted or braided into locks and allowed to mat. Others tend to assume that women wearing these hairstyles smoke marijuana or otherwise lead Rastafarian lifestyles.
Weave The weave is made of hair extensions glued or sewn (woven) into the hair on a woman’s braided head. With the best quality weaves being made of human hair—Indian and Malaysian are most popular—weaves are expensive; they run from one hundred dollars up to several thousand. If cared for properly they can last 2-3 months but can be itchy. Many women pat their heads instead of scratching for fear of loosening the weave.
Wash-n-Wear This style fits most Black women’s definition of “natural”. Stereotypes that follow wearers of this hairstyle say that they are obsessed with their hair and look down on women who use relaxers.
hough this zine carries a lighthearted tone, the issue it discusses is serious and complex. Oppression is defined as the unjust systemic use of power to enforce an unequal relationship and devalue another group or deny their rights. It can manifest in places as significant as federal laws and as trivial as clothing (e.g. for a Black woman, shopping for skin-toned undergarments is like searching for the holy grail). Everyone experiences oppression based on one or more of their identities, but some forms of oppression (like those caused by racism, homophobia, and sexism) are more harmful than others. Throughout most of the world, the least oppressed groups tend to be males, those with light skin, heterosexuals, gender-conforming people, conventionally attractive people, Christians, able-bodied people, and those who are wealthy or financially comfortable. Oppression perpetuated by these groups can make it difficult for hard-working people to attain education, basic liberties, and general opportunities for advancement. Oppression is a tough problem to tackle as those who benefit from it most—and those who have the most power to end it—find it tough to recognize. Assuming you’re able-bodied (a privileged assumption in itself), how often do you think about the trouble a wheelchair user would have navigating your favorite store? How does holding multiple disadvantaged identities affect an individual’s sense of oppression? With all of this in mind, I leave you with a challenge: spend just one day noticing where oppression shows up in your daily life. Think about your experience with it and your role in its perpetuation. Special thanks to John Hendrix, D.B. Dowd, and my peer editors.
This zine was made at Washington University in St. Louis in Spring 2014 for the Communication Design Seminar. It was self-bound and -printed on French Paperâ€™s Dur-O-Tone Newsprint Extra White, with 80lb cover and 70lb text weights. The Achille and Whitney typeface families are used.