Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont

Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3

It’s really telling to me that, while laziness and hypersexuality are stereotypes are applied to black people in general, so many of the evangelicals Emerson interviewed for Divided by Faith singled out black mothers  as specifically embodying and being the root cause of what they saw as black individual, family, and cultural dysfunction. This circles back to the gendered double standard discussed in the previous post: under the complementarian view of gender and sexuality, the responsibility for sexual and reproductive gatekeeping outside marriage is placed almost entirely on women. So again, though “promiscuity” and having “too many kids” are behaviors that require at least one man in normative heterosexual pairings, these labels stick to black women in different ways than they do to black men: the women sit home and have babies while collecting welfare checks, the mothers send the fathers away, etc.

I think this is worth noting because criticisms of racist narratives about black laziness or the failure or demise of the black family often overlook the fact that these stereotypes are fundamentally and profoundly gendered.  They’re implicit statements of what gender roles “should” be, based on white, heteronormative, classist measures, and statements that black women and men as a group fail to live up to these measures in gender-specific ways. There’s a reason the prevailing stereotype of black people on certain forms of government assistance is that of the “welfare queen.

It’s a critique of black femininity as a failed or less-than. The welfare queen is not only wanton in her sexuality and reproduction, she is also negligent in her attentions to her children – in effect pawns conceived for purely mercenary purposes (to get money from the government). The welfare queen is not bound to one man, doesn’t have her reproduction limited or controlled by one man, uses and neglects her children rather than nurturing them, and is therefore a bad mother. She stands as the foil to the “angel in the home” – the romanticized, infantilized image of the “true woman” and “keeper in the home” (a carry over of Victorian and other Western european notions of idealized, non-threatening, non-sexual femininity), whose only concern is for husband, children, home.

One of Emerson’s interviewees argued that the government perpetuates black inequality by “[making] it easier for somebody [read: black women] to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.” There’s quite a bit of irony in that statement when you juxtapose it with the fact that for many evangelicals, the highest display of femininity is precisely to “stay home and have baby after baby” after marriage and be a “keeper of the home,” while the husband acts as unquestioned leader and sole income earner (“provider” – as though homemaking and child-rearing aren’t “providing” for one’s family).

So in effect, when the welfare queen stereotype is leveled at black women by white evangelicals who believe that women shouldn’t work outside the home and should reproduce frequently, the criticism is really of black women for supposedly being “dependent” on the government instead of being properly dependent on and submissive to a patriarchal husband. Again, recall another one of Emerson’s interview subjects claiming that “we have paid their [black children’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.”

And by extension this is a critique of “the black family” as failed or in crisis, in implicit contrast to white families. And it’s specifically a criticism that black parents are not living up to their proper gender roles in the presumed heterosexual partnerships and heteronormative families. White evangelical attachment to the caricature of the absent black father who due to custom or culture doesn’t “provide for” or “lead” his family is an implicit statement about the superiority of white fatherhood and white family culture. So too is the attachment to the caricature of the negligent, unattached black mother, often also depicted as loud, violent, and contentious, an implicit statement of the superiority of white womanhood and motherhood – by the standards of white evangelical conservative culture – characterized by a “gentle and quiet spirit” and a self-negating submission to the sexual and emotional ownership of one man and a likewise self-denying level of devotion to children and the home.


6 Comments on “Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont”

  1. Caleb says:

    Hi Grace,

    I read Quiverfull by Joyce (and really enjoyed it), and will pick up Divided by Faith. Are there any other books on evangelicalism and race in the 20th century that you could recommend? In particular, I would like something a little more historical than Emerson might be.

    • Grace says:

      Caleb – that’s a really good question. I don’t know of much off the top of my head, but there are probably some relevant references in Emerson’s bibliography. I don’t have it with me right now, but I can check in a few days. You might check out Mark Noll’s surveys of American protestantism (“The Old Religion in the New World and The Work We Have to Do) and his book God and Race in American Politics. I haven’t read those but they would probably have some relevant discussion.

  2. Ahab says:

    I liked your comment comparing the stereotypical “welfare queen” who supposedly breeds prolifically with ideal white evangelical woman who breeds prolifically. (The Quiverfull movement immediately comes to mind, as Caleb noted.) Similarly, fears of “demographic winter” nursed by some far-right fundamentalists are rooted in fears that WHITES are not reproducing enough. The racial dynamics of right-wing rhetoric are startling.

    • Grace says:

      It’s amazing (and yet not) to me that people like Pat Buchanan are able to go on TV and publicly air these concerns about not enough white babies. It’s such blatant white supremacy.

      And yes, the view of large families of color vs. large white families is something that needs to be acknowledged more, especially in discussions of reproductive justice – i.e., it’s not just about not forcing women to have babies, it’s also about countering narratives about which babies and families are worth more than others. Anti-choice pro-natalists don’t want *all* women to be forced to have baby after baby (and this is part of why involuntary/forced sterilization historically and today has been targeted at women of color in the U.S. and non-Western women).

  3. prairienymph says:

    I’ve also heard (from white evangelical circles) that the reason Islam is so attractive to black women is that Muslim men are patriarchal leaders. They lay down the law and restrict their women but they also stick around and bring home a paycheque. How could black women resist?
    I think that narrative was supposed to invoke Islamophobia, but the assumptions about race and gender are also problematic and just icky. What is your take on this? Have you heard it too or is it an isolated idea?

    • Grace says:

      Prairie, I don’t think I’ve heard that idea expressed in quite that way, though it sounds vaguely familiar. I know the idea that black Muslim men are more responsible fathers and husbands and better patriarchal leaders is one that some black Muslim groups promote themselves. I think that’s an issue of both possible internalized racism and patriarchy/misogyny that also exist in black communities and in non-Christian religions…I haven’t heard many white evangelicals express similar opinions, and I don’t know how widespread it is. But it’s not surprising, and like you say it fits with other problematic ideas about black women and gender roles in black families.

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