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.
NaBloPoMo Day 7: Success at posting every day for a week! It feels good even if the last two posts have been written before I go to bed ;)
In other news, AWH now has a page at Google+. Check it out.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about the ways “true womanhood” specifically excludes black women. But as I’ve noted a few times before, this is a model of femininity that erases and maligns so many identities and experiences that it ultimately denies the “realness” of the vast majority of women.
Class is a huge axis along which women are allowed or denied the label of true women, though not in a simplistic way that pits the rich or the middle class against the poor. Rather, socioeconomic status intersects with race, and geography (among other factors) in terms of which kinds of women are seen as exemplifying natural or godly femininity.
As I see it there are at least two fairly distinct, though not without overlapping ideas and influences, cultures in the white true womanhood movement. There’s the rural, almost homesteading culture, which seems to emphasize the role of wives in labor and production in the home (reproductive and otherwise). It’s a culture that preaches a particular kind of self-reliance and adherence to old-fashioned, “traditional” ways that to a degree deliberately isolates them from the rest of society, physically and culturally.
And then there’s the kind that centers on the trappings off white suburban life: owning a nice home, keeping that home looking nice and respectable, in the name of “hospitality” and “fellowship,” and keeping oneself looking nice and respectable (both stylish and modest!). It’s a model of true womanhood that requires being able to afford a certain level of consumption.
This is the culture I grew up in. Most of the families at church were financially comfortable. I’d say the majority of the church was upper middle class, and a not insignificant minority of the church was squarely upper class (new suburban rich persuasion). There were families who struggled financially, but the vast majority of the church was comfortably middle class or wealthier, and most people were from families that had been in middle class for some time.
Both official teachings and church events as well as the church culture reflected assumptions that everyone was fairly well-off. For example, it didn’t occur to me until I went to college and met people from different socioeconomic backgrounds that being a “good” member of my home church required expenditures that many people simply could not afford. Being fully “invested” in the church as a family with children meant sending or accompanying kids on myriad youth retreats, excursions, and missions, attending at least one out-of-town conference a year (often more), joining the evangelical versions of Boy or Girl Scouts, buying several books a year for discussion at bible studies, and numerous other literal investments of money – speak less of all the time away from home and work that had to be set aside for such things.
True womanhood as understood in this context makes similarly significant demands on families’ time and money. Women are expected to stay at home once they became mothers, and to homeschool their kids. Home ownership is also expected. I can’t tell you how many women from my former church have blogged ad nauseam about how they’re learning to “trust God” through the “trial” of not yet being homeowners. The cluelessness and privilege, it is rather epic.
Homes are to be tastefully and fashionably decorated. Women are expected to be frequent and accomplished cooks of healthy meals. And they’re expected to have larger families than average for suburban communities – 4 or 5, sometimes as many as 7 or 8 or 9 kids. To successfully do all this on one income in an area where cost of living and house prices are high (or even average) often requires a considerable income on the part of the husband and considerable labor at home as teacher, child-care provider, home decorator, chef, etc., on the part of the wife.
More thoughts on this coming.
Sexualized stereotypes about black women are not isolated to my former church or denomination, but rather representative of beliefs about black sexuality and family life that remain common among white evangelicals. Michael Emerson, a white sociologist of religion, writes of encountering these same attitudes in his (highly recommended!) book Divided by Faith, an examination of racial segregation in American evangelicalism and of factors in the white evangelical church that contribute to and perpetuate such segregation. [The following quotes and paraphrases from Divided by Faith can be found on pp. 100-104; emphases are mine]
For example, Emerson notes that white evangelicals often see “bad choices” on the part of black people as being primarily to blame for racial disparities between U.S. blacks and whites; among these choices are “having too many children.” He writes:
In their use of these cultural reasons [for racial inequality], white conservative Protestants do not mean patterns of behavior rooted in values (e.g., blacks have many children because they highly value large families), but rather that blacks are making poor choices (e.g., black individuals do not exercise responsibility in child-bearing, faith, or speech).
White evangelicals interviewed by Emerson repeatedly linked welfare to “bad choices” with respect to sex and family life that produce racial inequality. One woman saw unrestrained black reproduction as the problem:
So many black people have beaucoup [large numbers of] kids. I only had two because I feel as though that’s what I can afford. And, I mean, sometimes I think they just don’t use the brains God gave them.
Similarly, a Baptist woman argued that black women have children to collect welfare payments:
[She]…linked welfare to family dissolution: ‘I think ultimately it goes back to the fact that they have a lot of single parent homes. [When asked by authors why this is] Well, in a lot of instances there was no family to start with…I mean the AFDC payments. A woman gets money for each child she has and there is never a husband involved. In this area it is very common for a black girl in her late teens to be having her third or fourth baby, unmarried. My daughter works in OB (obstetrics), that is how I know. Very common, because they get their AFDC payments.
Other views offered in these interviews:
- One woman described government programs to address [black] poverty are “no different from slavery.”
- Another “was not shy in implicating the government, even while making welfare recipients seem less than admirable: “It has to be blamed on the government. The government makes it easier for somebody to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.“
- Still another woman claimed that under welfare, “we have paid their [black people’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.“
Emerson also found that some white evangelicals saw a feedback loop relationship between black poverty and welfare. On the one hand, “it is blacks who, perhaps because they are seen as having less initiative or moral fortitude, are more likely to receive welfare” (despite the fact that the majority of Americans on welfare are in fact white). But at the same time “it was common to link welfare directly to the demise of individual initiative and responsibility among African Americans.” In other words, there’s circular reasoning at work here: black people are more likely to be on welfare because of lack of initiative, and welfare creates lack of initiative in black people.
As the quotes above show, most white evangelicals Emerson interviewed cited “choice” rather than natural lack of ability as the reason for racial disparities between blacks and whites. Yet these quotes also show that “choice” is framed in such a way as to be almost indistinguishable from “natural” racial inferiority. When you see an entire race as habitually “not using the brains God gave them” or habitually choosing “the easy way out” of “taking” government support (which, again, is really not so easy as some imagine), and habitually choosing not to provide for their families, make “moral” decisions about family life, or exercise sexual or reproductive self-control – when you see an entire race as suffering because of habitual “bad choices” you’ve framed “choice” as something that so completely characterizes a group of people that it’s not much different from a natural trait.
Bringing this back to the notion of “true womanhood,” then, the implication of the attitudes Emerson describes is that black women flout the norms of “real” femininity so regularly and to such a degree that we are basically not real women. Or at the very least, the “realness” of our femininity is always in question in the cultural context of predominantly white evangelicalism. We have to prove, in a different way and to a different extent than white women in the same contexts, our sexual “purity,” our competence and maturity as mothers and wives in a patriarchal (and white privileging) system, and our ability to show a submissive, “gentle and quiet” spirit in a context where black women are stereotyped as loud, unruly, and uncouth. The bar for showing ourselves to be “real women” is higher (and as other commenters have pointed out, similar stereotypes and double standards apply to Latina women in the white church).
More thoughts on the interviews in Emerson’s Divided by Faith in the next post on this topic.
Growing up, I had to make sense of two divergent messages I heard about female sexuality. On the one hand, there was the constant refrain about “Women” as a monolithic, universal category, utterly separate and distinct from “Men.” This idea was pounded into our heads through every possible means: in sermons and books, at conferences and bible studies, in magazines and constant exhortations to the “ladies” about the importance of modesty and to “the men” about fighting lust.
And of course it pervaded church culture and family life in less official but also powerful ways: the joking-but-not-really comments from boys and men about whom they would “allow” to court their female relatives, and the dire consequences awaiting any man who dared to touch their sister or daughters without prior approval. The warnings to girls and women that we must withhold sex from men in order to lure them into marriage. The pervasive refusal to even consider the possibility that women might want to have sex – even, horrors, outside of marriage – and the complementary assumption that men were always and only really interested in straight sex.
The message was pretty clear: the bedroom for men, the altar for women. End of story.
Except the story wasn’t so simple for me. At the same time that I was being taught to equate “true” femininity with chastity and sexual reticence, I was also learning that many people I went to church with saw black women as having a habitually unchaste and voracious sexuality. A similar disconnect existed between the notion that “women” are nurturing, warm, oriented towards family and the home, and on the other hand, pernicious stereotypes of black mothers as neglectful, irresponsible, unfit parents who either lacked or rejected “normal” maternal sentiment and behavior.
Offhand comments from pastors and church members alike, snide asides, jokes in which black female sexuality was a frequent punchline, and widespread willingness to pontificate about the moral and cultural failings of black communities made it unmistakably clear that the prevailing assumptions about black women stood in sharp contrast to everything I was told came naturally to “Women.”
These are some of the messages I heard about black female sexuality (hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: this is a description, not a statement of agreement on my part with any of the moral judgments that follow!):
– Black girls and women are sexually active early, often, and with multiple partners.
– Corollary: black girls and women can usually be assumed to be sexually active, or soon to become sexually active, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black girls and women are unrestrained and irresponsible with both sexuality and reproduction, e.g.: black women become parents at a very young age, are usually single or unmarried parents, have large numbers of children, fathered by different men who are seldom involved in parenting their kids.
– Corollary: black girls and women in public with children can be assumed to be single parents of those children, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black mothers do not adequately provide for their children, are often unemployed by choice and on public assistance.
– Corollary: older black girls or women with children in public can be assumed to be unwed parents of those children supported by the hard-earned money that the government steals from hardworking, white, married people pay in taxes. In other words, black women suspected of being unwed parents are also lazy mooches (never mind that the majority of people on welfare are white Americans, never mind that being on welfare is hardly the primrose path conservatives seem to imagine).
– Black mothers are neglectful, lazy, and abusive in their parenting.
In short, I was left to reconcile the following contradictory messages:
“woman” = “natural” and “God-given” sexual reticence, “natural” desire for marriage and “the home” as boundaries that contain sexuality and reproduction, and “natural” desire to submit to male “leadership.”
“black woman” = hypersexuality, reproductive excess, parental neglect, and the absence of husband/father figures (in other words, the absence of patriarchal covering and authority).
On top of all that, these negative stereotypes were so strongly associated with blackness as to make them seem almost like an innate racial trait. People widely assumed that these behaviors could be taken for granted as characterizing random black women they saw in public, or on TV. Unsurprisingly, these assumptions also affected how black girls and women who weren’t strangers, but part of the church community, were perceived and treated by the white majority of the congregation and even by other black members. These stereotypes so strongly shaped how the church viewed black women inside and outside the community that they rose to the level of “just how black people are.”
As I’ll discuss in the next post, these stereotypes were not isolated to my church or my denomination (or to Christians in general, to be fair); rather, they were representative of beliefs about black people and especially black women that are still quite common among white religious conservatives.
I came across this video by Jamilah Lemieux, aka Sister Toldja, on how cultural assumptions about race and gender shape the way we respond on a societal level to teen pregnancy. My comments are directly below; click to jump to the transcript.
There’sa lot to be unpacked in this clip, but it particularly brought to mind a similar and consistent racial double standard in how white conservative Christian culture generally frames the relationship between gender and sexuality. “Real” femininity is often defined in a way that almost inherently excludes women of color – and indeed, all women fall outside an extremely narrow and privileged ideal of what “true womanhood” is.
One example of this is the ideas the abstinence movement puts forward about what women “naturally” want when it comes to sex and relationships. Abstinence advocates argue for a binary, complementarian understanding of gender, sexuality, and intimacy. Men, they argue, want sex (with women) and women want relationships (with men). Women don’t really want sex – certainly not compared to how much men want sex – and are thus more capable of resisting sexual temptation than men. See, for instance, one church’s guide to a popular complementarian book on sex and relationships which claims that “sexual purity [is] easier for women than for men.” [source: Study guide to Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor]
Women have sex outside of marriage, the story goes, not because we want to, but because we are either pressured into it, or tricked into believing that sex will bring what all women really want – emotional intimacy, commitment, and security, all provided by a man. None of these things, of course, can really exist outside the commitment (read: contract) of heterosexual marriage, because a man who’s already getting sex has no reason to provide a woman with any of that stuff. Or, to cite a charming quote from the aforementioned complementarian relationship manual: “If it’s harder to drag men to the altar today than it used to be one reason is that they don’t have to stop there on the way to the bedroom.”
Marriage, under this model, is basically an institution divinely designed as an exchange of commodities between husband and wife, to allow them to both get what they really want out of each other. The husband gives relational love and commitment to the wife in exchange for her giving him sex. It’s all very romantic.
The story continues that true women need to be protected from men’s voracious sexual appetites until marriage, so we’re not roped into sex we don’t really want without getting anything for it in return. True, godly men therefore have to exert herculean levels of self-control to shelter women from male sexual desire – to keep us from being “defrauded” and having our purity sullied: “If a chaste man is protecting women, what is an unchaste man doing?” Incidentally – if the idea that men have to work really hard not to have sex with women sounds like it borders on rape apologism to you, you’re not wrong. The very next sentence in the guide: “Does it make any difference if the woman is willing?” Implied answer: no.
Yet somehow women are still far more to blame if premarital sex does occur, because, after all, men can barely control their sexual passions to begin with. The burden is more on women to exercise sexual self-control because they are “naturally” more capable of such self-control: “How is a woman’s sexual self-control a powerful force in society? What happens to a society when its women do not exercise sexual self-control?” [Study guide]
This is the dynamic that produces the gendered double standard that Lemieux describes. Teen girls and unmarried women are overwhelmingly the focus of moral panic and concern trolling about out of wedlock pregnancy in the abstinence movement (as in mainstream culture) – not boys or men – because the idea is that as the ones more capable of sexual self-control, women shoulder more of the responsibility for (it’s assumed) agreeing to the sexual contact that led to pregnancy. Because it is believed that boys and men almost can’t help but act on their sexual desires (for women), male heterosexuality is unquestioned and unchallenged; we erase men from the picture of teen pregnancy even though they are equal participants in sex.
The focus is instead placed on women as the ones who could have prevented sex from taking place – who should have acted as gatekeepers. Because real women don’t want sex, any evidence of female sexual desire or activity must be challenged and punished. So it produces a situation where the same action on heterosexual desire is completely understandable and gets a pass for the male partner, but is condemned, interrogated, worried over, and punished for the female partner.
Accordingly, much of the policy the abstinence movement advocates disproportionately seeks to punish girls and women for being sexually active – opposing HPV vaccines for girls, opposing access to condoms, birth control, abortion, and other family planning information and services, opposing social programs that help young and/or single mothers to provide for their families, that provide their children with vital educational and after school services, that allow them to manage their fertility and plan their family size as they see fit. Underlying all of this is the mindset that women need to face consequences for choosing to be sexually active – and a mindset that refuses the acknowledge the reality that many women, including many teen girls, are coerced, assaulted, or raped and that these all factor into teen pregnancy and other issues conservatives claim to be so concerned about.
In sum, the abstinence movement claims that women are naturally chaste in comparison to men, who really have to work long and hard at chastity. But as I’ll discuss in the next post, the same conservative Christian culture that pushes abstinence also frequently stereotypes of women of color – especially black women – as habitually promiscuous, hypersexual, and generally unable or unwilling to exert any sort of self-control in how we express our sexuality. When you juxtapose this idea that women of color are naturally unchaste with the notion that “true women” are naturally chaste, the clear message this sends is that women of color are not really women.
My name is Jamilah Lemieux, and I’m a freelance writer.
Tell us about your article.
My article is called “Becky’s [got a] baby.”
I’ve found that the…increase in media attention around teen pregnancy has, there’s been a change in narrative, and it’s gone from…the poor minority girl who has somehow failed society and failed her family to… the unlucky, unfortunate young white woman who’s worthy of our sympathy. And I don’t think it’s fair. I think that any young woman who’s in that position deserves the same level of sympathy and support. And you know, it’s really interesting that when the face of teen pregnancy was a Black or Hispanic young mother [clip of a black infant and a young black woman] …it was this thing for shame, and darkness, and now that it’s, you know, we’re seeing more white women in the media who are doing it, it’s something to be not celebrated, but examined more carefully.
What roles do race & gender play when discussing teen pregnancy in the media?
The media is a lot easier on young white women who find themselves pregnant as teens compared to black girls, or hispanic girls, or women from any other ethnic group. As far as gender goes, young men are largely left out of the conversation, which doesn’t make sense, because you can’t have a teen pregnancy without a boy or a young man who’s also participated. So we’re blaming the girls, or now we’re being a little bit more sympathetic, but we’re not examining the reasons that both genders have chosen to either be sexually irresponsible, or are simply misinformed, and don’t understand what they could have done to protect themselves or to prevent a pregnancy. We’re not talking about the possibility that, you know, a lot of young women are coerced by boyfriends, you know, some of whom are older than they are, not to wear condoms or to engage in sex before they’re ready. So there’s a lot of factors at hand that lead to young women getting pregnant, and unfortunately we’re only talking about a certain segment of the population now. We’re leaving out the brown girls and the boys.
How is the growing popularity via the media affecting society at large?
I think that now that the face…of the teenage mother has become white, thanks to MTV’s 16 and pregnant and Teen Mom, it has become more acceptable [clips of white infants, white teens and teen parents]. I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s…encouraging young women to get pregnant, but there have been stories of young girls who allegedly have timed their pregnancies to try to get a spot on one of those shows. I think it’s good to alleviate the stigma of shame surrounding teen motherhood, and if we have to through a white face to have that done, then there is some beenfit to it, but I just think that the conversation that we need to have about why young women across socioeconomic lines, across racial lines, and young men, are engaging in high risk sexual behavior. That conversation needs to be had.
What do you want people to take from your piece?
I hope people will understand or… be reminded that we’re not post-racial at all. Some of the things that may seem like progress, such as…ending the stigma or lessing the stigma surrounding teen mothers is also a reminder that we still have leaps and bounds when it comes to managing race in this country. Because again, if the…young women and girls on the teen mothers show were black or hispanic or asian, they wouldn’t be on the cover of people magazine [images of white teen parents in People magazine; images of Bristol Palin]. We wouldn’t be looking at them to be reality celebrities and we wouldn’t have the same level of sympathy towards them. Maybe I would or you would, but you know, people that follow those shows religiously either wouldn’t, or they’d be watching to say, “Well, look at what these black girls are doing,” and “They’re tearing down the moral fiber of this country,” and it probably somehow would become reason to discuss why Barack Obama shouldn’t be president. So I just hope that people understand that this new wave of discussion about teen pregnancy is revealing a lot more than we think, and that it’s not just about teen sexuality.
Thoughts on XhibitP?
I think the biggest thing when using art as social activism is to inspire conversation…and that conversation leads to action. So someone may watch this and totally disagree with me, or with someone else that they’ve seen interviewed, and someone may have some sort of paradigm shift, or someone may just be convinced that everything is ok and we’re just wasting our time here. But ultimately, movements like this can be…the catalyst to inspire people to action. So I hope that anyone that’s checking out XhibitP for the first time becomes a longtime supporter.
[outro of Lemieux talking and laughing]
Jump back to the top of the post.