Black Women in Popular Culture

The Power Of Stereotypes

It’s often difficult to write about issues of race as a black person without seemingly sounding like a victim and playing the race card. The fact that the world is not a perfect place and that racial discrimination of some form or another still exists whether deliberate or as a hangover from the history of slavery is well recognized. Racism is an uncomfortable subject that very few seem to want to talk about. But the fact remains that it’s part of our culture and everyday life. And although the more historical violent forms of racism and segregation may no longer exist today and have been legislated against, racist ideologies are prevalent.

I’ve attended two Australian universities in Melbourne. While studying food science at RMIT Melbourne, my lecturer (a globally renowned Nutritionist) who can be described as a nice man, once asked me to spend less time on my nails and going out, and more time studying in front of my classmates composed mostly of Asian students. I was the only black student in the course and at the time only two other black students attended the university. I was Confused by his comments and felt ashamed. Rather than defending myself, I wondered what I had done or said in class to invite such a personal attack. My school work wasn’t suffering and I was one of the few students who made any positive contributions to class discussions.  First of all I didn’t paint my nails nor go out, but simply took care in my appearance. I’d been brought up that way.

While studying psychology at Swinburne university I was shocked by some of the racist views held in the discipline of psychology. I’d felt strange being told that black people were found to have performed worse on IQ tests and therefore based on the IQ tests were less intelligent than other races. Recently, an instructor had tried to tell me the same thing while baffled by my physical strength in his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class and my ability to remember the skills being taught even though i rarely attended the class. This young Australian man was quick to point out that my strength came purely from my black genetic makeup that meant that I had faster fast muscle twitching fibres and also a higher level of testosterone but was unfortunately at the bottom of the perking order when it came to intelligence as IQ tests had proved Asians to be superior. Before I could answer my other class mates (white) jumped to my defence in dispute of his argument. He insisted that it was true and finally I looked at him and tried to explain how the conversation was unfortunately now making me uncomfortable and that it needed to stop. What I was surprised to learn was that his own girlfriend also in the room who also became outraged was part black and who was studying law at a prestigious university in Melbourne and whose African American father was partner in a law firm.

I sat through another lecture were a sociologist teaching about pain without any understanding of the physiological responses to pain claimed that African women did not feel pain the same way that white women did. She used childbirth as an example stating that black women in Africa hey simply pushed their babies out in childbirth without crying or pain killers. She spoke as if she’d attended the births herself in the villages. I put my hand up and politely tried to tell her that there are no physiological differences in the way the brain process pain especially that of child birth, more that it was culturally unacceptable for African women to carry on like that when giving birth. It was like talking to a brick wall, I could tell that she had no idea about physiology, what’s more she was so convinced that what she was saying was true that black women really didn’t feel any pain during child birth.

Ignorance & Racism

I’ve often been the subject of ignorance and racist stereotyping. So for most of my life living in a white country, I’ve been angry (yeah yeah, angry black woman). As I’ve grown older, my anger has begun to dissipate as I’ve gained a better understanding of the system I live in and how I fit in. As a black woman in a very white country and a very white world I learned that a lot of the racial stereotyping that I was subjected to were yes a result of very ignorant people but also very smart people who had no idea about black women and black people. The only black person that they had ever seen was a character in a film being paid to play the role. Their comments whether unintelligent or otherwise where just going by what they had seen.

My earliest years in Australia consisted of people feeling sorry for me. My family and I had migrated to Australia during the famines in Africa and not long after the famous Live Aid, the concerts that brought those horrific but real images of the starving child to Africa. To Australians at that time, everyone arriving from Africa must have escaped starvation and were very lucky to be alive and most importantly to be in Australia. Australians that I met made of telling me how lucky I was to be in their country.  It never occurred to them that I came from a country faraway from Somalia and Ethiopia and I’d never in my life suffered from hunger and wasn’t even aware that children anyway in the world were starving. Had these people been exposed to other images of Africans that didn’t necessarily involve misery and starvation, I never would have been treated like a starving child by concerned well wishes. And for the longest time people thought I came out of a village in Africa. I don’t even know what a village is like, I’ve never lived in a hut and the only lions or elephants I’ve ever seen I’ve been in a Zoo, were the lions where enclosed in a cage.

People had assumptions about who I was without asking me or getting to know me. They had formulated their ideas about my identity by associating documentaries about animals in Africa and people in villages as representing all Africans, including myself. And maybe if I hadn’t been born in Africa I might have formulated the same schemas. A schema is a mental structure we use to organize and simplify our knowledge of the world around us. The human mind will try to file every experience that it has in a form of a schema. This often happens when people encounter an object or experience they have never encountered before. They will try to understand the object or the experience by trying to relate it to a previous experience. Even if that experience wasn’t one that they had had themselves but one that they had head about. Because there are very few positive images of black women most non-whites associate these images with any black women that they see. It’s just the way our minds work as human beings.

The importance of the fair portrayal of black woman in the media is to represent the majority rather than the minority who are not representative of the whole race challenges. This is no way different to the way Muslim people are being viewed in the world currently and why there is such controversy regarding racial stereotyping.

The ignorance that I encountered during my education are only a minor reflection of a lot of misconceptions about black people and especially black women. How we’re represented in the media ultimately shapes our experiences as human beings. I’m often fascinated by the documentaries that show Africans in villages naked. In fact it’s not just Africans but even Amazonians are often shown naked in the jungles in documentaries.  There’s never any attempt to cover up their private parts by the editors or producers. There are never any warnings about nudity. If the footage is of westerners on a nudist beaches or streakers during a sporting event (as is common in Australia), unless the even is occurring live, there are efforts made to blur out their private parts.

Fighting For Equality

But whose responsibility is it to improve the situation?  This year Brazilian Black models held protests about the lack of black models on the catwalk. Brazil is a country known all over the world for it’s beautiful models and beatiful women. For a country with a population of 50% of people of African descent, there often only a handful of models at both the Rio and Sao Paulo Fashion Weeks. And please excuse my ignorance, I don’t know of any famous Brazilian supermodel that isn’t white and of European descent. Legislation has now been passed for organizers of the fashion weeks to increase the number of black models on the runway to 10 %.

British model and the first black woman to grace the covers of Vogue in Italy and France, Naomi Campbell also called for more black models on the catwalks. Another campaigner for greater racial diversity is iconic model Bethanne Hardson, the woman responsible for propelling Tyson Beckfords modelling career, a model agent and owner of her own modelling agent is currently producing a documentary on black models in the fashion world called ‘Invisible Beauty’. In an equal and balanced world there wouldn’t be a need for this documentary or on this article.




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