By IVY ONYEADOR
December 16, 2010
“No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women… When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.” -bell hooks
The invisibility of black women has been a theme of black feminist writing for quite a while. Due to androcentrism, men are regarded as the default in a group and women as deviations from that standard. So when we think of African-Americans, black men are used to understand the group as a whole. This means that issues identified as black—hyperincarceration, crack-cocaine disparities in punishment, severe underemployment—tend to be issues that affect black men more than black women. Issues that are important to black women–teen pregnancy, single motherhood, and domestic violence—are seen as less urgent. In addition, stereotypes about black women, that they are hypersexual, overly aggressive, and angry, tend to be masculine in nature.
Similarly, due to ethnocentrism in the United States, white Americans are the default standard. Accordingly, when considering women as a group, white women are the exemplars. Beauty standards and what is considered a healthy body weight are calibrated around what is normal for white women. Stereotypes about women as feminine, passive, people to be protected tend to not be applied to black women.
Because of ethnocentrism and androcentrism, black women are not the exemplars of either of their identities and theoretically are rendered invisible in the public consciousness. Professor Phillip Atiba Goff at the University of California, Los Angeles has conducted research showing that black women are more associated with masculinity and maleness than their white female counterparts, and has suggested that this is a result of a figurative invisibility of black women due to their non-prototypical status. It appears that when someone sees a black person, one thinks of a black man and this has important implications for black women and women of color everywhere.
Consider domestic violence. A report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than white women. According to the Department of Justice, black women also report their victimization at higher rates (70.2%) compared to white women (58.4%). If black women are highly associated with masculinity and we know that men are less likely to elicit concern when they are the victims of domestic violence, what might this mean for black female domestic violence victims? Information is not released about the racial breakdown of arrests for domestic violence. But might police officers be less vigilant when called to the home of a black woman accusing her partner of domestic violence? How might stereotypes about black women as angry, aggressive, and emasculating affect an officer’s perception of the situation? Would people who are accused of attacking black women be less likely to be arrested or more likely receive lighter sentences?
Interesting questions, but considering that the typical domestic violence survivor is portrayed as a white woman, these questions are likely to go unanswered.
Ivy Onyeador is a senior in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.