Celebrate Black History Month: Stereotypes

My husband is White and, prior to our marriage, didn’t really have a large circle of Black friends, though his normal social circle did include some diversity. This meant that I often found myself as not only the only Black person in the room but at times also the only BIPOC person in the room. His friends are progressive for Kentucky and if they held views I didn’t agree with they understood I would not bite my tongue about it. Overall, I have never encountered any major issues or disagreements with his friends.

However, at larger gatherings there were often people outside of the usual crew that I had to interact with. Most of these additional individuals were other college friends of theirs, potential girlfriends, or extended family at these events. I rarely felt uncomfortable or out of place because I always believe in being my authentic self, which for the most part meant I fit many of the commonalities of that group: Catholic, Catholic school attendee, college educated, etc… Some of them had even been students of my brother's.

There was one event though, I believe it was the 4th of July, though it could have been Derby, where we decided to attend a party at his friend’s house. With most of these functions. it was expected that you would bring either a dish or beverage for all to share. We had decided to bring mini donuts as our dish for the potluck just because they were easy. We made cinnamon sugar donuts and powder sugar donuts, and we, my husband and I, both made batches.

We put the dish on the share table and quickly people started to grab them. Donuts are portable and easy to eat, so they were moving. One of my husband’s friends had bought with him a woman whom he had off and on been seeing. I didn’t know her at all, but she seemed ok. However, while we were hanging out, she finally decided to grab a donut. She then proceeds to exclaim they were great but that was to be expected because all Black people are good cooks.

Now I tried my best not to chuckle as I watched my husband, his friend who brought her and the other friends who overheard all turn a shade that I had never seen before and generally looked like they had all swallowed lemons. Now I was not offended at all. As stereotypes go, yes, it was saying something that should not be said as it implied that all Black people are good cooks and that can be harmful. However, I am a good cook, my parents were chefs, so I just nodded and said "ok, thanks." She didn’t realize anything was amiss until my husband’s friend, her date, who also happened to be Cuban took her aside to tell her. She tried to apologize, which I dismissed, but looking back I probably should not have.

Who Am I?

If you ask me to say things about myself, I would say, I am a dark skinned, Black woman, a mom, a librarian, a college graduate, a wife, a Kentuckian by birth and a Californian by choice, a Hello Kitty fan, anime lover, ID network fanatic and several other things. These are the ways I see myself - my internal thoughts. It's also how people who know me probably see me. However, I know that others view me differently, as we all make opinions about others. What is problematic is that often my physical appearance says things about me that may or may not be true.

Stereotypes are oversimplified ideas about a group of people that are snap judgements we make that can influence our decisions. It is believed that we make these quick decisions to help us process information faster. This may be like how our brains seem to remember faces better because we are better at processing visual information than other forms. We do it all the time. If you see a bunch of kids all in similar uniforms running you may think, oh, track team or cross country team. Our brains naturally group things together to make it easier to process.

Stereotypes can be both positive in tone and negative, but they should always be avoided. Sometimes these stereotypes can have a grain of truth but more often they are not reflective of the person they are directed towards. Black people especially have been victim to many stereotypes about who we are as a people solely based on racist ideologies or to further Black oppression.

Let’s think of some examples that other nations have about Americans. Overall, as a nation by some people in other places we are obese, workaholics, generous, unstylish, overly optimistic, undereducated, rich and materialistic. If you felt uncomfortable reading that list as an American, imagine that these misconceptions about who you are were tied to your physical appearance. That they were automatically assumed about you often. Stereotypes about Blacks date back centuries and often, if taken out of their time and examined, how they are used seems nonsensical.

Let’s Unpack That

There are a bunch of stereotypes about Black people with roots in America’s slave and Jim Crow past. These stereotypes are deeply rooted in our minds, sadly. The ideas about who Black people are then get replayed over and over from the media to Hollywood.

One of them is the Sambo image. Sambo, in American history, is one that was very popular during slavery and still exists today. Sambo was a “happy slave” who was seen as not very bright, needed direction, was happy to please their master but was naturally lazy. Now of course this is hogwash! How can you kidnap a people to do hard physical labor and then say they are lazy? How can you trust people you feel are stupid, watch your children, cook your meals, mend your clothes and the countless other duties slaves were expected to perform? That dog, as they say, don’t hunt. However, pause for a moment. Think have you heard the negative stereotype before or maybe in a different way?

Or what about this stereotype - the Jezebelle. The Jezebelle was a Black woman who was usually of lighter complexion or a multiracial woman who was a seductress; her whole goal in life was to ensnare White men. When in reality Black women during slavery had little sexual agency and if you look at the DNA of many Black people of slave decent you will see that lack of agency is manifested in our very bodies. Still this negative stereotype is quite alive and well. The more contemporary depiction of this was the UK coverage of Meghan Markle’s entry into the British royal family. However, Black women are, over all, regardless of shade, objectified sexually.

Another stereotype and my personal favorite, please note the sarcasm intended, is the Sapphire. The Sapphire was made famous by “Amos ‘n” Andy” a troubling but popular radio show and television series. The Sapphire was a fiercely independent, domineering mother figure though she was typically younger, think 30s-early 50s. This is my favorite one because I have often in my life been accused of this one, usually when I have been passionately expressing my opinion on a topic that matters to me, though I am in good company when it comes to those who have been accused of such. However, the problem with this stereotype is it often keeps Black women afraid to voice opinions, to report work abuse, to be promoted; especially if Black women are in the minority in an organization.

There are many more that are just as damaging and cruel to Black people. Like how watermelon got its negative association with Black people because at one time it was a means for Black economic development and upward mobility. Or, we can look at the recent change Quaker Oats finally decided to make after years of having Aunt Jemima, which is a stereotype based of the concept that Black women were best suited to cooking domestics. That was also the same reason my husband's friends all looked sick to their stomachs when the woman at the 4th of July potluck made her stereotype-laced comment about my cooking. There are stereotypes that Black women who date White men are social climbers. There are stereotypes about Black people being more likely to engage in criminal behavior, however this is rooted all the way back to the concept of the Mandingo. The Mandingo was a Black man who was seen as brutish, animalistic and unable to control himself; however these same men were also physically fit, and powerful which was ideal for manual labor. In truth, the Mandingo, or more honestly The Mandinka, were a people from West Africa that were part of the largest groups of people kidnapped by Europeans for slavery in the Americas. However, this idea that Black boys are naturally just trouble from slavery pops up in schools, neighborhoods, malls and even libraries. If you are a bright Black child who achieves academically there is a perception that you are trying to deny your Blackness.

I could go on for hours but what I want you to take away from this is that stereotypes hurt people. Nice ones hurt too because if you can believe the good ones then that means you are open to believing the bad ones. If a person doesn’t live up to those ideals it can make them question their identities as part of that culture. It also means when we buy into them we stop seeing people and being empathic. I am not angry because Black women are angry. I am angry because it’s 2021 and last summer some of the images I saw of protests, if I ignored the style of clothes and the color of the images, looked like the 1960s. So, I challenge you to think about how you think about others and more importantly about yourselves. Have you internalized something about someone or yourself that you should let go of? Think about how these deeply rooted caricatures may be influencing how you treat Black people or any people of a race that is different than your own. Remember, even if your words are well intended, if you are making assumptions about another person you never really get a chance to know who they are. It's that lack of understanding that leads to how we normalize racism.


Confronting Stereotypes, book cover
Real Sister Stereotypes, Respectability, and Black Women in Reality Tv, book cover
Sister Citizen Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, book cover
The Sisters Are Alright Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, book cover