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Diahanne Rhiney
Today's woman can still connect with Sojourner's renowned speech

OPINIONS: Sojourner Truth

'AIN'T I a Woman?' Is the question the great Sojourner Truth presented in her speech to her Ohio audience in 1853. Sojourner, an emancipated slave, lived during a time when black women were ridiculed on the minstrel stage. 'Mammies' were large, aggressive and asexual.

The very fact that women today can still connect with Sojourner's renowned speech speaks volumes about our lack of progress in terms of how black women are perceived. There is, as the saying goes, 'nothing new under the sun’; the representation of black women by media is one that has been debated, analyzed and researched for decades.

My friend recently posted an article entitled ‘What is the media’s problem with Serena?’ in which he brilliantly addressed the portrayal and perception of Serena Williams by the media. It was a story I recognised all too well and I found myself yet again concerned by an issue that has lived on well past its sell-by date.

The bottom line is that black women in the diaspora feel misunderstood, and media portrayals aren't helping. Furthermore, they are damaging. A perfect example of this is that African-American women are disproportionately arrested across the United States, and research patterns show us that the feeling of being misunderstood begins for young black girls at a very early age.

I was raised in a home that nurtured and celebrated my personality as an expressive, communicative, strong woman. I was encouraged to have my own opinions, and to express them confidently. So, it was something of a shock to me when I grew up, left home and discovered that the majority of the world around me viewed these attributes to be ‘aggressive’ ‘dominant’ and ‘masculine’. The very same attributes that saw Maggie Thatcher hailed as the first female Prime minister, were feared and rejected when black women wore them.

Scholars Dionne Bennett (Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University) and Marcyliena Morgan (Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University) elaborated on this the problem when they wrote:

‘Historically the Angry Black woman view stems from a belief that Black women are more "sassy" and expressive in persona by nature since earlier American culture depictions in movies, dance, and film beginning in the 1900s. It then cultivated into a stereotype grasping on to the belief that Black women are not only expressive, but more opinionated, harsh, have bad attitudes, are loud, and generally negative and rude in nature’

The trouble is, whether the arena is politics, business, parenting, modelling, acting or sports; black women are still being tarred with the same old brush. They are still being confined and judged by a culture of stigma. It simply baffling that these stigmas should still exist in our modern, diverse society.

A few weeks ago eight months pregnant Charlena Michelle Cooks was assaulted by police during a dispute with another parent in a school playground. The incident was caught on camera and it was clear to anyone viewing it that Cooks had been profiled as an aggressor because she is African American. Though eight months pregnant and committing no crime, the police made the assumption she was a threat and arrested her aggressively. 'He just looked at me and thought, "Oh she must be this way,"' And I'm not that way. You make me feel that I'm a way that I'm not.'

These stereotypes have historically and frequently still lead to the justification of violence against us, despite the current climate of a domestic violence pandemic, because we 'can take it' or 'give as good as we get', sometimes we even 'deserve it'. Yet in 2014, it’s still one of the most pervasive representations of us you’ll see when you switch on your TV or radio.

In the music industry black female artists are most commonly 'divas' when their counterparts are 'pop princesses' and 'icons'.

Similarly, a quick google search would throw up the countless times Serena Williams has been labelled as ‘aggressive’, ‘angry’, ‘moody’ and ‘masculine’; regardless of how many championships she wins or world records she breaks. Interestingly, a similar search would show just how many times Maria Sharapova is referred to as ‘graceful, ‘elegant’ and ‘humble’. Words that are never used to coin Serena. Even when Sharapova exhibits the very same levels of competitiveness, the attributes are celebrated by the public and twisted by the media to prove her ‘passion’, ‘determination’ and ‘winning attitude’.

Research shows that young black girls are internalising the aggressive stereotype to such an extent that it is threatening to widen the achievement gap. Studies made by psychologists Claude Steele, PhD, Joshua Aronson, PhD, and Steven Spencer, PhD, demonstrate that negative representations result in the phenomenon of the "stereotype threat." Their research has found that constant reminders that black girls belong to an aggressive group can effect their academic performance.They are struggling to see positive, authentic representations of themselves as individuals in media and in turn they feel that by 'acting out' they are fulfilling the standard expected of them.

In 2013, Essence magazine posed a ‘pop quiz’ in which they asked the question: 'When you think of media representations of black women what comes to mind? Recognize any of these labels? Angry black woman. Baby momma. Black Barbie. Gold-digger.'

Almost 1000 women kept diaries on their observations over a period of weeks. Stereotypes were pervasive with results of 89 per cent showing feeling the brunt of the problem. At a time when negative imagery of black women appears twice as often as positive depictions, it is little wonder.

The issue is that these stereotypes have been pushed for so long; people believe them. That is the power of the media.

Isn’t it time the media stopped propagating the image and using the rhetoric that is keeping these myths alive and kicking? In an age where confident, sophisticated, highly intelligent women like First Lady Michelle Obama are admired and yet as recently as last month she spoke out saying 'As potentially the first African-American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others," she said. "Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?"

Isn't it time that society as a whole ceased to be so threatened by black women? The first step lies in a fresh new approach by the media in ending its misrepresentation of Black women. I dare to believe that if we continue this conversation and speak loudly enough, that this can be a reality.

Follow Diahanne on Twitter: @diahanneuk and www.diahannerhiney.com

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