by Deborah L. Tolman, Hunter Kincaid, Bridget Woods, Jennifer Chmielewski and Anthony Freeman
The US is finally starting to have a real conversation about racial (in)justice. In this TookKit, we present research to explain, debunk and complicate racist gender stereotypes about Black Americans, focusing on how they are utilized and perpetuated by research on Black masculinity and femininity, revealing how they impact Black women and men, whether they are cisgender or transgender. We are focusing on gender stereotypes that contribute to inequities in mental, sexual and reproductive health and racial injustice in the health care system: the hypermasculine, heteronormative Black man and the Strong Black Woman (SBW). We show how this research is based on racist beliefs and white supremacy, tracing back to slavery, when these stereotypes were created by White people to justify the policing and dehumanization of Black people (Townsend et al. 2010). These gender stereotypes are still perpetuated and justified in “objective” research, leading to confirmation bias and faulty studies (Chen & Bargh, 1997), as well as substandard health care (Davis, 2019).
Stereotypes of Black masculinity have been shown to be rigid and exaggerated White conceptions of inappropriate masculinity, including being heterosexual, aggressive and “hypermasculine” (Ferber, 2007). One example of this in gender and sexuality research, is the assumption that queer Black men are especially “dangerous,” and in need of surveillance and intervention in ways that queer White men do not require. For instance a body of research on HIV is based on the belief that queer Black men hide same-sex desires and behavior by being on the “down low (Robinson & Vidal-Ortiz 2013). This builds on the stereotype of Black men as “vectors of disease” and in a “bisexual bridge,” that has been debunked (Jeffries, 2014). The voices of Black LGBTQ+ people who openly express their sexuality are ignored. Even in popular culture, transgender and gender-nonconforming Black men are more surveilled and judged than Whites, i.e., a negative response to Jaden Smith vs. positive to Harry Styles. Another assumption is that Black fathers are “absent,” because Black men prove their masculinity by fathering and then abandoning children (Abdill, 2018; Hamer, 2001). They are no more absent than White fathers. Black men are not included in research on the positives of father involvement. The context of mass incarceration is ignored or erased in research about “absentness;” while in fact incarcerated Black fathers often maintain strong relationships with their children despite profound challenges (Coles, 2009).
The stereotype of the Strong Black woman has roots in racist beliefs, inaccurate assumptions in research, and dangerous practices (Roberts (2015), such as higher tolerance of, or even being impervious to, pain, hypersexuality and being “angry.” These stereotypes create and perpetuate racial injustice in general and in reproductive, sexual and mental health care specifically. Researchers have documented these effects in poor and negligent health care services (Tait & Chibnalll (2014), leading to racial disparities in infant thriving, premature births, and prenatal and maternal death rates in the US (Davis, 2019). Eaton & Stephens (2020) observe how this stereotype is reflected by not studying Black women’s needs from their own perspectives, yielding insufficient and damaging practices and policies. Grounded in the concept of reproductive justice which incorporates the many structural inequities in the contexts of Black women’s ( and other marginalized people’s) sexual, reproductive health and overall well-being (Ross et al., 2017), new research about Black women’s experiences in challenging systems of power, including medicine, serve to debunk, displace and reconfigure the Strong Black Woman stereotype (Smith, Sundstrom & Delay, 2020). It is also important to note that the SBW is a paradox (Romero, 2000). Jones, Harris & Reynolds (2020) asked Black women about the meaning of SBW, finding that it is both a damaging stereotype and can also be a powerful identity or archetype, as hardworking, racially proud, independent and nurturing, with some psychosocial benefits. Other studies found that qualities of stoicism, silence and selflessness expressed by SBW within Black communities produced difficult tensions, i.e., being psychologically strong but not getting support needed to do so, and leads to depression, (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2009) and negative sexual health outcomes (Harris, 2018).
Reimagining masculinities, femininities, and a world beyond violent racialized stereotypes is vital for pushing back the violations of biased research that misses and reproduces negative outcomes, threads of racism, colonization and slavery are insidious; remembering history and centering the voices of Black men, women and queer people can offer us new ways of imagining and envisioning gender and sexuality for everyone.
Abdill, A. M. (2018). Fathering from the margins: An intimate examination of Black fatherhood. Columbia University Press.
Beauboeuf-Lafontant, T. (2008). Listening past the lies that make us sick: A voice-centered analysis of strength and depression among black women. Qualitative sociology, 31(4), 391-406.
Beauboeuf-Lafontant, T. (2009). Behind the mask of the strong Black woman: Voice and the embodiment of a costly performance. Temple University Press.
Chen, M., & Bargh, J. A. (1997). Nonconscious behavioral confirmation processes: The self-fulfilling consequences of automatic stereotype activation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(5), 541-560.
Coles, R. L. (2009). Just doing what they gotta do: Single black custodial fathers coping with the stresses and reaping the rewards of parenting. Journal of Family Issues, 30(10), 1311-1338.
Davis, D. A. (2019). Obstetric racism: The racial politics of pregnancy, labor, and birthing. Medical Anthropology, 38(7), 560-573.
Eaton, A. A., & Stephens, D. P. (2020). Reproductive Justice Special Issue Introduction “Reproductive Justice: Moving the Margins to the Center in Social Issues Research”. Journal of Social Issues, 76(2), 208-218.
Ferber, A. L. (2007). The construction of Black masculinity: White supremacy now and then. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 31(1), 11-24.
Hamer, J. (2001). What it means to be daddy: Fatherhood for Black men living away from their children. Columbia University Press.
Garrett-Walker, Ja'nina J., et al. "Re-Imagining Masculinities: How Black Queer Feminism Can Liberate Black People from the Toxicity of Patriarchal Masculinity." Journal of Black Sexuality and Relationships, vol. 5 no. 4, 2019, p. 69-98. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bsr.2019.0010.
Jeffries IV, W. L. (2014). Beyond the bisexual bridge: sexual health among US men who have sex with men and women. American journal of preventive medicine, 47(3), 320-329.
Pelzer, D. L. (2016). Creating a new narrative: Reframing Black masculinity for college men. The Journal of Negro Education, 85(1), 16-27.
Roberts, D. (2015). Reproductive justice, not just rights. Dissent, 62(4), 79-82.
Robinson, B. A., & Vidal-Ortiz, S. (2013). Displacing the dominant “down low” discourse: Deviance, same-sex desire, and Craigslist. org. Deviant Behavior, 34(3), 224-241.
Romero, R. E. (2000). The icon of the strong Black woman: The paradox of strength.
Ross, Loretta, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, Lynn Roberts, and Pamela Bridgewater, eds. Radical reproductive justice: Foundation, theory, practice, critique. Feminist Press at CUNY, 2017.
Stanton, A. G., Jerald, M. C., Ward, L. M., & Avery, L. R. (2017). Social media contributions to strong Black woman ideal endorsement and Black women’s mental health. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 41(4), 465-478.
Smith, E., Sundstrom, B., & Delay, C. (2020). Listening to women: Understanding and challenging systems of power to achieve reproductive justice in South Carolina. Journal of Social Issues, 76(2), 363-390.
Tait, R. C., & Chibnall, J. T. (2014). Racial/ethnic disparities in the assessment and treatment of pain: psychosocial perspectives. American Psychologist, 69(2), 131.