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“Complex, But Vulnerable”: New Survey Explores Black Women’s Self-Image

Rich or poor, educated or not, black women sometimes feel as though myths are stalking them like shadows, their lives reduced to a string of labels.

The angry black woman. The strong black woman. The unfeeling black woman. The manless black woman.

Black women haven’t really defined themselves,” says author Sophia Nelson, who urges her fellow sisters to take control of their image. “We were always defined as workhorses, strong. We carry the burdens, we carry the family. We don’t need. We don’t want.”

In a new nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a complex portrait emerges of black women who feel confident but vulnerable, who have high self-esteem and see physical beauty as important, who find career success more vital to them than marriage. The survey, which includes interviews with more than 800 black women, represents the most extensive exploration of the lives and views of African American women in decades.

Religion is essential to most black women’s lives; being in a romantic relationship is not, the poll shows. Nearly three-quarters of African American women say now is a good time to be a black woman in America, and yet a similar proportion worry about having enough money to pay their bills. Half of black women surveyed call racism a “big problem” in the country; nearly half worry about being discriminated against. Eighty-five percent say they are satisfied with their own lives, but one-fifth say they are often treated with less respect than other people.

The poll’s findings and dozens of follow-up discussions reflect the conversations black women are having among themselves at church halls after Bible study, at happy hours after work, in college lounges after listening to lectures by the likes of Nelson, 45, who five years ago quit her job at a big D.C. law firm to write a book, “Black Woman Redefined.”

She often tells young black women to forget what the outside world projects for them and be bold: “You can play this however you want to. You’re living in the age of Michelle Obama.”

Is a survey of 800 women comprehensive enough to illustrate an image of the African American woman? Do the results seem accurate? And what’s up with all the media attention around Black women’s lives anyway? Sound off! 

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