There are many experiences that can distort how Black women see themselves. A constant barrage of negative media images can skew a woman’s sense of her own self-worth and that of her sisters without her even realizing it.
Black women may have contributed much to our communities, yet over generations, the images we consistently see on TV – such as VH1’s Love & Hip Hop and BET’s Being Mary Jane — still do not stray far from that of a Mammy or a Jezebel. The Black woman, strong and competent, is still seen fixing things for other people, with her personal life coming in last place.
Let’s take ABC’s Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’ drop jaw drama about a Washington fix expert, Olivia Pope, portrayed by actress Kerry Washington, as an example. The leader of the free world aggressively pursues a woman outside of his marriage in a lust-induced series of make out sessions (near windows!), in broom closets and in the back seat of cars throughout Washington, D.C. Pope works overtime protecting and defending the careers, lives and titles of her clients, but yet does a lousy job protecting and defending her own life and reputation.
As much as Pope is seen as a strong Black woman, a sexy Black woman, and an intelligent Black woman, she’s also seen as an angry Black woman, a lonely Black woman, and a man-less Black woman. As powerful as she is, Pope is still the side-piece.
Watching Pope as 'the Help,' week after week reminds me of the book Shifting: the Double Lives of Black Women in America, by authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden where an interviewee states: “I am a Black woman. I am moral. I am intelligent. I am lovable. I am valuable. But the majority of the messages I get all say that I’m not. …I don’t know how I do it.”
The images of the overworked, underemployed and oversexed follow Black women like a shadow. Though the institution of the media has so much work to do and a responsibility to change its destructive practices, the good news is that, on an individual level, your faith can help you counter these negative images and empower you to see yourself through God's eyes, instead.
Here’s what you can do:
- Elevate and campaign for positive images in the community, such as Black Girls Rock, Black Girls Run and Eunique Jones Gibson’s Because of Them We Can campaign.
- Think positive thoughts. You may not be able to control what pops in your mind but you can control how long they stay there.
- Spend time in the Bible starting with the gospel of John or the sacred texts of your tradition. Read books like life coach Valorie Burton’s Happy Women Live Better.
- Pay attention to what you listen to. It is easy to get lost in the beat and the melody without paying attention to the message. If the messages in the music you listen to are reinforcing negative images, make a new playlist.
- Speak compliments to yourself and other women. Life and death are in the power of the tongue.
- Celebrate the power of women. To do so doesn’t make a woman or a man superior or inferior. It means a woman is unique in her created personhood.
- Do you. You are a designer original. Stop trying to look like everyone else. Accentuate your strengths and diminish your weaknesses.
- Create a digital scrapbook for your children and/or those in your circle of influence of positive Black images.
- Display positive images in your work place or at home. I have a wall of encouragement with affirmations and Bible verses to encourage me even on the darkest days, such as Maya Angelou’s quote, “You will always be in fashion when you are your true self,” and “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” from Psalm 139.
- Encourage and reinforce behaviors that reflect positive images in those you care about including friends, family and even “frienemies.” All women need love and prayer.
- Develop shared learning opportunities for girls and boys, and men and women about imaging, media and peer pressure using the organizations you belong to and support existing organizations committed to this work.
- Resource yourself. Become informed and inform others about critical issues impacting women, such as sexual harassment, rape, incest, violence and domestic violence, economic disparities, women’s health, parenting, relationships and education and advocate for yourself and other women, men and children in your community.
- Purchase products and support media and their sponsors who advocate for positive images of Black women in media. Money still talks the loudest.
When all else fails, you may just have to encourage yourself. Remind yourself and other women that you are fearfully and wonderfully made by God, until you really believe it and your sisters believe it too.