Do stereotypes actually help black women succeed?

OPINION - There is evidence that black women's status as double minorities might actually afford us unique opportunities to avoid common prejudices and instead carve out our own niche...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I hadn’t been born yet when Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox laid down the now-classic track “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”. “Now this is a song to celebrate, the conscious liberation of the female state…the inferior sex has got a new exterior, we got doctors, lawyers (yes we do), politicians too” they sang, joining a number of their female contemporaries to touch on themes of independence and success for women of all races in the politically charged 1980s.

Today, more than 25 years later, there’s still a great need to publicly celebrate women of color who are “doin it for themselves”. When it comes to public portrayals and representations in the media, black women have been known to get the short end of the stick, often being cast as villains or scapegoats rather than successful career women and girl power gurus, as Franklin and Lennox once did. From “loud” to “angry” to just plain “unattractive”, we’ve had to face a whole host of negative labels and stereotypes that have surfaced about us and our abilities, some of them with deep-seeded cultural and historical roots.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear about the findings of Katherine Phillips, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and an expert in workplace diversity. She recently presented data as a visiting scholar at the Stanford Graduate School of Business demonstrating that black women are actually excelling in education and business, due at least in part to the ways that we are publicly portrayed in popular culture and the media.

During a talk at Stanford this month titled, “Black Women and the Backlash Effect — Understanding the Intersection of Race and Gender”, Phillips said that on the whole, black women are viewed as “independent, competent, and demanding of respect in the workplace” — and that these are all considered “classic leadership traits”. It is these impressions of black women that help explain (and contribute to) some of their recent success in education and business: Two-thirds of African-American college undergrads are female. And, between 2002 and 2008, the number of businesses owned by black women rose by 19 percent — twice as fast as all other firms and generating $29 billion in sales nationwide.

Notably, some of the very racism and sexism that has fueled offensive and inaccurate representations of us in popular discourse has helped to create these impressions, and contributed to our ability to reach these new heights in academia and the workplace.

If it seems counter-intuitive, consider some context. Public attacks on black women have been leveled frequently and offensively, especially in recent months. Late last year, for example, a series of animated ‘Black Marriage Negotiations’ videos went viral, in which a black female professional presents unreasonably high standards for a mate, suggesting it is black women’s own fault for not being able to find or keep a partner.

Diane Lucas, an attorney in New York who writes about race and gender for the website Feministe, explained that “not surprisingly, the video depicts black women as abrasive, overly demanding, and hyper-aggressive…it’s relying on some pretty tired stereotypes…It only serves to perpetuate the all too pervasive image of the unlovable, undateable black woman.”

And of course, it’s hard to forget that now-infamous Psychology Today article, which used faulty logic and sketchy studies to attempt an explanation of why black women are “objectively” less attractive than women of other races. The article has since been removed from the website, and its author, evolutionary psychologist and racial provocateur Satoshi Kanazawa, was fired from the site. But in many ways, the damage had already been done for black women, who found ourselves on the defensive yet again in regards to our beauty and desirability.

According to Phillips, racist and sexist public events like these have an upside, of sorts: there is evidence that black women’s status as double minorities might actually afford us unique opportunities to avoid common prejudices and instead carve out our own niche. In other words, rather than stacking up and contributing to an increasingly disadvantaged status for black women, these prejudices may simply cancel each other out. It almost sounds too good to be true. But there is evidence to back up Phillips’ claim that, as targets of both and racial and gender discrimination, black women at times face opportunity, rather than a sort of “double jeopardy” situation in which biases against us accrue and multiply.

Phillips helped to conduct studies at Kellogg that looked at the desirability of certain characteristics in the workplace, and compared these findings to stereotypes and cultural attitudes towards different racial groups and genders. The findings suggest that impressions of black women could work to their advantage in specific contexts.

“African-American women may not be seen as prototypical blacks, and they may not be seen as prototypical women,” Phillips said. “That invisibility might end up being something that’s helpful in allowing [them] to take on behaviors that otherwise would not be allowed. Black women may be in a unique position to, in fact, step into leadership positions, to be embraced in leadership positions.”

In fact, in her studies she found that black women turned out to be the most employable, in part because we could assume broader roles than white women without being criticized. “Black women have more ability to be forceful in the workplace without appearing threatening,” Phillips explained. And black women “have more latitude to display…dominance.”

With significant numbers of black men incarcerated and lower rates of higher education among black men, it can be temping to look at this as a battle of the sexes, or as a zero-sum game. But the whole black community has the potential to be positively affected by black women’s educational and entrepreneurial success. As Franklin and Lennox put it, even in the midst of female empowerment and success, it’s still possible that “a man still loves a woman and a woman still loves a man.” Surely black women can use some of their newfound success in education and business to the betterment of the rest of their people.

So does this mean that it’s finally starting to pay off to be a black women?

Well, in some ways. It certainly means, as Phillips pointed out, that the combination of racism and sexism that black women are so used to bearing, and the dual identities we have long embodied, are “more complex than we’ve thought” and worthy of further study.

In the meantime, these findings are no excuse for continued racist or sexist portrayals of black women in the media, nor do they represent a silver bullet solution for the black community. More of a silver lining to the dark cloud of prejudice, they hint at a time, hopefully in the near future, when it is the absence of ‘isms, not the combination of them, that will allow black women the freedom and opportunity to succeed.