In colonial times, white men often viewed white women with suspicion and distrust. They associated white women with sexuality. However, as time passed, white women were no longer portrayed as sexual temptresses. They became celebrated as the “nobler half of humanity” and depicted as goddesses rather than sinners. White women were thereafter represented as virtuous, pure and innocent. Conversely, the historical and social experiences of African women during the same period resulted in numerous images that defined African American women as deviant.
In 1744, Edward Long, a British colonial administrator and historian, supported slavery through his published writings and drew some interesting conclusions about African women. He characterized them as “ignorant. crafty, treacherous, thievish, and mistrustful. ” For centuries, African American women have been contrasted with white women. While the Victorian concept of “true womanhood” defined white women as possessing unquestionable moral character, African American women were defined as immoral and sinful.
To white men of the era, women of all races were considered property to use and abuse. The abuse took different forms. White women, though often not subject to the same degree of physical and psychological abuse measured out to women of color, were thought of as the property of their husbands or fathers. To uphold the honor of white women, white males felt a need to protect their women from others. Slave women, often separated from their husbands, brothers and sons, also depended on protection, but unfortunately it would be lacking from their owners.
These and other differences between perceptions of African American and white women stem from the fact that historically, African Americans have not received the same protection of the law as their white counterparts. In addition, African American women are forced to combat the dual stereotypes of race and gender. As women, they realized that they could not presume that the law would provide sufficient protection for them. As African American women, they realized that they could not demand such protection. Interestingly enough, there is a hierarchy when credibility issues arise in the courts.
It is not only a simple hierarchy of men over women, but it is one where white women are found to be more credible than African American women. In more recent times, African American women continuously battle prevailing perceptions, to include the state of being immoral and therefore less deserving of protection from violence or sexual exploitation. The perception was further exacerbated in television and film where, in spite of the positive contributions of the Cosby Show, African American images through the l970s were still overshadowed by traditional negative images.
Noted African-American author K. Sue Jewell, assistant professor of sociology, Ohio State University, contends that the media’s stereotypical portrayal of women of color has real-life consequences. “As a result of media images, many people have inaccurate and negative expectations about how African-American women should act and look. Only when these stereotypical images are replaced with more accurate representations will we see changes in societal perceptions and expectations of African ¬American women.
Society is increasingly recognizing that stereotypes can operate at an unconscious level and thus influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without our awareness that this is even happening. These attitudes have not been more pronounced than in the current presidential campaign where we could potentially see the first African-American President and First Lady. The true test of how far we will get to our true potential remains to be seen.