Black Women, Stereotypes and Fetishes
How the white gaze often endangers Black women
Living in the skin of a Black woman in spaces where we’re minoritized is often a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And that relates to sexuality as much as any other sphere of life. In this piece, I share some of my own experiences with that - and believe me when I tell you it’s only a fraction of what many Black women experience.
Black Women, Stereotypes and Fetishes
The first time I was racially profiled as a sex worker, I wasn’t even fully aware of it. Well, not until later.
I had been working as a teaching assistant in France and I was heading back home after a party. Although it was around 8pm, the September evening was still bright.
As I walked along, mentally reliving moments from earlier in the day, I noticed a car out of the corner of my eye.
Nothing unusual about a car on a street, right? Not usually, but this particular car was driving especially slowly.
I thought it was odd, and dismissed it from my thoughts. After all, all my friends were students, and none of us had cars. It seemed unlikely that this weird behavior had anything to do with me.
But it did.
As I got closer to the school building I lived in, the car pulled up beside me. The car window opened, and the driver invited me to get in.
He tried to persuade me.
I continued to refuse.
He rolled up the window in a huff and continued to follow me slowly until I turned into the school gates.
It wasn’t till much later that I realized he’d thought I was a sex worker off my usual patch.
After all, I was in a school zone. Other people were on the streets. So, why did he pick on me and nobody else? I can only conclude it was because I was Black. I’ve since discovered that another Black woman had a similar experience.
The Jezebel Steretotype
The white gaze affects both how we see ourselves, and how others see us, and what white people see can put Black people in danger. When a white person calls the police on a Black person, that person can end up dead, though that’s not the issue I’m talking about here.
Instead, let’s talk about sex. When it comes to sexuality, Black women are often tainted (and fetishized) by the Jezebel stereotype, which goes back to the earliest days of enslavement.
The Jezebel stereotype means that white people - and white men, in particular - see Black women as hypersexual and always sexually available. It’s a particular form of misogynoir which, in extreme cases, can result in women’s death. Learn more about this in Sope Lartey’s The Jezebel Sticker.
So this white guy saw me walking along the street, minding my own business, and immediately jumped to conclusions.
An Item on the Menu
Without a doubt, the Jezebel stereotype was the reason the boyfriend of a French friend propositioned me. He was giving me a ride home, which wasn’t unusual, and he said he needed to pick something up at home on the way.
No biggie. I sat in the kitchen’s bar area and waited for him to get whatever it was. But when he emerged from the depths of the house, he had a proposition for me.
“I’ve tried Chinese, I’ve tried Indian, but I’ve never tried Black — how about it?”
I was appalled on many levels. First, this was my friend’s boyfriend, so even if I had thought of him that way (and believe me, I didn’t), he would have been off limits.
Second, I realized that he had bought into the stereotype about Black sexuality and wanted to test it for himself. I felt like an item on a sexual checklist, rather than an individual.
The third unwelcome realization came after I asked about his girlfriend. His response: “This won’t change anything.” In other words, sleeping with me would be a novelty, nothing more, and my feelings weren’t important.
That represented two stereotypes for the price of one. Black people are often deemed to feel less pain, physically AND emotionally, so it never occurred to him that this would bother me.
I declined firmly, and he said he would take me home. Then he asked me not to mention it to his girlfriend. I wasn’t playing that game, but he needn’t have worried. After all, who’s going to believe the Black woman’s version of events?
We spoke, she cried a little, and in our last phone call, she began some serious gaslighting. She doubted my version of events and his motivations. Later, she resumed her relationship with him as if nothing had happened. Needless, to say, that was the end of our friendship.
The Wrong Language
Years later, in Southampton, England, while I was working as a journalist, I had my a couple more experiences of being profiled as a sex worker. A friend and I had gone to a scrapyard in search of a replacement parts for an old car.
The scrapyard owner looked us up and down in what I now recall as an over friendly manner and asked if we were working girls.
I was just about to reply in the affirmative (after all, we both had jobs) when, luckily, my friend chimed in. It later turned out that in Brit-speak “working girls” meant sex workers. She knew what he was implying, and nipped that idea in the bud.
I shudder to think what would have happened if I had given the answer that I had planned.
Who’s to Blame?
A few months later, it happened again. On my way to the pub to meet some English friends, a man (of Indian origin) stopped me and implied that he had seen me on a street corner recently. He was pretty insistent, too, but I made my denials and backed off.
Sidenote: my white English friends asked me at the time why I hadn’t just hit him. I pointed out to them that that could have landed me in jail.
The Black woman is never the first person people believe — in fact, she’s often the last.
Second sidenote: it’s common to blame the woman for attracting the wrong attention, especially in cases of rape or sexual assault. Though these interactions never got to that level, and that’s the wrong approach anyway, let me just say, that as a Caribbean woman in a cold climate, I was completely covered, because I was cold. No flesh was on display. Not that that would have been a reason to make assumptions, but … just sayin’.
Fighting Common Stereotypes
Of course, these aren’t the only stereotypes that affect Black people. When you live in places where you’re in the minority, you’re often surprised by how low an opinion people have of you. Here are just a few examples.
My white landlady in France said she’d never have rented to me if she’d realized in advance I was Black (never mind that the rent was always paid on time and her place was spotless. I have my white roommate to thank for not being evicted, I guess).
My upstairs neighbor in Southampton was surprised that two Black girls didn’t make a lot of noise. She was convinced that all Black people played loud music and had wild parties.
The people who assumed I was stupid and talked about me in their own language, not realizing that I understood (this happened to me with French, Spanish and German speaking people — my German may be rusty, but I know what the word Black is).
The multiple people who figured a Black woman they couldn’t easily pigeonhole had to be a student (in other words, not from here) or nurse (temporarily allowed to be here).
It often blew people’s minds when I told them that I was working as a journalist, editor, or university lecturer.
When you’re Black, people constantly make assumptions about your upbringing, your education, your work experience — in fact everything about you.
As I’ve said before, in a workplace setting, they often assume that you’re in a junior or domestic role.
So, what’s the takeaway from this? I learned that how many white men see me has little to do with me in myself, and everything to do with the view that Black women are up for anything sexually. And that it pays to be aware of this view in all my interactions so I don’t end up raped or worse.
What Anti-Racists Can Do
Here’s what I’d like to happen. I want white people to start seeing Black people as individuals and not some sort of highly sexualized or threatening racial composite.
I want white people to move beyond the biases that we all have and stop putting Black people in uncomfortable, untenable boxes, and frankly dangerous. Anti-Black racism isn’t just wrong; as we’ve seen time and again, it can get people killed.
What should you do next?
First, educate yourself. Start with this Instagram post from Gloria Atanmo about the death by a thousand cuts of systemic racism:
I recommend you follow her and read all her recent posts. They’re a good starting point for information about racism and anti-racism.
Second, do the work. Work through an anti-racist reading list (Google it; there are several) so that maybe the next generation of Black women won’t be endangered by these same stereotypes.
Thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Originally published on An Injustice! on Medium.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.