Oppression & The Black Female Body
Oxford Dictionary defines oppression as “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment” and “mental pressure or distress.”
Slavery, Jim Crow, and modern day institutionalized racism are all systems of oppression that have historically affected black women and continue to affect black women today.
These occurrences, as well as the accumulation of less subtle racist and discriminatory experiences, or microaggressions, disempower black women, reduce their options for behavior, and require complicit compliance to the limitations placed upon them by the dominant white culture (Frye, 1983).
According to Joy DeGruy, these systems of oppression have resulted in an intergenerational trauma that she calls Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – a pattern of behaviors that include:
Vacant esteem, or a belief that one has little to no self-worth based on an inferior position within society
Ever present anger - anger resulting from the repeated undermining of hopes and dreams by governing institutions and racist societal views and actions
Racist socialization, or the adoption of colonist values, especially those that deem whiteness to be superior and blackness inferior
Racist socialization, can be seen in the formation of the ideal of the strong black woman, and as Degruy suggests, it is a socialization that is passed down from one generation of black women to the next through behavioral patterns and thinking.
The inheritance of this strong black woman characterization was mentioned repeatedly by women interviewed by Tamara Beauboeuf-LaFontant in her book, Behind The Mask of the Strong Black Woman.
During their interviews, women spoke of the ways in which they were socialized by their mothers at a young age to maintain the strong black woman ideal.
Being strong is almost ingrained in you from day one. You know, you don’t cry easily. If something happens, you get up. You don’t cry. You don’t let it bother you”
Similarly, the women interviewed by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden in Shifting expressed that they socialize their daughters at a young age to behave in a manner that will be perceived as respectable by white people, but also help to keep them alive should they run into trouble with authority as they get older.
One participant shared that she did not tolerate the “terrible twos” with her twin girls, and at the age of three, her daughters know how to pick up after themselves, not to play at the dinner table, and do what they are told without excuses or questioning. She described her parenting methods as “strict love” – not necessarily the way she preferred to raise her daughters, but a necessity given the way they would be treated outside the home if they misbehaved or questioned authority.
“As Black people we don’t have the luxury of questioning authority…we’ll always come up short. And when that authority is packing a gun, you’re going to come up dead” (Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2008, pg. 245).
Since the body is a symbol for all experience and many of these experiences are stored physiologically, unintegrated into the higher processing areas of the brain, living within this system of internalized and external oppression doesn’t just affect the way that black women parent their children. It also affects their physiology.