Building Brides: A Column to Promote Cultural Competency (2001)

Marcie Robinson, LSW

For many in society, the perception of domestic and sexual abuse has existed as White women's or poor women's issues, but research does not support their perceptions. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, African Americans experience rape and sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault at higher rates than other races (Bureau of Justice, 2001). Additionally, African American women are more likely to suffer the most severe violence in comparison to other groups (Williams, 1997). The risk of sexual assault is heightened even further for low-income and poorly educated women of color. Not only must African American victims of sexual assault face racism and sexism, they must also confront societal images of themselves that not only perpetuate the violence, but also serve as barriers to sexual assault services. Experts agree while many victims share painful similarities in the cycle of violence, African American victims, and African American women in particular face staggering cultural and racial odds.

Destructive images and unrealistic expectations contribute to the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of African American women. They have been chronicled as long suffering victims, fueling society's perceptions of them as passive and vulnerable to abuse. Barbara Smith, a feminist scholar, summed up this thought with her quote, "…it is not something we have done that has heaped this psychic violence and material abuse upon us, but the very fact, that because of who we are, we are multiply oppressed, " (White, 1994). Despite a history that includes heroines like Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Barbara Jordan, and Marian Wright Edelman; images of African American women are often reduced to self-sacrificing servants, sexually irresponsible predators, and domineering "bitches." Assistant Professor Carolyn West of the University of Washington-Tacoma identifies three representations of African American women- Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel (1997). These images can perpetuate the victimization of African American women.

The Mammy image originated during slavery in the South and defined an African American woman as an asexual, obese, older woman with large breasts working in servitude. Her primary role was to be a subordinate who happily performed her domestic duties with a broad grin and no expectations of payment (West, 1997). Prissy, who "didn't know nothin' about birthin' no babies," in Gone With the Wind is an example of this societal image of African American women. The Mammy image contributes to African American women's struggle and shame surrounding their physical features such as skin color, hair texture, and weight, which are all contradictions to the White beauty standards. These sensitive subjects can be used as grounds for humiliation during verbal attacks to exert control over the women. African American women experience low self-esteem and believe they have few options to leaving abusive relationships or reporting sexual assaults.

The Mammy image further contributes to the strained role expectations for African American women. They are expected to fulfill multiple roles without having their own needs met and to endure the abuse caused by relatives, spouses, boyfriends, and others in their environments. Furthermore, they experience extreme amounts of loyalty to their abusers and feel pressure to endure the abuse rather than place their violent husbands or boyfriends in the criminal justice system. Some church members and community leaders encourage the abused African American woman to keep her family together despite the violence, linking their sensitivity to this negative depiction of women. Advocates and other service providers under the influence of this image overestimate the African American woman's ability to cope with abuse and believe African American women are accustomed to adversity (West, 1997).

African American women portrayed as Sapphires are seen as bitter, hostile, dangerous, and threatening to authority. As Sapphires, men can view violence as an option for punishment for the defiant behavior of the African American women. Often, African American women will come to believe that the assault or abuse is deserved because of their own behaviors. Others may try to distance themselves from this image by becoming less assertive and more encouraging to male dominance. West pointed out that this leads to self-blame and false illusions of control over violence (1997). The Sapphire image can also cause an African American woman to underestimate her need for protection, emotional support, and medical attention caused from an assault. She may feel she can handle it (abuse) because her mother and sisters did before her. Advocates and other service providers that support this myth can characterize African American women in this role as mutually combative and violent and overlook them for services.

The image Jezebel can historically be traced back to White slave owners who used rape, forced breeding, and the sale of slave children to exert control over African American women's sexuality and reproductive activities (West, 1997). This sexual stereotype encourages sexual exploitation of African American women and the construction of an image that characterizes them as aggressive predators and sexually irresponsible. Under this image, society can believe that African American women cannot be victims of sexual assault or rape as they are constant seekers of sexual pleasures and provoke the violence with their immoral ways. Men that perpetuate the Jezebel image see African American women as always-willing sexual partners and use violence when the woman resists. Community members and advocates that have internalized this Jezebel stereotype believe an African American woman has some fault in the sexual assault because "she got the man all riled up," (West, 1997).

The power of images should not be underestimated. The media, music videos, literature and films have presented these three representations of African American women in many combinations: highly maternal, family-oriented, argumentative, seductive, and promiscuous. The long-standing myths and images of African American women only continue to yield insensitive responses to sexual assault victims of color. Awareness of personal biases and acceptance of cultural differences can break down these racial barriers. Dispelling the myths about African American victims will aid in reaching out to these victims and serving African American communities.

Victim Characteristics. (2001). Bureau of Justice Statistics [On-line]. Available:

Williams, O.J. (1997). Partner abuse in the Black community: Culturally specific prevention and treatment models. Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community [On-line]. Available: http//

West, Carolyn M. The Connection between historical images of Black women and domestic violence. Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community [On-line]. Available: http//

White, E. (1994). Chain, chain, change: For Black women in abusive relationships. (Rev.ed.). Seattle: Seal Press.

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