Accusations of Same-Sex Hanky-Panky Provoke Bigoted Response, Then Apology, From Florida's Anti-Gay Lt. Gov.
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Black women as a group have long been framed in dominant American culture as essentially unfeminine. In what Monica Roberts has called the " black unwoman meme," black women are unfavorably compared to a feminine ideal rooted in white cultural norms: white women are "considered the paragon of virtue, fertility, beauty and femininity." As a foil to this romanticized (and misogynistic) image of the angelic, respectable white lady, black women are widely stereotyped as promiscuous, bad mothers, unable or unwilling to land husbands, unattractive, angry and threatening. In short, black women in the popular imagination are so outside the scope of normative femininity that we are less than women, even almost men. Our bodies and lives are held up to intense scrutiny and routinely found wanting in appropriate femininity.
It's in this context that Carroll's comments read as a dangerous validation of racist, misogynist policing of black women's bodies and lives. Carroll perhaps unwittingly frames herself as the polar opposite of stereotypical images of black womanhood: a faithful wife and dedicated mother who doesn't look like women who "engage in relationships like that." She equates being a black woman who is "properly" feminine in appearance and behavior not only with being straight, but also with being respectable. She frames her accuser's femininity as suspect and even ridiculous by comparison. " She's the one who's been single a long time," she points out, insinuating that it is her accuser, Carletha Cole, not Carroll, who should be suspected of being queer -- i.e., not a proper black woman.
Carroll is playing a dangerous game in which no black women are winners. Carroll's comments deploy what black cultural critics like Tamara Winfrey Harris call " respectability politics": when a marginalized group pushes back on negative stereotypes "by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems 'respectable.'" By inviting the public to interrogate both her own physical appearance and personal life and that of her accuser, Carroll powerfully illustrates Harris' point that "respectability politics allow both the white and black communities to lay claim to black women's bodies" -- usually to find us lacking in one way or another.
As Harris writes, respectability politics is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the argument that "we are just like you" -- and therefore just as worthy of respect -- has been a powerful method of resistance for black women against systematic and dehumanizing racism. On the other, it implicitly validates bigotry against black women who are not "just like" the ideal respectable woman.
The implications of such racialized gender-policing go far beyond negative images of black women. It's in the context of the trope of the black "unwoman" and widespread, intense scrutiny of black women that dominant athletes like Serena Williams, Brittney Griner and Caster Semenya have their gender and accomplishments routinely denigrated with insults that they are not women, but "really men" -- or worse, animals ("monkeys"). Last May, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa infamously used scientific language to claim that black women are "objectively" less attractive than women of other races, purportedly because of higher testosterone.
Even more disturbing, "unwoman" images have a long history of being used to demonize black women and frame us as unworthy of the privileges, protections and courtesies afforded white women. They both fuel and and are used to justify epidemic levels of violence against black women, who are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault than white women. The specter of the black unwoman is the ever-present subtext of attempts to shrink the social safety net, cut funding for resources women of color disproportionately rely on, and attack black women's reproductive freedoms and child-rearing.