News Flash: Black Women Do Stuff Like Worry About Bills and Pray

Why The Washington Post's well-meaning, but reductive survey about black women's lives misses the mark.

By Akiba Solomon Jan 25, 2012

When faced with earnest but confusing efforts like the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey and interviews with 800 black women, I find myself getting all Etta James, righteously nasty. Frankly, I’m sick of using my brain cells and laptop-worn vision to parse out the latest examination of the rare species Blackus Womanamina Americanus.

But I owe you more than sarcasm here. So let me lay out how this two-part series is framed. The first article, "Survey paints portrait of black women," begins like this:

Rich or poor, educated or not, black women sometimes feel as though myths are stalking them like shadows, their lives reduced to a string of labels. The angry black woman. The strong black woman. The unfeeling black woman. The manless black woman. 

"Black women haven’t really defined themselves," says author Sophia Nelson, who urges her fellow sisters to take control of their image. "We were always defined as workhorses, strong. We carry the burdens, we carry the family. We don’t need. We don’t want."

This is a nifty, irritating trick because it absolves the very institutions that have consistently denied or marginalized black women’s voices. While the article briefly covers underemployment, tokenism and the stereotype of the "welfare queen," it doesn’t dig into structural racism past or present. We don’t get how and why reductive ideas of black womanhood have been created, manipulated and consistently sold by mass media. This is an article about black women and stereotypes that doesn’t mention pesky ills like slavery, Jim Crow, reproductive injustice and mass incarceration but name-checks "Basketball Wives." Without proper context, the black women respondents become self-sacrificing victims who haven’t learned to define themselves, shadowboxing with mysterious ghosts.

In 2012, that tact is at best naive and at worst a damn lie. Black women have been defining ourselves since before Sojourner Truth made her infamous 1851 "Ain’t I a Woman" speech. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, black women tell, no scream, about our humanity, complexity, legacy, pride, sisterhood, spirituality, money problems, romantic desires, bone-deep sadness, moral conflicts, sexuality and joy. Some of us are dying for a "Sunday Kind of Love." Some of us think we’re cute and "Cleva." Some of us aren’t that damn deep. The problem isn’t that black women haven’t defined ourselves for ourselves. It’s that mainstream media DON’T LISTEN.

And when media don’t listen, they publish black-women centered surveys that compare our responses to those of white women, black men and white men, as if there are no other groups of people in this damn country who help shape our collective experiences. They ask by-the-numbers questions about fundamental aspects of human life through the lens of race without interrogating why one would even need to ask these questions.

For example, survey takers were asked if "being successful in a career" was "very important, somewhat important, not too important, not important at all or don’t know/refuse [to answer]." Sixty eight percent of black women said it was "very important." Asked the same question about being married, 40 percent of black women chose "very important"; 62 percent considered having children "very important"; and a whopping 74 percent found "living a religious life" very important. Additional news: 44 percent of black women consider being in a romantic relationship very important, 76 percent place a premium on "being respected by others," 92 percent think it’s "very important" to be close with family, and 38 percent are "very worried" about not having enough money to pay bills.

What are we supposed to do with this information? That’s not a rhetorical question. I truly don’t know what we’re supposed to do with this, besides attempt to compare it to the existing portrait of black women as manless, unmarried, overly independent-but-broke, super churchy sistah monolith.

To be fair, there are some interesting questions and results embedded in this latest Blackus Womanamina Americanus report. For example, when asked if they were worried about themselves or a family member "getting HIV or AIDS, or not," 19 percent of black women and 21 percent of Black men said they were "very worried" while only 2 percent of white women and 3 percent of white men had the same reaction. Sadly, there’s no further explanation.

And the questions about racism and sexism, which appear about two thirds into this long, racial- and gender-centered report are also worth checking out as is the second article and data set, "African American women see their own challenges mirrored in Michelle Obama’s." I wish the Post had led with this texture and skipped the reductive, no-duh stuff. Personally speaking, I’m just too angry to start at square one.