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Black women should lighten up? On health, optimism and bias

Black femininity falls squarely into three social constructions: jezebel, mammy and sapphire. Each construction is meant to discipline Black women into subservience and marginalization. Socially, Black women occupy the bottom of both the race and gender hierarchies. Author bell hooks posits that this is because we have no institutionalized “other.”

Race is a social construction created chiefly to benefit Whiteness. Many would love to believe that some of the public gains which African-Americans achieved have lead to a post-racial world, but the stereotypes that have been created continue to infiltrate our social organizations. From the media to education, Blackness is still understood as inferior in our social discourse, despite the rhetoric of individuality and meritocracy.

Meanwhile, the following results were discovered by the researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in a study of postmenopausal women:

ÔÇťOptimism was defined as the expectation that good, rather than bad, things will happen. Female optimists in the group surveyed had a decreased rate of death and were 30 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease than were pessimists. Those identified as being more cynically hostile had a higher rate of death and were 23 percent more likely to die from a cancer-related condition.”

Interestingly, results for optimism and cynical hostility appeared more pronounced in the almost 8,000 Black women surveyed. Optimistic Black women had a lower rate of death and a 44% reduction in risk of cancer-related death. Alternatively, the most cynically hostile Black women had a higher rate of death and a 142% increase in risk of cancer-related death. Tindle notes these results need to be interpreted with caution, due to the low number of Black women actually surveyed.

It is quite interesting that the word “hostile” was chosen, because Black women are constantly accused of being angry. Even though hostility and anger is a more than a valid response to the sexism and racism that Black women are forced to deal with, it is understood in this context as un-womanly. Such a charge is often used to silence legitimate concerns and force conformity to the racist, sexist state. We have seen the angry Black woman meme thrown at women like Michelle Obama without any justification. Each and every time a Black woman dares to challenge her place, she is declared an angry upstart.

Is it any surprise that a study would conclude that Black women who are more optimistic by nature ultimately live longer lives? Now, not only are we being charged with un-womanly behaviour when we protest institutionalized racism and sexism; death is being offered up as the ultimate form of discipline.

The authors of this study claim that the conclusions may not be scientific because of the numbers of Black woman studied, but nowhere do they acknowledge the impact of stereotypes that have been constructed to demean and control Black womanhood. No matter how progressive an individual may be, we are all steeped in the same racist state. Without even a cursory acknowledgement of inbred biases, this study is problematic to say the least.

To see the glass as half-full is to ignore how far we must still travel on the path to equality. Black women are beaten by police officers, suffer high degrees of rape and, when left to parent their children without the financial aid of the father, often lead lives of poverty.

To this day, our children are still ripped from our arms when we are unable to financially provide for them, in a system that is designed for our defeat. We are routinely slut-shamed and blamed for the problems that exist within the Black community. Even as we are sexualized, we are told to shut our legs. Rarely does the burden of uplifting the race fall equally between Black men and Black women.

Are we supposed to look at our lives and say “thank goodness that we are no longer enslaved like our foremothers”? Should we be happy that we can no longer be publicly flogged and only beaten with fists by the very men that should be protecting us? Instead of once again putting the burden on overworked Black woman to make wine of out of water, perhaps what we should be focusing on is how to create and foster social changes so that Black women are able to approach the world with more optimism point of view.

For now, this issue is not about what is best for Black women. Our best interests have never been at the forefront. This is about finding a way to ensure that Black women continue to serve without reward or acceptance. Far too many of us struggle throughout each and every day to deal with the roadblocks put in our path. If we are frustrated, or if we feel anger, it is from lifetimes of misuse and abuse.


Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

3 thoughts on “Black women should lighten up? On health, optimism and bias

  1. Studies like this are always based on correlations and yet never seem to address the possibility that the more “optimistic” people have better life circumstances, and therefore predict better outcomes for themselves and are right. Vice versa with the “pessimistic” respondents. Instead they try to paint a picture where the magical powers of optimism will give you a better life! If only you can believe!

    I mean really, all this study proves is that people who have had bad things happen to them (likely as a function of systematic oppression) will think that bad things will continue to happen to them, and they will be correct. But that interpretation’s not as fun as acting like black women are giving themselves cancer by being “hostile.”

  2. While I could see someone extrapolating these ideas (black women should just learn to be happy!) from these results, that’s not what the referenced article suggests. The study’s author specifically says that you can’t draw causal inferences and that they were controlling for at least measurable indicators of life quality (income, education, depressive symptoms). She goes on to say that you would have to do a study to see whether counseling people to be more optimistic would be helpful.

    While I agree that your observations are accurate, black women are castigated as unnecessarily angry and aggressive and therefore unwomanly, I don’t think this article is an instance of that.

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