Posted in Blog, Mental Health

The “Aggressive” Black Woman Label (Essay)

 

When we focus our discussions on sexism and racism, targets of sexism tend to focus on white women, and targets of racism tend to focus on Black men, while women of colour get forgotten about.

 

As a Black woman having grown up around white-centric environments, growing up, I was always described as shy, soft-spoken, reserved and quiet but then in my late twenties, when I began to embrace my Black culture, I was subjected to negative stereotyping in many different areas of my life.

It wasn’t until my negative Teacher Training experience last year, that I was ever described by anybody as “aggressive” for the first time. This was also the first time that I was seen as a Black woman. I was shocked. My Black friends were bewildered because I was the quietest in the group. However, as only one of two Black teachers in the very white comprehensive school, this was not just about the colour of my skin. This was also about my actions: speaking up for myself and for my Black pupils who were being unfairly targeted. However, my employers thought otherwise and quickly labelled me as “aggressive” for speaking “out of turn”.

 

The second time I was called “aggressive” was shortly afterwards, in a mental health Facebook group, when somebody referred to the Grenfell fire as “just a fire”. The initial complaint came from one white woman who was asking for sympathy, because the media coverage a month after the tragedy was still too overwhelming. In response another white woman said: “remember it was just a fire”. As a Black woman from London, I was shocked that people from outside London could refer to such a tragedy in my hometown so carelessly and flippantly. While a community was (and still is) grieving and my city was raging you’re asking for sympathy, because you’re incapable of basic empathy? I remember my words explicitly: “I implore of you, please don’t refer to it as ‘just a fire’”, before I was ganged up against by the entire group and labelled as “aggressive” for daring to so insensitively call out the person who had made the comment.

I have Epilepsy and would talk openly about the negative side-effects of anti-epileptic drugs, as well as what it’s like to live life as a Black woman with Epilepsy. However, the more I’ve been reading into Epilepsy research, the more it has become apparent just how racist empirical research is — in fact, most of the medical studies do not contain any people of colour whatsoever. And now that I am making this racism known as part of my campaigning, other campaigners are labelling me as “aggressive”.

 

Wendy Ashley explains the stereotype of the “angry Black woman” as a characterisation of “ignorant without provocation” (Ashley, 2014, DOI: 10.1080/19371918.2011.619449). However, in all of my examples you can be assured that I was never ignorant, and I was definitely provoked. One thing my Teacher Training experience opened my eyes to was to explore the question: why are Black women never permitted the freedom to display anger as a valid expression of emotion? We are constantly forced to police our emotions, for fear of not slipping into that “angry Black woman stereotype”. Even Serena Williams throughout her career, has been consistently labelled as aggressive, even though she is retaliating (with class I must add) to constant racial macrogressions and aggressive provocations.

 

If you’ve been hurt, and somebody has caused you pain, you have every right to be angry! Just like any other woman of any other colour, girl!

 

So where does this stereotype even come from?

 

In light of not so recent events where Serena Williams was also labelled as aggressive by the media, Black women are suffering this every day where they are subjected to negative stereotyping, while juxtaposed with invisibility – particularly in the workplace.

Unfortunately, as Black women we struggle to be heard and struggle to be visible, due to being “intersectionally disabled” (Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008, DOI/10.1177/1368430216663017). Research also describes “angry Black women” typically being “aggressive, unfeminine, undesirable, overbearing, attitudinal, bitter, mean, and hell raising” (Malveaux, 1989; Morgan & Bennett, 2006, DOI/10.1080/19371918.2011.619449). This is of course in direct comparison to our white cis female counterparts, who are perceived socially as fair, more feminine, less-aggressive and therefore more desirable.

 

Having a strong sense of self is equally perceived as aggressive and threatening: So many women struggle with their self-image and self-constructs, that Black women who are perceived to have a handle on theirs (even when we don’t!) may be misunderstood by their peers to be aggressive. However, the concept of the confident Black woman is a phenomenon that has become more widespread — particularly in UK, mostly thanks to social media, which millenial Black women are wholeheartedly embracing: the Slumflower instigated the #saggyboobsmatter movement and is also empowering women to embrace their gut feelings. Unfortunately, people still perceive these drives towards positive mindsets as aggressive.

 

I have just finished reading Americanah (2014) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In it, Aunty Uju says: “These [white] people make you aggressive just to hold your dignity”, which is always my response when provoked. I feel like I’m being put onto a stage against my will and the audience are hurling abusive insults at me, just waiting for my reaction.

This relates to Personality Theory: there, behavioral tendency refers to the way an individual prefers to act, heavily influenced by the individual’s preferred thought process, the current situation, the current available resources, and the authority the person currently has. Using this, we are constantly proven not to be aggressive in many situations we are forced into:

Black women reported that, like me, they were forced to encounter negative race-based stereotypes in the workplace on a regular basis (Catalyst, 2004, DOI 10.1177/0894845308325645). Another study was able to make correlations between experiences of negative race-based stereotypes for Black women in employment and historical misogynoir:

Thus, Black women are forced to contend with many negative racial stereotypes, which can obstruct their professional lives and connections with others in the workplace. Historical stereotypical images—such as the caretaker Mammy, the loud-talking Sapphire, and the seductive Jezebel—in addition to emerging images, such as the unstable Crazy Black Bitch (CBB) and the constant overachieving Superwoman, may affect Black women’s professional goals, work relationships, and overall organizational experiences” (Reynolds-Dobbs et al, 2008, p.130-131, DOI, 10.1177/0894845308325645).

 

So, sometimes it simply doesn’t matter how much of a “workface” we put on, how much overtime we put in—due to the overpowering negative history of the “angry Black woman” stereotype, for us the glass ceiling is still significantly lower.

 

Social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw reminds us that the law does not recognise intersectionality and therefore, as Black women we cannot look to the law as our saviour.

 

Unfortunately as a Black woman, you just have to be your own.

 

Posted in Blog

Why I’m No Longer Watching GrapevineTV

During the Summer, one of my best friends suggested that I check out GrapevineTV on YouTube.

After just a couple of episodes, I really didn’t connect with it and I told her straightaway, however she told me to give it a chance so I did. There were a couple of episodes that I liked, and a few people on the panel who I did connect with such, as Sensei Aishitemasu (who I follow on YouTube) and Donovan, so I kept going with it. Plus, as much I listening to podcasts, finally having PoC on my TV talking about current events – even if they all were US related – was great for my “woke-ness” journey.

However, apart from these few things that I did like, there were still so many things that I didn’t like. These were supposed to be intellectual black millenials, yet in every episode they were yelling at each other across a table while the host, Ashley Akunna stroked her hair like a lioness, rarely saying anything. These hyennas were perfectly perpetuating the stereotype of black people and never actually saying anything about the topics that they brought up. In fact, they were like a US verso of BKChat, just more stylish. (literally – these girls on GrapevineTV turn uuuuuup!)

Then, there were two episodes which began to hammer the nails into the casket for me: the first being the Erykah Badu episode where some of the guys sided with Badu and blamed child victims for sexually tempting older men with their clothing.

The second episode was one of the African vs African-American/Caribbean episodes where Ashley aggressively told Seren that African-Americans like her should work harder, if they want to get of the ghetto instead of blaming white supremacy for their hardships.

I took that personally and I took it to heart.

This forced me to stop watching, however I was still subscribed to the channel. When I received notifications about shows for Bill Crosby and R Kelly, I watched them, and I have to commend the team for doing a good job on these. The topics such as sexual assault, rape and child molestation within our community is important to talk about – particularly the psychological abuse that comes from perpetrators such as R Kelly.

But then came the NFL episode. First of all, the majority of the boys were refusing to boycott to games, which in my opinion showed the beginning of their ignorance. They felt unless the NFL players quit playing, then they weren’t going to stop watching. Ignorance. When some of the girls – including Seren brought up the idiom that the NFL is like modern day slavery, the boys laughed in their faces and told them that they didn’t understand the game, which I interpreted as modern-day sexism. Only one guy on that panel was talking sense, having spoken to Colin Kaepernick himself about his experience and his reasons behind his activism, which had convinced him to boycott the games at home, because he was intelligent enough to understand the what the system is doing to Kaepernick and what he is protesting against. 

They also had a white guy on the panel. I had a feeling when I saw him that it wouldn’t be a one off fixture.

This is show for PoC and there are members of the panel who proclaim on YouTube against integration, which in certain contexts I agree with – this being one of them. Then after the show, GrapevineTV’s Twitter account asked their viewers what we thought about the idea of having white people on the panel in the future. Straightaway I replied no, because our mainstream media is full of white people’s opinion’s. I’m here for people of colour. Other viewers agreed with me. GrapevineTV reminded me that the show was a place for intellectual millenials – reading between the lines, I could read that they meant this to mean an amalgamation of races too. Subsequent tweets then went on to say that Akunna as the sole benefactor could no longer afford to support the show on her own and Black people were “not forthcoming with their coins”.

Yet in previous episodes, Akunna herself had preached that she didn’t need the help of white people. 

The tweeter then seemed to become aggressive when viewers asked if Grapevine was looking to make a fast buck, because understandably, we were all confused: Akunna had always said that her producer was the benefactor. As far as I knew, the show hadn’t advertised any sponsors, nor asked for funding.

It then became clear that GrapevineTV didn’t really care about our opinions. They were going to go forward in the direction they wanted.

Some of my tweets were getting A LOT of retweets and GrapevineTV claimed that they received hate, but that’s a lie. The only hate shown on that day was from them – so much aggression and sarcasm. Simple responses and questions from viewers were responded to by GrapevineTV with aggression and sarcasm, because they’re incapable of having even the simplest of conversations. If you watch the show, it’s hindered by the format: they all sit around a table, where the commentary of the show seems to rely upon either the ignorance of sexism of the men who play the villains until Donovan “the hero” steps in, while the girls pipe in every now and then, and Akunna might read something from her phone to keep the conversation going. I don’t understand Akunna’s role; is she a host? Because I just see as an auxiliary bystander.

Placing white people on the panel is therefore only going to damage this sinking ship.

Sinking Ship.gif

Anyway, in the end, I had to block GrapevineTV on Twitter, and I will no longer be watching their show.

I will still be watching Seren’s channel and amidst the chaos, one of the hosts of The Nitty Gritty Show tweeted me and I am LOVING THAT at the moment!

XOXO

 

Posted in Blog

The Social and Cultural Construction of Psychology: The Cultural Definition of Normality

 

Some specific aspects of politics and economy play an important role in the shaping of psychology – as in any other aspect of our life – and sometimes pose ethical challenges for practitioners. That is the case of the so-called managed care, of growing importance in the last decades in countries like the United States. The name refers to a set of techniques intended to reduce the cost and improve the quality of health benefits – which in practice promotes short, routinised and cheap mental health treatments. Treatment goals are often limited to superficial improvements, and drugs are used as a quick solution instead of in-depth longer-term therapy.

Managed care sometimes brings ethical dilemmas to psychologists participating in the system, such as breaches of confidentiality or ‘gag’ rules that limit what therapists are permitted to say to their clients about treatment options.

Pills

This issue is not too different from the growing intrusion of drug companies in the field of mental health. Expensive effort to market their products lead people to hold falsely optimistic expectations, encouraging them to take medication for minor difficulties, promoting the idea that most psychological problems are caused by brain or bodily malfunctions, and fostering a medicalised view of mental health that may discourage people from investing effort and time in psychotherapy.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is the object of a strong controversy in this regard. The DSM is the most commonly used compendium of diagnostic categories for mental problems. By categorising and naming psychological difficulties, the DSM has considerable benefits for clinical practice and research: it permits the accumulation and synthesis of knowledge and experience, and provides professionals with a common language. As Mary Wylie indicated in 1995, the DSM is the official lingua franca of the mental health establishment. It not only influences diagnostic and treatment decisions, but it has also important legal, educational, institutional and monetary implications.

But many argue that the DSM not only reflects the social prejudices of the predominantly White, male, etc., persons responsible for its writing and update, but also strong economic pressures – mostly from the pharmaceutic industry. Its critics argue that this is evident in the manual’s growing emphasis on possible biological and heritable aspects, in the fact that psychiatric conditions are defined by a list of symptoms that mimic the style of biomedical diagnostic categories, and even in the terms utilised (disease, symptom, patient, syndrome, relapse). With huge fortunes at the stake, some wonder whether this is not part of a movement to definitely medicalise mental health.

It is obvious that psychologists’ ideas of normality of abnormality – as reflected in the DSM and other diagnostic criteria – do influence their diagnosis, the goals that they set for their clients and the options of treatment. But there are enormous social, cultural and historical variations in what is considered as normal or abnormal. Cultural differences can easily mislead interpretations of behaviour, resulting in over- or under– diagnosis.

If you tell your practitioner that you hear a recently dead relative speaking to you, and that you also speak to that person, you are a serious candidate to be diagnosed with some mental illness. Unless, of course, you belong to one of the several cultures where deceased members of the family are expected to communicate with their living relatives shortly after they pass away – as a sort of late goodbye in their departure from this world. Hearing dead people speaking is no cause of alarm for them.

Does it mean that the Western concept of normality does not apply to other cultures? You should be able to answer this question by now.

The growing number of diagnostic categories in the successive editions of the DSM also reflects a worrisome reality – that more and more behaviours formerly regarded as eccentricities, sins, crimes or ordinary life worries are being regarded as diseases or ‘conditions’. Restless children like Elvis Presley, John Lennon or John Fitzgerald Kennedy would today be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – just to mention an example.

Crying Patient

The proliferation of diagnoses also contributes to what has been called ‘the diffusion of deficit’, or tendency to label everyday obstacles, shortcomings and disappointments as pathological – and diminishes our control on our own personal life, putting it under increasing scrutiny and regulation by socially sanctioned experts.

In some instances, the new diagnostic categories may be more related to social issues than to actual mental disorders. In 1993, Leslie Camhi published an interesting article where she argued that the diagnosis of kleptomania originated in parallel with the invention of large department stores. Shoppers of all social class stole – particularly women – but the authorities tended to consider lower- class women who stole as thieves, whereas upper-class women’s theft was rather explained as a mental illness – thus preserving their moral superiority.

Perhaps even more revealing is the proposal in 1851 by the American physician Samuel Cartwright, of the diagnostic category of drapetomania.

He argued that this was a mental illness in Black slaves that provoked an irresistible urge to run away from captivity. The treatment of slaves as equals by their masters was presented as the cause of this presumed illness, which could be cured with ‘proper medical advice’ and removing both big toes to make physical running impossible. But of course, drapetomania could be prevented if, following Dr. Cartwright’s advice, the devil was whipped out of the slave at the first sign of dissatisfaction.

Another well-known instance of socially tinted diagnosis proved that Sigmund Freud’s ideas were also the product of his era and social context. Dora was a teenager from Vienna who presented persistent cough and frequent headaches, and who complained of the sexual advances that a respectable adult friend of his father, Herr K., made on her. Analysing the case from his patriarchal perspective, Freud assumed that any girl would appreciate the attentions of a man in the position of Herr K. and concluded that Dora’s cough and headaches were hysterical symptoms of her disguised sexual desires for him. Dora then decided to quit therapy, which drove Freud to enrich his diagnosis with the additional labels of disagreeable, untruthful and vengeful. But shocking as the case is, we must not be surprised that mental health conceptions reflect not just the knowledge, but also the values of each era. As Jeanne Marecek and Rachel Hare-Mustin highlight, at the end of the 19th century many women were considered as afflicted by a mental disorder then called neurasthenia, a condition that combined aspects of what today might be labelled chronic fatigue syndrome, premenstrual syndrome and depression. One acclaimed treatment involved compulsory bed rest, the forced deprivation of mental stimulation, isolation from adult company and constant heavy feeding, leading to weight gains of 25 kilograms or more.

References

Camhi, L. (1993). Stealing Femininity: Department Store Kleptomania as Sexual Disorder. Differences 5(1), 26-50.
Cartwright, S. A. (1851). Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race. The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, May, 691-715. Retrieved from Google Books: https://books.qooqle.co.uk/books?id=ofMcAAAAIAAJ&redir esc=v
Marecek, J., & Hare-Mustin, R. T. (2009). Clinical psychology: The politics of madness. In D. Fox, I. Prilleltensky, & S. Austin (Eds.), Critical psychology: An introduction (2nd ed., pp. 75-92). London: Sage.
Wylie, M. S. (1995). The power of DSM-IV: Diagnosing for dollars. Family Therapy Networker, 19(3), 22-32.

 

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