Juneteenth Reflections: Stereotypes and Safeguarding Our Rights

Juneteenth 2021 will mark 155 years of celebration for American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS). Juneteenth should also be a time of reflection regarding how our freedoms were lost and reclaimed. In the 1600s and beyond, Europeans, in their quest to enslave others, used Africans’ manner of dress, customs, and religious practices as a pretext. It was not their first attempt to enslave people of other cultures, but African enslavement was viewed as practical. Stereotypes and falsehoods regarding the inferiority of Africans and their descendants served to reinforce the system of slavery and ignore the atrocities. African enslaved women were often pregnant and viewed as hyper-sexual and amoral, opposed to victims of rape. Black men were seen as too infantile and cognitively inept to live free. As such, slave owners were doing them a favor.

Reclaiming our freedom, to the extent we have it, has been an uphill and arduous battle. From 1619 to 2021 there has been movement towards freedom. You have the abolitionist, civil rights, and other movements, the Civil War, the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution of the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1968, and an untold number of marches, boycotts and protests. Then there is the ingenuity of ADOS in improving their life circumstances using available tools and avenues while navigating bigotry, racism, and systematic oppression.

So how do we safeguard the rights, freedoms, and advances we have achieved and move forward? I believe in part by continuing to engage civically and prudently (e.g., voting our better interests at all levels), working to be our best selves (e.g., through education, skill development and self care), supporting black businesses, exposing racism, and reflecting upon whether and how we are advancing or impeding the rights of ADOS to live within their rights without impediments and indignities for arbitrary, subjective, and irrelevant reasons.

Further, we should not do to each other what has been done to us. This brings me to “BonnetGate” and the level of vitriol I have seen regarding women who wear bonnets, sleepwear, slippers, and even flip flops in public. This issue was reignited recently when someone took a photo of a group of black women at an airport (seemingly without their knowledge) who were wearing bonnets and flip flops.

The online vitriol regarding these black women and others who wear bonnets and pajamas in public has been intense. People have said they lack self respect, are lazy, dirty, and ratchet. Many also stated they are poor representations of black women, making us all look bad.

Now you may wonder what does BonnetGate have to do with Juneteenth and the gravity of enslavement? It has to do with the fact that the rights of ADOS throughout the history of this country have been undermined in part by perpetrating negative stereotypes. That is, inaccurate, snap judgements about our character, without having all the facts and giving due consideration.

With African enslavement, Europeans used African customs like wearing less garb to convince themselves and others that enslavement would save Africans from themselves. What they considered less it seems is that in Africa it is hot, and this likely mattered in the amount of clothing worn. I saw another Twitter post indicating the women in the photo were traveling because their sister died and they were on their way to the funeral. As such, this manner of dress may not be typical, and the act of a person taking, posting, and commenting in the way they did could legally be seen as portraying them in a “false light.”

In 2019, a principal at a high school sent a letter to parents regarding a new dress code. Parents were told if they violated these rules they would not be allowed inside. Parents were further told these rules were to let their children know what attire was appropriate when “entering the building, going somewhere, applying for a job, or visiting someone outside of the home setting.” There were 10 bullet points, some of which included the following.

“No one can enter the building or be on school premises wearing a satin cap or bonnet on their head for any reason in the building.”

“Pajamas of any kind will not be permitted in the building along with house shoes or any other attire that could possibly be pajamas, underwear, or home setting wear; such as flannel pajamas.”

“Short, shorts that are up to your behind will NOT be permitted on the premises and in the building.  Men wearing undershirts will NOT be permitted in the building.”

To my dismay, many applauded this dress code saying that parents should better represent themselves and their children. However the subjectivity, not to mention the tone of the letter was disrespectful in my view, and inconsistent with best practices regarding encouraging parental involvement in schooling AND statutes regarding the rights of parents in schooling. The tone of some of the language was akin to a grandmother reprimanding a teenage. Also, how is one to tell whether a tee shirt is in fact an undershirt or not? If you wanted to encourage parents to wear shorts of a given length, why not suggest a number of inches above the knees?

Further statements included “Dresses that are up to your behind will not be permitted on the premises or in the building or any attire that is totally unacceptable for the school setting.” The vagueness of statements like “totally unacceptable for the school setting” is also at odds with best practices for dress codes and allow for arbitrary, implicit, and explicit biases to rule at will. There are many statutes at federal, state, and local levels that define and encourage parents’ rights for involvement in the education of their children, as children and youth with involved parents tend to do better in school. Parental rights in schooling are connected to their child’s right to an education. This may explain why I have NOT seen ONE of these statutes refer to parents’ manner of dress, let alone wearing a bonnet, as a condition for exercising their rights.

African Americans and Self Respect

For about a century or so, “experts” deemed African Americans as lacking in self-esteem, which is generally defined as having a positive regard for the self. At one point it was also promoted that low self esteem was a reason for the lower academic performance of African American children and youth. It turned out though with more robust and scientific methods of study, African American children and youth did NOT have low self-esteem; neither did adults. By adolescence, African American youth tend to have higher self esteem than other races. It seems that African Americans do not so readily internalize all of the negative characteristics and circumstances in which they are bombarded. I don’t think it is too hard for ADOS to get that our plight is tied to the system in which we live, and not our value as human beings. Regarding the achievement gap, there are other factors such as disparate and higher levels of discipline which remove African American children from the classroom/learning environment, low teacher expectations and support, bullying along racial lines, and teaching practices that are not culturally sensitive.

Going from wearing a bonnet in public to labeling someone as lazy is a leap. How does anyone know what these women have done, and the circumstances they have navigated during the hours and days before being in public wearing a bonnet? The “dirty” argument seems to rest with the assumption these women are out in public wearing the same pajamas and bonnets they slept in, and that they have not showered or bathed. Maybe they have several bonnets. And whose to know if they slept in the same pajamas and bonnets they are wearing in public? Furthermore people can be unclean wearing street clothes and career wear.

Black women are like this

In terms of the potential for downgrading the collective image of black women, I get the argument. That because non black people often see us through a lens of broad and negative stereotypes, we have to present in ways that counter these racial tropes. But even though scientists say that stereotypes are mental shortcuts in an attempt to make sense of information, that does not preclude anyone from doing due diligence. The negative perceptions and stereotypes belong to the people who hold them, and they are not always about ADOS as “downtrodden.” We can just as readily be viewed in a negative light for exceptionalism. That is, seen as “uppity,” arrogant, or showing off for having high intelligence and skills, for occupying spaces in the upper echelon (e.g., the Presidency, wealthier neighborhoods), and even in work settings for having opinions. People find all kinds of ways to disparage you when they want to and can, especially when bigotry and racism allow personal, professional, and economic advantages.

Media representation can be undermining to perceptions of ADOS. Unlike random people going about their business, media representations are distributed to millions of people who may or may not have routine contact with African Americans. Research shows media representations shape perceptions. I think people tend to engage differently with media representations in that you have a captivated audience in pursuit of recreation, escapism, and information. As such I encourage you to reflect on the types of media you support such that others are not profiting at your and ADOS’ expense.

Finally, I am not here to argue the aesthetic of wearing bonnets and sleepwear in public spaces. We have fashion and beauty gurus on YouTube and other spaces to encourage and inspire us towards fashionable, trending, and pragmatic aesthetics. Women can utilize this among other information to make choices that work for them. Ideally, without presumptive judgements, vitriol, being portrayed in a false light, and having their rights violated.

I hope you find some inspiration in my Juneteenth reflections. Stay vigilante.

References

  1. Arends, Brent.  “Black children are more likely to be disciplined than white children for the same behavior.”  16, October, 2019.  https://www.marketwatch.com/story/black-children-are-more-likely-to-be-disciplined-than-white-kids-for-the-same-behavior-2019-10-16
  2. Bachman, Jerald G., O’Malley, Patrick M., Freedman-Doan, Peter, Trzesniewski, Kali H., Donellan M. Brent. “Adolescent self-esteem: Differences by race/ethnicity, gender, and age.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263756/  23, January 2012. 
  3. Blackburn Center.  “The historical roots of the sexualization of black women and girls.” 20, February. 2019. https://www.blackburncenter.org/post/2019/02/20/the-historical-roots-of-the-sexualization-of-black-women-and-girls
  4. Chassy Media.  “Uppity:  The Willy T. Ribbs Story.” 8 January, 2020.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKwfDjfO9Pw
  5. Green, Linda. “Negative racial stereotypes and their effects on attitudes towards African-Americans.”  https://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/links/essays/vcu.htm
  6. Hanover Research.  “Best practices in family and community engagement.”  March, 2014.  https://www.wasa-oly.org/WASA/images/WASA/1.0%20Who%20We%20Are/1.4.1.6%20SIRS/Download_Files/LI%202018/Best%20Practices%20in%20Family%20and%20Community%20Engagement%202-1-18.pdf
  7. Jan, Traci.  “News media offers consistently warped portrayals of black families, study finds.”  13 December.  2017.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/13/news-media-offers-consistently-warped-portrayals-of-black-families-study-finds/
  8. National Black Child Development Institute.  “A framework that works:  How prek – 3rd can be a smart strategy for black kids, families, and communities.”  June, 2011.  https://www.nbcdi.org/sites/default/files/resource-files/A%20Framework%20That%20Works.pdf
  9. National Women’s Law Center.  “Dresscoded:  Black girls, bodies, and bias in D. C. Schools.”  24 April, 2018. https://nwlc.org/resources/dresscoded/
  10. Nittle, Nadra.  “A high school’s dress code for parents sparked backlash.  The principal is standing by it.” 7 May, 2019.  https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/5/7/18532416/james-madison-high-school-dress-code
  11. “Revealing Histories Remembering Slavery”  http://revealinghistories.org.uk/home.html
  12. Patterson, Kelly L. “A longitudinal study of African American women and the maintenance of a health self- esteem.” 2004.  http://www.thecyberhood.net/documents/papers/patterson04.pdf
  13. Punyanunt-Carter, Narissra M.  “The perceived realism of African American portrayals on television.”  2008. https://library.uoregon.edu/sites/default/files/data/guides/english/howard_journal_communications.pdf
  14. Shipman, Matt.  “Bias based bullying does more harm, is harder to protect.” 14, November. 2018.  https://news.ncsu.edu/2018/11/bias-based-bullying/

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