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The effect of racism and sexism experienced by black women in America: Understanding the relationship between self-determination and resiliancy

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2011
Author: Lorraine Mayes-Buckley
The purpose of this study is to develop an understanding of the resiliency and self-determination that Black women have developed since arriving in America in order to cope with their unique challenges of racism and sexism in American society. This research study contributes to the human service field as it will bring awareness to how Black women experience the phenomenon of racism and sexism on their lived experiences and how they have thrived despite the numerous challenges they have faced. This research study explored and analyzed culturally relevant helping traditions that can be integrated into current social work and counseling practices that might help other individuals become self-determined and develop resiliency when facing adverse living experiences. Employing a phenomenological qualitative research method, data was collected using interviews of fourteen Black women between the ages of thirty-nine to sixty-five; all of whom have had direct experience with the phenomenon of the effect of racism and sexism being studied. Black Feminist Theory will be the drive behind this research study.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgme nts


List of Tables





Introduction to the Problem


Background of the Study


Statement of the Problem




Purpose of the Study


Research Question


Significance of the Study


Definition of Terms


Assumptions and



Nature of the Study


Organization of the Remainder of the Study







The Histor y

of Black


in America

2 5

Black Liberation V ersus Women ’ s Liberation


The Civil Rights Movemen t Versus the Woman ’ s Movement


B lack American Woman Identity


Black Women Then and Now



Black Women Cope and Survive



Resilienc y and Empowerment Development







Researcher ’ s Philosophy


Research Design




Research Design Strategy


Target Population

and Participant Selection




Data Collection


Data Analysis


Limitations of th e Research Design






Expected F indings


Ethical Issues


Chapter Summary















Use of ATLAS.ti



Emergent Themes


Ana lysis of Interview Questions


Chapter Summa ry















Recomme ndations for Future Research










List of Tables

Table 1. Pa rticipant

Demographic Profile





Introduction to the Problem

The history of Black women in America pr ovides few commonalities with women of the dominant culture.

Black women ’ s his tory is affected by the double consciousness that differentiates their existence.

Their history is rooted in the Black experience that is reflected in the image of bo ndage, rape, poverty, and third - class status.

The belief by Black women that others feel t hat they are unworthy of respect is a recurrent American refrain ( J. B. Cole & Guy - Sheftall, 2003).

This study provide d

the opportunity for researchers and scholars to give voice to issues emerging from the intersection of race and gender that Black American women experience in their role as women in America.

The difference between how Black women and White women are treat ed and perceived also stems from the fact that Blacks as a group have not received the protection of the law and have historically been denied rights (Sorenson, 1996).

While laws have formally changed, recent statistics continue to reflect that crimes comm itted against Whites have higher prosecution rates and result in longer sentences than crimes committed against Blacks (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007).

Black women are saddled with dual stereotypes of race and gender and have learned to create unique ways of coping with the realities of race and gender discrimination in America (Utsey, Bolden, Lanier, & Williams, 2007).


The resilience among Black women makes the impact of racism and sexism worth researching.

For much of the history of America, the reality of Black American women is that they have worked the fields, nursed the children, prepared the meals, and maintained the household while standing beside their male counterparts fighting for equal rights (Giddings, 1984).

Almost five decades have pa ssed since the Civil Rights m ovement.

The Black community is still far behind in the fight for

social justice and equality (E i bach & Keegan, 2006).

Black women and children are still the poorest in the nation. In 2004, a typical Black family had an income that was only 50%

of a typical White family.

Median income for White women rose from $1,673.00 in 1974 to $22,030 in 2004, while incomes for Black women only doubled during the same time period ( “ Economic M obility of Black and White F amilies , ”


It is

important that researchers explore a deeper understanding of the strong will of the Black woman, despite all the obstacles she faced and continues to face.

Much has changed in America as it relates to the struggle for women ’ s equality; however, Black wom en have never been totally subservient in the Black community.

They have had to stand with Black men in the common fight against oppression and economic exploitation.

Therefore, the struggle for equality among Black women has been qualitatively different f rom the struggle of White women (Wingfield, 2007).

Background of the Study

The fact that Black Americans are in America is the result of the abduction of their ancestors from their homes in Africa.

After surviving the brut al Middle Passage from Africa, Af rican American ancestors were enslaved in one of the most physically and


psychologically brutal systems ever devised in American history (Leary, 2005).

The dominate race viewed African men and women as property.

Despite the hostile experiences of slavery, African men and women survived.

Dehumanizing Black people by defining them as nonhuman was a critical feature of racial oppression ( P. H. Collins, 2004 ).

Slavery also relied upon gender oppression.

Black women were workers just like men, and they did hard manual labor.

However, because they were women, Black women ’ s sexuality and reproductive capacity presented opportunities for forms of sexual exploitation and sexual slavery (Leary, 2005).

In contrast, White women were viewed as pure and White men viewed t hemselves as the protectors of civilization ,

which reaffirmed their roles as social and familial heads and paternal proper ty rights as well ( P. H. Collins, 2004 ).

This view was based on the patriarchal gender stereotypes of active, masculine, and authoritative men and passive, feminine, and powerless women.

In 1897, jurist William Blackstone held that men were responsible for the actions of their wives and therefore

authorized to control them (Sorenson, 1996).

Feminist theorists criticize d

these traditional laws as reflecting the origin of law as a form of male authority and power.

These theorists argue d

that the adoption of sexist images resulted in paternalistic la ws designed to protect women (Sorenson, 1996).

But such critiques ignore the distinct impact of race in the assignment of gender definitions.

As sexist as these protectionist images may have been, they w ere not meant for Black women.

Throughout history, Bl ack women ’ s experiences with patriarchy differed from those of White women ( V. G. Thomas, 2004).

Throughout their history, Black women also understood the relationship between the progress of their race and their own



Women ’ s rights were an empty promise to Black women as they also faced racism.

Black women participated in the struggle for freedom and civil rights at the expense of their feminism and faced double discrimination ( E. Cole & Zucker, 2007).

In the course of this research, several theme s emerge d .

One such theme that emerge d

is the experience of Black women in regard to the relationship of racism and sexism.

Because both White and Black women are motivated by similar economic, social, and psychological factors, Black women understood that

the dynamics of oppression differed across race and sex lines (hooks, 1994).

Black women ’ s historical and social experiences under slavery and thereafter resulted in images that define Black women as deviant.

While the Victorian notion of true womanhood

d efined White women as possessing

unquestionable moral character;

in contrast, Black women were defined as immoral ( P. H. Collins, 2000).

This race - based difference in stereotypes made it easier for White men to justify the sexual exploitation of Black wome n.

Such stereotypes also made it easier for White women to accept the exploitation of Black women (Gillum, 2002).

Because exploitation was ignored or justified, Black women were not perceived as deserving of male protection.

For example, the law historical ly denied that Black slave women could be raped because they were regarded as immoral.

This perception continues to influence the investigation and prosecution of rape charges brought by Bla ck women today (Gillum, 2002).

Black women developed a spirit of i ndependence and a keen sense of personal rights.

Slave women maintained their authority over the domestic domain, except where the master ’ s will was concerned ,

while Black men had no authority over the traditional male spheres of influence (Giddings, 1984) .

The Black slave woman often became the


broker between the slav e community and the White slave

masters .

In the North, abolition coincided with the influx of European immigrants, who replaced Black men in occupations they had traditionally held.

Consequently, Black women who were married were forced to work as washerwomen for meager incomes.

Such economic circumstances made male dominat ion difficult (Giddings, 1984).

Black women also asserted their spirit in social and economic matters, especially

when it became clear that the patriarchal family was not workable.

Many Black women in the South pulled up roots when it became evident that the advent of the emancipation proclamation was not synonymous with freedom in the South (Gutman, 1976).

The incre ased violence and the failing of the Southern economy prompted many Black families to migrate to the North in the late 1800s.

During this time, Black women ’ s strongest concern seemed to be the protection of their families

(Billingsley, 1992).

The Black wom an sets the tone for the Black family.

The family draws its strength from her.

The Black woman in the Black community is usually revered as the rock and foundation of the family.

There have been many exceptional Black women throughout history who were at t he forefront to obtain freedom in this country, such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hammer and a host of others.

There have been Black women who have strived throughout history such as Pulitzer Prize winners Gwendolyn Brooks (1950) for poet ry


Phi llis

Wheatley (1773) ,


is considered the founder of African American literature ;

and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (1993).

There have been 25

Black women who have served in Congress and one who was the only Black woman (Senator Carol Mosley - Braun, 1993 – 1999)

to have served in the senate.


This study examine d

what it means to be empowered despite the inhuman conditions that Black American women experienced and br ought

understanding to the unique issues that Black

women face in today ’ s society.

Statement of the Problem

There is a gap in the research and culturally relevant theory for addressing the needs of Black women in their everyday lived experiences.

There was little chance for Black women to speak out about their daily lives and deepest c oncerns.

It is still conspicuous when a Black woman gets to talk about what matters to her.

Major media does not provide a substantial amount of time and space for Black women to talk about the combination of racism, sexism and economic disadvantage that t hey faced and continue to face in American society (E i bach & Keegan, 2006).

Women, who were not members of the dominant culture, were traditionally rendered invisible and thus nonexistent for the purposes of understanding and describing human behavior ( V. G. Thomas, 2004).

Until recently, Black women were totally absent from any serious political discussion.

Even during Black History Month in February, Black men are the preferred race representatives.

Even though progress has been made in regard to Black women achieving higher education and better jobs, barriers and challenges still exist.

The stress of racism and sexism takes its toll on Black women ’ s mental and physi cal health (Lloyd - Jones, 2009).



In modern America where community institutions

of all sorts have eroded, popular culture has increased in importance as a source of information and ideas.

Black youth, in particular, can no longer depend on a deeply textured web of families, churches, school clubs, sports teams, and other community or ganizations to help them negotiate the challenges of social inequality (Su - L in, Zillman, & Mitrook, 1997 ).

As brilliant as the Civil Rights, Women ’ s Rights, and the Black Power era were and the progress that Black women have made in the United States, they

must realize that they


continue to have a voice in the shaping of generations following them (Byrd & Stanley, 2009).

This research study add ed to the knowledge about marginalized groups within academic research.

It address ed

the perceptions of a hist orically marginalized group of individual Black American women. This study also contribute d

to the psychological literature from a Black feminist perspective.

It also beg a n an exploration of the psychological effects of racism and sexism among Black Americ an women.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study is to qualitatively explore and examine the challenges that Black women face in regard to racism, sexism, self - empowerment, and resilience they exhibit in overcoming those challenges.

It is evident t hat Black women experience negative mental and physical health effe cts of racism and sexism ( J. Jackson, Knight, & Rafferty, 2010).

What is absent from the literature are descriptions of Black women who experience racism and sexism but manage to have a hea lthy quality of life regardless of these challenges .

This study also explore d

how Black women view themselves in regard


to their Black culture and the struggles and strides they have made through their life time.

It is expected that this study will add to the existing literature regarding the unique experiences of Black American women.

Research Question

How have

Black American women promoted their own positive mental health and become more self - empowered and developed resiliency despite the challenges of r acism, sexism, and oppression?

Significance of the Study

The significance of the study is to add an important contribution to the field of human service by bringing awareness to how Black women may be uniquely experiencing the phenomenon of racism and sexism, and the coping mechanisms and survival skills they use.

There are lessons to learn from Black women and their ability to overcome oppression.

There is a lack of research and culturally relevant theory for addressing the needs of Black American wome n in their everyday lived experiences.

Even though feminist theory addresses equality and oppression among American women, it does not specifically address the needs of Black American women ( E. Cole & Zucker, 2007).

This type of research is important becau se there is a disparity between Black women ’ s image portrayal and those of the dominant culture. The research study explore d

and examine d

ways in which Black women promoted their own empowerment and resiliency despite the negative influences they received from American society.



study also buil t

on the historical background of Black women as a basis for the development of culturally app ropriate methods that can be integrated into current social work and counseling practices.

The struggle against racism and sexism has led Black women to be independent and self - reliant.

Reynolds and Pope (1991) define d


as “ a system that allows a ccess to the services, rewards, benefits, and privileges of society based on membership of a certain group ”


174). Black men experience racism, but sexism allows them to be oppressors of women.

White women experience sexism, but racism allows them to op press people of color.

Both Black men and White women have led movements that favor their interests and further the oppression of other groups.

Racism has been part of the w omen ’ s movement, and sexism has been part of the C ivil R ights movement (hooks, 1994 ); however, Black women seldom had the opportunity to develop their talents and skills because of racism and sexism.

They had to fight tremendous uphill battles within mainstream institutions in order to be recognized as viable contributing members of Amer ican society.

Due to racism and other oppressive forces, Black women spend an inordinate amount of energy simply surviving (Byrd, 2009).

However, despite all of this, they have endured the effects of racism and sexism in America.

They not only survived but


(Beauboeuf - Lafontant, 2005).

The lived experiences of multiple oppression help shaped the consciousness of Black women.

It can be argued that scholars need to recognize that their special vantage point can provide a valuable and unique contributio n to the social sciences (Carter & Forsyth, 2007).

This study has shown how the development of resiliency and self -


determination allowed Black women to manage the interlocking effects of racism and sexism in America.

Definition of Terms

African American .

A n American who is of African Ancestry.

This term will be used interchangeably in the study.

Black American .

An American having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.

This term also describes a very diverse group of people in America who have

mixed races in their families.

For the purposes of this study, the researcher will use the term Black American

to differentiate between Americans who were born in the United States with possible slave ancestry and those Americans who were born in Africa a nd received their citizenship after choosing to become Americans.

Double j eopardy .


term used to describe the disadvantage status of people suffering from the compound effects of race and gender in the United States.

Empowerment .


process that challenges one ’ s assumptions about the way things are and can be.

It challenges the basic assumptions about power, helping, achieving, and succeeding.

Identity .


distinct personality of an individual ’ s sense of self and the identification of

values and belief system.


The ways in which social and cultural constructs interact, for example, race and gender.

Mammy .

A n offensive term used to describe a Black nursemaid.


Oppression .

A n unjust situation, in which, systematically, a nd over a long period of time, one group denies another group access to the resources of society.

Race, gender, class, sexuality, nation, age, and ethnicity constitute major forms of op pression.

Racial discrimination.

Unfair, differential treatment on the basis of race.

Racism .


system of unequal power and privilege in which humans are divided into groups or races with social rewards unevenly distributed to groups based on their racial classification.

Resilience .

T he ability to face adversity and flourish under it. Resiliency may also transform or make stronger the li ves of those who are resilient.



term used to describe a woman , usually Black, as rude, lewd, malicious,

and emasculating.

Self - d etermination .

T he act or power of making up one ’ s own

mind about what to think or do, without outside influence or compulsion.

Self - e steem .


favorable or unfavorable impression of oneself. An attitude towards one ’ s self, which can range from negative to positive.

Self - w orth .

H aving a quality of being worthy

of esteem or respect, one ’ s worth as a person.

Assumptions and Limitations


Research for women aims to emancipate women and improve their lives (Devault, 1999).

There are several assumptions in this research study and they are discussed as follows :



It was

assumed that Black women have achieved self - worth

and identity through their struggles and achievements before, during, and after gaining their civil rights.

It was

assumed that Black American women are satisfied with ach ieving higher educa tion, middle - class or upper - class status, and have overcome challenges and barriers of racism and sexism.

However, the assumption d id

not necessarily fit reality and the reality is that there are still challenges and bar riers to overcome (Reid

Trotman , 200 4).


It was

assumed that this research study show ed

the empowerment and resilience of Black women rather than focusing on their limitations. The research study also assume d

that the participants engage d

in a meaningful and productive discussion during the i nterview process and respond truthful ly to the interview questions.


It was

assumed that the researcher will set aside any biases and analyze the data objectively.

The separation between the participants and the researcher does not lead to objectivity, and a closer connection between the two may reconcile subjectivity and objectivity ( L. Thompson, 1992 ).


It was

assumed that all research is sustaining in value and Black women ’ s experiences can be considered a source and justification of knowledge (Olesen, 199 4).


It was

assumed that the data gathered from the research questions will be credible or believable from the perspective of the participants participating in the study.

Since from this perspective, the purpose of qualitative research is to describe or und erstand the phenomena of racism and sexism from the


participants ’

experiences .

The participants are the only ones who can legitimately judge the credibility of the results (Creswell, 2007).


As with any research study, there will be limitations.

The limitations will be discussed follows :


A limitation of the research study is the study size and generalizability.

This research study concentrate d

on in - depth interviews of 14

Black women, from the ages of 39 – 65 .

These is not a representation of the e ntire Black female population regarding the challenges that Black American woman face in American society but have

show n

how they develop ed

self - empowerment and resiliency despite the racism and sexism they may face in American society. In a qualitative st udy, the researcher uses sampling that is ideographic and focuses on the individual in order to understand the full complexity of the individual experience (Creswell, 2003).


A second limitation speaks to the lack of inclusion of class in this study.


race and gender were both considered in this research study, hooks (1990) wrote

that race, class, and gender cannot be separated .

Even though a number of scholars discuss the importance of considering race, class, and gender, when performing scholarly wor k, very few scholars actually do thes e types of studies (Brooks, 2006 ; P. H. Collins, 2000).


The purposive and snowball sampling method employed in this research study has led

itself to participants who have higher levels of education.

The higher level of education of women may result in their relating, understanding, and


explaining their individual experiences differently from less educated Black women.

This may be due to being taught to philosophize, critique, and engage the world differently .

One of the limitations of purposive and snowball sampling methodologies is the perception that like - minded individuals tend to collaborate and have the same mindset to solidity their beliefs (Miles & Huberman, 1994).


Another limitation of this research study is that of the challenge that the researcher ’ s position or personal interest will not bias the study (Marshall & Rossman, 2006).

Since the use of self is an integral part of qualitative research, it is important to be knowledgeable and aware of the methodological literature regarding this issue.

In order to avoid biasing the data, it is essential that this research study be guided by theory and empirical research.

Full document contains 179 pages
Abstract: The purpose of this study is to develop an understanding of the resiliency and self-determination that Black women have developed since arriving in America in order to cope with their unique challenges of racism and sexism in American society. This research study contributes to the human service field as it will bring awareness to how Black women experience the phenomenon of racism and sexism on their lived experiences and how they have thrived despite the numerous challenges they have faced. This research study explored and analyzed culturally relevant helping traditions that can be integrated into current social work and counseling practices that might help other individuals become self-determined and develop resiliency when facing adverse living experiences. Employing a phenomenological qualitative research method, data was collected using interviews of fourteen Black women between the ages of thirty-nine to sixty-five; all of whom have had direct experience with the phenomenon of the effect of racism and sexism being studied. Black Feminist Theory will be the drive behind this research study.