Fun fact: The very first article I ever wrote for The Root was titled, “5 Signs You’re About to Be Racially Fetishized.” It was early 2016, and I was a model and musician-turned-relationship-blogger dipping my toe into the shark-infested waters of online dating after reaching the milestone age of 40 as a newly single woman.
Suffice to say, it was a learning experience—especially as an “equal opportunity dater,” a longtime practice based more in pragmatism than preference (since I’ve been disappointed by partners of several races). In the process, I was not only subjected to men who clearly just wanted to know what it was like to date a black girl, but in the (apparently now-deleted) comments, I was branded everything from a “swirling aficionado” to a “negro bed wench.”
Fun fact: All of the above are forms of objectification.
So, when The Root’s Michael Harriot referred me to a new study from the Psychology of Women Quarterly journal titled, Revisiting the Jezebel Stereotype: The Impact of Target Race on Sexual Objectification, I wasn’t exactly shocked at its findings. Intended to “examine the possibility that Black women are visually objectified to a greater extent than their White counterparts, particularly when presented in a sexualized manner,” the research unsurprisingly indicated a higher rate of objectification of black women than white women. I say “unsurprisingly” because if black women are considered by a certain contingent of folks to be the so-called “mules of world,” so, too, are we considered by that contingent the less-than-human sexual objects, baby-making machines and bottomless receptacles for anti-black and anti-female rage and disparagement.
In fact, a perfunctory look at my comments sections on any given day frequently reveals offensive and obscene posts associating me and any number of the black women I regularly cover with animals, concubines, brutes, and strictly sexual vehicles, so much so that I barely batted an eye when I read the study’s intro:
We demonstrated that Black women are implicitly associated with both animals and objects to a greater degree than White women...We discuss the implications of such dehumanizing treatment of Black people and Black women in U.S. society.
Oh, you don’t say? The study went on to explain the “Jezebel” stereotype, defined as:
an alluring and seductive African American woman who is highly sexualized and valued purely for her sexuality ... She is reduced to her body and treated as little more than a tool that exists for the pleasure of others. Although hypersexuality and many features of the Jezebel stereotype can also be imposed on White women, the notion of the Jezebel is particularly pronounced for Black women, signifying their inferior status.
While that stereotype originated during the era of slavery, a variation on the jezebel persists to this day in the presentation of women in pop culture, particularly in hip-hop videos and marketing (proving that this issue in’t strictly a black-and-white issue).
“Rather than being shown as active agents in the clips, they are presented simply as decorative objects,” the study posited, “their sole purpose being to look attractive and desirable to male audiences.”
In fact, the dehumanization of black women extends into other areas; for instance, the fashion industry, where black women are more likely to be dressed in animal prints than white women. In fact, it’s a practice so common, during my two decades as a fashion model, I used to half-jokingly call it out every time it occurred, often to the embarrassment of creative teams. As the study confirmed:
Content analyses of fashion advertisements have demonstrated that Black women are often portrayed as predatory and animal-like. ...Black women were shown wearing animal print much more often than White women were—of the ads containing an animal-patterned print, 70% featured a Black woman in the advertisement.
And outside of the fashion industry, who can ever forget the animal print-heavy styling and predatory marketing of the Spice Girls’ Mel B. as “Scary Spice”?
But lest you think this is merely a question of aesthetics, there are very real and dangerous consequences of objectifying and dehumanizing others. If a glance at the current state of American immigrations doesn’t hip you to this fact, consider this conclusion of the study:
Research also suggests that the consequences of sexualization, including sexual violence, are far greater for Black women than they are for White women. For instance, Black survivors of rape are not only considered more sexually promiscuous than White women (Donovan, 2007), they are also less likely to have the experience defined as rape, are held more responsible, and others are less likely to believe the incident should be reported to authorities, compared to White survivors of rape (Foley, Evancic, Karnik, King, & Parks, 1995). A recent study found that individuals feel less willing and less obliged to intervene in a situation involving a Black woman at risk of sexual assault, compared to a situation in which her race is unspecified (Katz, Merrilees, Hoxmeier, & Motisi, 2017).
And that, unfortunately, is a reality very few black women needed academic research to make us aware of. Many of us live it every day; some of us since before puberty. As women of all races can attest, our dehumanization is directly and obviously correlated to instances of abuse and exploitation. The additional impact of racism simply compounds the issue.
So if that wasn’t a news flash, what is? By these academics’ account, this is the first research of its kind done on an issue that affects a significant portion of humanity—which should further indicate exactly how low black women and our issues are on the totem pole. And while we don’t need anyone to tell us these problems are impacting us, the lack of research bolstering the willful oblivion of those in a position to change it is exactly why this predicament persists.