The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Beyond #BlackGirlMagic: Representation in Mentoring Matters

Black Girls Create Activity Being Black and a girl--in a society that assigns negative stereotypes to individuals based on one’s race and gender--is often wrought with challenges. Negative stereotypes that have been assigned to Black girls and young women are based on historical controlling images such as the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire that were created to justify white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal cultural norms of racism, sexism, dehumanization, domination, exploitation, and oppression (Hooks, 1981; Stephens, Phillips, & Few, 2009).  Over the last few years, social media hashtags have helped to bring the marginalized experiences of Black girls and young women to the center of society’s consciousness. Hashtags such as #sayhername, #blacklivesmatter, #ifidieinpolicecustody, #thisiswhatadoctorlookslike, #blackgirlsmatter, #bringbackourgirls, #growingupblack,  #staymadabby, and #blackexcellence have provided global spaces to discuss and bring awareness to the complexity of growing up Black and female in America. The #blackgirlmagic hashtag phrase is used to recognize, congratulate, and commend Black girls and women who have demonstrated extraordinary strength by debunking negative stereotypes and achieving success.  In 2013, CaShawn Thompson began using #blackgirlsaremagic to celebrate the beauty, power, and resilience of Black women and girls (Wilson, 2016).

While social media platforms provide viable opportunities for Black girls to disseminate diverse images of Black women and girls, it is equally important for them to have access to and connect with mentors who represent their race, gender, class, and lived experiences. Evidence suggests that Black girls who have access to relatable, adult Black women who are able to connect with them in unique ways have lower academic, social, and cultural risks than Black girls who do not have access to gender and race-matched mentors (Lindsay-Dennis, Cummings, & McClendon, 2011; Watson, 2016).  Gender and race-matched mentors, particularly those are viewed as successful in their communities, provide unique opportunities for Black girls to connect with role models who have “lived through” similar experiences and achieved success despite their circumstances.

Mentor Advises ParticipantsIt's important for Black girls to have mentors who represent their race, gender, class, and lived experiences.Positive mentoring relationships are not only beneficial to mentees, Black women mentors show psychosocial gains from their interactions with Black girl mentees (Brown, 2009; Green & King, 2001;Gamble 2014; Lindsay-Dennis, Cummings & McClendon 2011).  The positive outcomes that could be gained for the Black girl mentees and Black women mentor can be best described using two of the four principles of of Black Feminist Epistemology (Collins, 2000). Principle #1: criteria for meaning argues that those individuals who have lived through the experiences in which they claim to be experts are more credible than those who have not. Essentially, this translates into credibility and trust in mentoring relationship between Black girls and Black women. Principle #2: use of dialogue in accessing knowledge encourages connectedness and provides contexts for Black girls and women to connect on a deeper level.

Noted Black Girlhood Scholar, Ruth Nicole Brown (2009) inquires, “What kind of a space could be created where Black women and girls could come together and be recognized and valued for our diverse ways of being--where we could see ourselves and/or high, but above all, be recognizable and accountable to each other (if we so chose)?” My response to this question is that safe spaces within and outside of social media are needed for Black girls and women to debunk negative stereotypes, empower each other, and cultivate relationships that lead to positive outcomes.

LaShawnda Lindsay-DennisLaShawnda Lindsay-Dennis, Ph.D., (pictured in the top photo above) is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College where she leads The Black Girls Create Project, a culturally responsive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program seeks to increase underserved girls' interest and confidence in science and math through mentorship and practical experience.

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Poverty, Black Women, and HIV

About twenty years ago, I received some unbearable news about a dear friend.  A highly intelligent, strong, and beautiful woman of African-descent revealed to me that she contracted HIV as a result of having unprotected sex with a man who had the virus. Twenty years ago, I was convinced that the virus was an automatic death sentence for my friend. Thankfully, with advances in medical technology, not only is she still with us but she is healthy and thriving. However, keep in mind that she has the necessary resources that are needed in order to take care of herself, so she can successfully manage her overall health. She is middle class, has a good health insurance plan, has access to the appropriate health care, and has a supportive social network that encourages her to maintain her health.

However, the reality is that many Black women who contract the virus are not as fortunate as my friend. Black women mainly contract the virus through sexual activity with infected men. Many who contract the virus not only must live with HIV but also poverty. As a result, there are higher morbidity and mortality rates among Black women as compared to other racial communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are 18 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than are White women and due to lack of resources have an increased chance that they will die from AIDS. The theories surrounding this staggering racial disparity are complex. However, much of the discourse among published research discusses poverty as one of the main risk factors for the contraction of HIV among this marginalized group.

Research has demonstrated that poverty and HIV are inextricably linked. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 20 percent of Blacks live in poverty vs. only eight percent of Whites. An impoverished woman is much more likely to have an insufficient education about sexual health practices, less access to proper health care, as well as a reduced amount of access to appropriate contraception (i.e., condoms). In addition, research suggests that life stressors fueled by poverty can be the catalyst for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Such sequela may affect the sexual behavior/practices of women living in poverty that are detrimental to overall health.

This problem is systemic and multifaceted. Addressing this issue through actions based upon the ideals of social justice is key to preventing its escalation. There are several organizations that are dedicated to addressing HIV among Black women including the Black Women’s Health Imperative and the National Black Leadership on HIV/AIDS.

Katherine E. Morrison,KatherineMorrisonPhD Ph.D., is a former post-doctoral intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women.  She is currently the coordinator of the Health & Wellness major at Curry College, Milton, MA. She specializes in the prevention of disease and injury among marginalized populations including communities of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.

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