Black Women in America: Peeling Back the Labels

Mar 01, 2012

A series of recent Washington Post stories and a national survey by The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation reflect a shifting portrait of black women in America. Among the highlights from the stories and the poll, which included interviews with more than 800 black women nationwide and represents the most extensive exploration of the lives and views of African American women in decades:

- Young black women see more opportunities for themselves than ever before.
- Black women are heavier than their white counterparts, but they also report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem.
- Many black women still worry about being discriminated against.

Discuss the stories, the Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post survey results and more with three participants from Wednesday night's "Behind the Headlines" panel at Howard University: Post reporter Krissah Thompson, Howard professor of social work Tricia Bent-Goodley, and Rahiel Tesfamariam, the founder of online magazine Urban Cusp, on Thursday at noon ET.

- Survey paints portrait of black women in America
- For some black women, economy and willingness to aid family strains finances
- African American women see their own challenges mirrored in Michelle Obama's
- Black women heavier and happier with their bodies than white women, poll finds

This is Rahiel of Thanks for joining us today! Really looking forward to the dialogue.

Thanks for joining the chat. We had a lively forum at Howard University last night and look forward to continuing the conversation here!

Hi, do you also include black women from Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world who arrived not long ago to America in this study?

For the Washington Post-Kaiser survey we interviewed 800 women in a scientific poll. The women were randomly selected for the interviews and included women across the social and educational spectrum. Not sure how many black women from Africa and the Caribbean were included but I know there were some.

Are Black women obese partly because they are overeating because they are experiencing pain (e.g. financial difficulties, lack of a partner) in healthy ways?

I believe it's a mixture of unhealthy eating habits, little exercise, dependent on the area - lack of access to quality foods, etc. It is also coping mechanisms. If stress relievers like spa treatments are not an option- food can become a crutch.

Aren't black women concerned about their health because of their weight. They do have higher incidences of weight-related health issues.Are they at all concerned about their health? Why are they overweight? Stress?

I think this is an important issue for Black women.  Stress has so many consequences in terms of how we respond to our life circumstances and all around us.  Sometimes we don't even know how stressed we actually are and have not identified signs to look for.  I believe that weight-related issues are often tied to stress and not having a healthy balance in our lives.  Good question!

It is stated "Young black women see more opportunities... " and yet " many black women still worry about being discriminated against." Seems contradictory. Explain please?

Our sense of double consciousness remains. This will always be a juggling act for Black women- understanding the reality of the socitety and history that informs how we are treated AND the power we individually possess to define ourselves for ourselves. Self-actualization is critical but discrimination cannot be ignored.

Do young, black professional women have a hard time finding a mate who is also black? Also, what is their opinion about dating and possibly marrying a non-black person? Is there pressure to marry within their own race?

I don't really see the contradiction in the statements.  Despite the discriminatory treatment we encounter and challenges we face as Black women, we continue to see the possibilities, have hope for the future, and can look beyond our circumstances.  I believe this ability is part of the strength of Black women.

Submitted by Shenna Ross: Has anyone on the panel worked in a pre-dominantly white or foreign workplace and been asked to 'open up?' What does that mean and what is that about?

Interesting question. I can't say for sure but I think there are cultural nuances at play. In one of my first journalism jobs I had a professional mentor, who was also a black woman. At the end of my internship, I got received a great evaluation. But I was told by an editor that his one concern was that he didn't feel like they got to know me. It took me aback. My professional mentor explained to me the importance of not just putting the "work face on" but being willing to share and socialize with your co-workers. It was an aha moment for me. I've put the advice into practice but I think it makes sense whether you're in a racially diverse work environment or not. Does that make sense?

Submitted by Saidat Ilo: The media makes these statements about how African American Women cannot find "a good black man" so I wanted to know from everyday African American women if it is really that difficult for a successful black woman to find a mate?

A lot of the young professional Black women that I know found their mates while in college or grad school. That is a window of time in which you are surrounded by peers who are supposedly "like-minded." When you leave the bubble of academia, social settings shift to work, church, clubs, etc. The terrain is bigger and not as limited in scope. So it's not that Black women aren't meeting Black men - it's that it becomes harder to filter/sift through all that's out there to find someone who meets that woman's individual needs.

Question submitted by Shermaine Jones: What with our black sisters shacking up and not taking the marriage vow sincerely?

I think some Black women are afraid to ask for what they want.  I believe there is a fear of losing a partner and so the woman often does everything she can not to "rock the boat".  Unfortunately, by not asking for what she wants, she ends up not being fully satisfied.  I think someone feel like not having a commitment through marriage makes the relationship more manageable for the male, and consequently, her expectations can diminish in case he doesn't "do the right thing".  Either of these situations leave women vulnerable economically, and otherwise.  It is important to know why you have made certain decisions and what they mean for you both now and the future implications.

Submitted by Tiffany A. Graham: How do I get my younger black female family members from believing everything they may read in a magazine or see on television? And how do I keep them from emulating these things?

Hi Tiffany, try exposing them to other parts of our community and other images of Black womanhood.  Explain where these negative images come from and what they mean.  Have them connect to a mentoring group in the community.

Submitted by Romella McNeil: What role does the way a Black woman chooses to wear her hair affect her opportunities (both work and love)?

While we are not defined by our hair, our hair does in fact inform how we are seen by others. Whether that's the boss that questions are professionalism because we rock afro puffs to work or the man that sees us as less beutiful because our hair isn't straightened. It's important to be in environments, personal and professional, that celebrate who we are. If they can't love you for you - ALL of you- go where you can be adored and appreciated.

Good afternoon. Ladies, I just want to say that I enjoyed the conversation yesterday at Howard University. It was very informative/enlightening. You sistahs are definitely articulate and confident. Avis

Thanks for that encouraging word! Greatly appreciated!

How much do today's black women view racism and sexism as a serious barrier? Is it any worse than the discrimination in our society against fat women, short men, or people with annoying nasal voices?

Majorities of black women said both racism and sexism remain big problems in America, according to the Post-Kaiser survey. Nearly half of black women also said they are at least somewhat worried about being a victim of discrimination.

We would have to do some more comprehensive surveys -- on the groups you mentioned -- to find out whether the feeling of discrimination is worse among those groups. 

Having trouble connecting to chat. Is this page the forum? Is it a twitter chat?FB? Not seeing or hearing anything.

Everything is in text form. Try refreshing your page to see our most recent responses to questions posted.

Submitted by Christine Newman: How much do you think blacks hold themselves back in education and careers through peer pressure not to "talk white?"  I have heard a young black woman in Chicago speak about how difficult it is for her to talk one way at high school and another way at home - she's trying to fit in, but gets grief from both sides, not just from other youth but from adult family members as well. And I've observed black high school students at a college fair disparage the classmate who dared to approach a selective university's table for information. Conversely, as a hiring manager, I definitely expect interviewees to use proper English. How big of a problem is this and what can be done about it?

We have to remind our community of our greatness.  We are masters of language both written and oral.  It is important for us to know our history in a way that young people can absorb and understand it.  Also, we have to show the value of education and that speaking proper English is not a negative thing but another part of our toolbox to succeed in America.  I like to think of it as having a second language.  If you are bilingual, you can speak differently based on where you are.  DuBois referred to this concept as dual consciousness.  We need to be more accepting of this notion as it applies in our everyday lives.

How many women participated in the study and how were the participants chosen?  Do the participants represent a cross-section of African-American women from all regions and  income, educational, socio-economic, achievement, etc. levels?  How can I get a copy of the survey report/results/publication? 

800 black women were a part of our nationwide scientific poll. It was national and covered a cross-section of African American women. Here is a link to the survey:

Submitted by Jeanise Ealey: Since women are more and more dominant in education, business, politics, and etc., with so much success and accomplishments in these areas what suggestions are there to promote healthy body, mind, and emotions through virginity and celibacy during singlehood? I ask this because these virtues are still upheld in women's lives in these modern times.

I applaud you for asking this question and recognizing that sexualy purity and celibacy are more common of Black women than we think or admit. It's important to be surrounded by people who share one's values and seek to live a similar lifestyle. Having like-minded friends helps counteract the cultural forces that lead us to think that EVERYONE is having sex. Everyone is not. A lot of Black women are so in love with God that they make daily decisions that put God over and above everything -including their own needs, wants and the men that they desire to be with. It's about having one's eyes set on eternity and not what's temporary. And any man that's can't wait for a woman - is a man not worthy of having her. Signed, A Minister :-)

My girlfriend saw that in the article and got upset by it. She wanted to know what proof there was to back that up and also pointed out that even though black women may be happier with their relative weight in this study, black women have still had to try to live up to European standards of beauty to be considered 'Beautiful'. This is evidenced by weaves, plastic surgery and the like. What do you all think?

Thanks for your question. There are studies that show black women have higher rates of obesity than other groups. Here is one from the U.S. Department of the Health and Human Services.

The story on black women and body image, which ran this week, answers some of the questions you raise. Black women are not monolithic of course. Standards of beauty vary. In the body image piece, black women spoke of not feeling the same pressue as other women describe to be a size two. 

Submitted by Rahima Rice-Marsh: What advice can you give to Black women working in positions where we need to be strong, direct and aggressive, but worry about presenting the stereotypical image of an "angry Black woman?"

Be aware of the stereotypes so you're not in the dark but then push past what ANYONE thinks. People's opinions are paralyzing. If you get stuck in them, you'll be trapped and unable to live fully into who you've been called to be. Know them but don't let them cripple you. If you're angry, it's ok to be angry :-)

Submitted by Omar Ashaka: How does the black American male factor into the outlook and goals of black women and how can the labels be truly peeled back for even the successful black American woman when chilling silence prevails about the ugliness mentioned above and how critical is it for the successful black American woman to raise her voice in protest against the many negative labels delivered by successful white males?

I'll try to tackle the first part of your question- how do black men factor into the outlook and goals of Black women. That is obsviously based on the individual. I personally believe that "Black love" is revolutionary - it is the work of community-building. It is what atones and heals generations of subjugation through inimate justice - Black men and women finding the power to love one another. Black men matter - a lot. But we are not limited to that love. Many of us simply go where love takes us, praying it' s a Black man that will come with us.

Our Latina sisters have quinceneras or a sweet sixteen type rite of passage. Are Black women in need of such an event passing from youth to young adulthood?

A lot of rites of passage programs have been important within our culture historically. There is tremendous value in them. The hope is that it would not be a materially-based event as we see on MTV but really about transformation and growth.

It has been claimed that 80% of hair products are purchased by Black women. What is it about hair that seems to be what Black females invest so much money?

Black women deeply care about being perceived as attractive and hair - outside of one's face - is the first thing you see. It matters b/c we want to be seen as beautiful. It of course is important for us to place great emphasis on internal beauty. We do not invest equally via $ in our psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being at times. That is very problematic. A lot of Black women need to take that $200+ from their weave budget and invest it in therapy! 

Do black women have white, hispanic, or Asian friends in general. Close friends? In general, do they date non-black men, or are they attracted to them or amenable to dating them, or is there social pressure to not date them?

Here's what we know from the survey:

48 percent of black women say that at least some of their close friends are of a different race

23 percent say most of their close friends are of a different race

50 percent of single black women say they have dated someone of a different race


Submitted by Deria Richardson: How can one successfully navigate the constructs of corporate America as a black woman? Should we engage in the game of office politics or hope that our work will speak for itself?  Is it necessary to assimilate in order to make others feel more at ease, or should we be comfortable with maintaining our sense of self? How should we handle instances where we feel we are being discriminated against?

As I said last night, we have some soul-searching to do. Let's invest less in how we look and more in who we are. That determines who we are in the corporate world and elsewhere. As it relates to "office politics," I have my stories and the biggest lesson I have ever learned is to trust that God will fight my battles for me. That means I don't have toever "assimilate" but I of course may have to compromise.  Discrimination should be seen as an immediate human resource issue and could even be a legal matter; don't take it lightly.

One thing that strikes me about all these surveys and dialogues is that they are always so hetero-normative. Do your surveys take into account women who do not want children, do not want to be married, or women who are LGBT? Does the marriage statistic take domestic partnerships into account? I would just like dialogues to represent a fuller, more inclusive, and diverse vision of the Black female experience. I always feel as if my perspective is on the fringes during these dialogues and I actually don't fit into the aforementioned categories. So I can only imagine how isolated women in those categories actually feel...

Sharing this comment/question.

Will say that 57 percent of black women say that they have a family member of close friend who is gay or lesbian. 

Our survey, which is random, captured black women across all of the categories you listed.

Submitted by James Sherard: What do you feel Black men must do to be more supportive of Black women's goals, aspirations and self image?

It would be great to see more Black men being vulnerable - being ok with their own emotions and weaknesses. Embracing not knowing and being scared. The more vulnerable Black men are - the more they support Black women in all those arenas. Black men must first be what they want to see in Black women. It relates to all those facets you named.

Did you ask questions about contraception/reproductive issues in the survey? Are there any differences in the views/conceptions in this issue in black women compared with white or latino women?

We did not  ask questions about contraception. Majorities of black women in the survey did say having a child without being married is acceptable.

Black women are excellent at caring for everyone else. What can Brothers do to start taking care of them? How do you know when you have a supportive Brother who will take care of you as you do him? How do we raise our young Black men to be supportive Brothers in this regard.

Black men need  to ask that specific Black woman what she needs and wants. There are of course universals like listening, protecting, creating outlets for stress relief, etc. but men must always ask and not assume all women want the same things for support.

Lately many of the publications/blogs, etc. that I read all seem to encourage black women to consider marrying white men as a solution to the black male shortage, my black male friends believe that it is a conspiracy to hinder strong black families, why does this seem to be the trend lately. Why haven't those same articles touted black men of other cultures such as (African, Caribbean or South/Central American decent). Why only white men??

I'm not sure which articles you are referring to but a recent book by a Standford professor has been much written about. It is titled: "Is Marriage for White People?" The author argues that black women should look broadly for mates -- not just to black men but across ethnic lines. He doesn't limit the conversation to black-white relationships.

Why does it seem that black women are constantly being put under a microscope? What's with all of the surveys and articles constantly telling us how alone/poor/fat we are?

Zora Neale Hurston's "mule of the world" reference for Black women is something to think about. But a lot of it has to do with our resilience. I really believe that many are simply in awe of how tenacious so many Black women are. We can take a kickin' and keep on tickin :-)

Are there any plans in the works to keep these conversations going? There are thousands of outlets (blogs, sites, etc...) but they don't present continuity. Is there an opportunity here to start something with longevity in mind?

Thanks for the question. The Washington Post has two platforms where these kinds of conversations are always happening. and

Check them out, comment and contribute.

Submitted by Sondai Costley: As change agents, can you discuss the importance of entrepreneurship in regards to creating wealth through our own businesses and initiatives?

Absolutely important not only in wealth but in "time affluence" - we need to have greater control over our time. Entrepreneurship is a  factor in that!

I'm not sure I agree with you on the weight issue and believe you perpetuate some unhealthy stereotypes. Genetics have played a KEY role in the physicality of black women. After all, slave women who could not keep their weight were not successful in bearing multiple children. So, as America becomes a more over weight society because of stress, diet and lack of exercise, black women have greater physiological challenges to maintain a "healthy weight," whatever that means. I know plenty of black women who diligently shop at Whole Foods and regularly exercise but are "larger" than my white friends who have similar habits.Unfortunately, I do not know of any studies that compare how black women burn calories compared to white women. Do you?

Sharing this comment. Anyone know the answer to the question?

Submitted by Paulette Foxx-Dawodu: How do we help to re-engineer the negative perception of African American women as leaders, mothers, wives and role-models in the community?

Start with yourself and your immediate circle of influence- that's where you have the greater control and power. Everything else will be a ripple effect, including the systemic changes that can usher.

Are black women really listening to Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden? Does the representation of black women presented by black men in media seem to be impacting us? We worry about vanity fair impacting young black women, but are we considering the impact of the Steve Harvey's and Michael Baisdens who get air time and present their limited views of who and what black women are.

Add to that all the Black male pastors that control have masses of Black women think. There's a problem with so much of our self-understanding coming from men. More women need to be writing, speaking , leading , preaching, etc.

Black female supervisors are oftentimes not supportive. They are not willing to mentor other Black female workers. Further, it feels like they are trying so hard to NOT replicate bad behaviors of their past supervisors that they don't really know how to be a good supervisors. I've been in those situations and ended up leaving an organization because of it. How is this managed?

I haven't had this experience but will say it is important to seek out mentors -- whether they are your direct supervisors or not. I hope you've learned what NOT to do. Sometimes that is the best lesson to learn from an ineffective boss.

For so long higher education was encouraged. Do you find it now interesting (and somewhat a slap in the face) that black women are leading in the education ranks and now being ostracized for it

That critique only matters if we let it matter. We know why education matters to us, we know we need it and we know society demands it. That's all that matters. We gotta get the job done regardless of what anyone says.

What was the reason this survey was conducted in the first place?

Hi there. I wrote about this is a blog post a few weeks back. 

There are several reasons: Black women themselves have been having more conversations about what it means to be a black woman today. (See the 2011 books “Black Woman Redefined” and “Sister Citizen,” which capture a part of the conversation.)

Of course first lady Michelle Obama, just by virtue of being the first black woman in her position, has sparked much of this discussion. And then there’s the disproportionate impact of this recent recession on black women and a raft of fascinating data from the federal government. For example, black women as a group have made major career gains and also are the group least likely to be married. Those data points spark questions and discussion.

But most important, our journalism is undergirded by a national poll by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation that asks black women where they stand on a range of issue. It’s one of the largest such surveys in decades — perhaps since the 1980s.

I think there are other stress relievers available besides spa treatment. Healthy coping mechanisms like meditation, yoga, walking in nature, playing with your dog, etc. do not require money. But all of that requires knowing you have a problem in the first place and wanting to change. Sorry, your statement just irritated me. Turning to food is a complex problem not solved by seaweed facials.

Publishing another comment.

Thank you for leading such a needed discussion! How can we, as student leaders, empower our fellow black women to better their lives at the collegiate level and in the future, and encourage them to empower the women and girls in their families and communities?

First lead by example. Be who you say you would like them to be. Ensure they have a sense of duty to their community and not just themselves. From that will come the "righteous discontent" that compels them to continuously ask: what's wrong and how can I personally work to fix it?

Did you classify Latino women as black, white, or were they excluded?

Unfortunately, in this survey we were not able to include Latinas. I, personally, hope we will be able to launch similar polls of other groups of women and men in the future.

I am a female at Howard student and I often see that the young men at HU have a different, more progressive definition of beauty than men who attended PWIs. Why do you think that is?

Perhaps Howard's rich HBCU and civil rights history. The fact that it is situated in DC. Present leaders who shape the vision. But as a someone who went to a PWI, I can say that being surrounded by white folks made me so much more aware of race and class. A lot of HBCU students can take that for granted b/c blackness becomes the normative.

Do you think the media's celebration of interracial couples is the reason why more black men are beginning to date outside of our race?

That could be a factor. It could also be that Black women aren't as limited by racial confines and are asking themselves what they personally want. What does happiness look like for them. And it of course speaks to the fact that we're all growing up in different communities where some Black women have spent their lives surrounded by non-Black men.

I think there is a need for us to dispel the myth of the monolithic black experience. Can you all talk some about how African immigrants are changing what it means to be African American. How can we be more inclusive in our data collection to include

You may be interested in a documentary called "Neo African Americans":

Submitted by Raymond Blanks: Given that nearly 50 % of Black household are female led, what kinds of specific supports and services are required from the community to better assist women to more effectively raise their children?

From a community origanizing model, we must start by asking those women directly what they need versus telling them what we will offer them.

Jackson (UMich) and other researchers have documented that stress can lead to unhealthy life behaviors. How do we help Black women uniquely destress?

A mix of education and supportive practices. We need to help one another be informed on how to destress but we also need to create outlets for that to become increasingly possible.

Thanks for joining us and for your interest in the series, Black Women in America. Stay tuned. There are more stories coming.

I just want to thank everyone for your questions and the time you've taken out of your busy schedules to chat with us. Please feel free to connect with me on Twitter @ RahielT or @UrbanCusp and you can also find me at Let's keep the dialogue going! Be blessed!

In This Chat
Tricia Bent-Goodley
Dr. Tricia B. Bent-Goodley is professor of social work at Howard University's School of Social Work. Bent-Goodley's research has focused on violence against women and girls, HIV prevention, healthy relationship education, engaging men and fatherhood. She has developed community- and faith-based interventions in domestic violence and relationship education with a focus on strengthening the black family. She is the author/co-author of four books concerning social policy and people of color, with her most recent book, The Ultimate Betrayal, focusing on how to address domestic violence.
Krissah Thompson
Washington Post reporter covering race, politics and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Rahiel Tesfamariam
Rahiel Tesfamariam is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine, and contributing blogger to The Root DC. At age 23, Tesfamariam was appointed the youngest editor-in-chief in the history of The Washington Informer, an African American-owned newspaper founded in 1964. Tesfamariam has been recognized as a "practical visionary" by the Institute for the Future and "Top 40 Under 40" honoree by the EnVest Foundation.
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