Girls and women of color often have to deal with the dual effects of racism and sexism. But few studies to date have looked at how Black teenage girls internalize this gendered racism and the ramifications of racist messages and stereotypes on their overall sexual health.
In a new study entitled “Feeling Invisible & Unheard: A Qualitative Exploration of Gendered-Racist Stereotypes’ Influence on Sexual Decision Making and Mistreatment of Black Teen Girls,” Yale School of Public Health Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara, Ph.D., LMSW, M.P.H., and colleagues find that Black teenage girls face a number of gendered racist stereotypes that can impact their decision making in romantic relationships, lower their self-esteem and leave them feeling powerless and invisible to others. The study used Black feminist thought as a guiding framework.
The researchers said the findings emphasize the importance of incorporating elements of Black feminist thought into prevention programming as well as providing Black teenage girls with appropriate tools and resources to challenge negative stereotypes. Support from adult allies in school (e.g. teachers and counselors) and family settings is also vital in helping Black teenage girls navigate these challenges during a critical period in their development.
“The burden of protecting Black girls should not be placed on the shoulders of Black girls alone, but on the shoulders of adult allies who can honor their innocence as children and adolescents and provide them safe spaces to develop their identities in a healthy and positive way,” the researchers wrote in the study.
The research is an offshoot of a larger study funded by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) that was led by Yale School of Medicine Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Kimberly Hieftje, Ph.D., M.S., (a co-author of the Feeling Invisible study) and Opara in which the investigators created a multiplayer video game designed to help Black teenage girls make healthy dating decisions.
Opara said feedback the investigators received during the video game’s development led them to pursue a separate study focusing on the impact of gendered racism on Black teenage girls.
“A lot of what came out [of the initial research] were these stereotypes that were placed on [Black teenager girls] — this oversexualization of how they look, and how they are treated, and how their mistreatment is often ignored,” she said.
Using qualitative interviews, the researchers asked a cohort of Black teenage girls what they would like to see in the video game. Several clear themes emerged, Opara said, when the girls were asked to describe how they viewed sexual behavior, as well as the risk factors they had to face.
“The questions weren’t directly focused on racism and sexism, but those topics just naturally came out,” she said.
The Feeling Invisible study found that Black teenage girls are very much aware of how others perceive and oversexualize their bodies. They feel as though they are held to a different standard when compared to their white peers, and many feel physically and emotionally unsafe in their own surroundings.
Racial stereotypes also contribute to a sense of powerlessness, the study said. The Black girls participating in the study felt they were constantly being judged according to racist stereotypes that portray them as prudish and promiscuous — even if they abstain from sex. This, in turn, makes it harder for Black girls to set boundaries in their sexual decision-making process, according to the study.
The researchers also found that gendered racist stereotypes can be propagated within families and communities. In their interviews, some Black girls said they internalized their victimization, as they felt their trauma would only be minimized if they shared it with others. For many of the participants, the study provided a rare opportunity to voice their concerns and openly engage in discussions on healthy relationships and sexual interactions, the researchers said.
Opara said more research is needed to explore the common themes identified in the study. She acknowledged the study’s research cohort was small (27) and not an entirely representative sample of the Black teenage girl population.
Still, she believes that the initial results provide important insights into the impact gendered racist stereotypes are having on the sexual health and well-being of Black teenage girls. These insights, Opara said, can help guide the creation of appropriate interventions to counter these stereotypes and promote positive development among Black teenage girls.
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- William Pang