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Sapphire: Exploring The Power Of A Popular Stereotype



Integrating concepts from Psychodynamic Theory and Black Feminist Theory, I explore the power of the popular stereotype of Black women as Sapphires. Specifically, I discuss how relational disconnections stemming from disordered intrapsychic, interpersonal, and systemic processes, create a reinforcing cycle of Black women's oppression resulting in both mental and physical compromises for Black women, and spiritual compromises for holders of the stereotype. This conceptual paper concludes with suggestions for future research within this area.
Sapphire 1
Running head: SAPPHIRE
Sapphire: Exploring the Power of a Popular Stereotype
Nyasha Grayman, PhD
New York University
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
Department of Applied Psychology
University of Delaware
College of Human Services, Education, and Public Policy
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Association of Black Psychologists Psych Discourse, 39, 10 - 13. (2005)
KEYWORDS: Stereotypes, African American Women, Black Women.
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Integrating concepts from Psychodynamic Theory and Black Feminist Theory, I explore
the power of the popular stereotype of Black women as Sapphires. Specifically, I discuss how
relational disconnections stemming from disordered intrapsychic, interpersonal, and systemic
processes, create a reinforcing cycle of Black women's oppression resulting in both mental and
physical compromises for Black women, and spiritual compromises for holders of the stereotype.
This theoretical paper concludes with suggestions for future research within this area.
Sapphire 3
A survey of current scholarship (Daufin, 1998; Gillum, 2002; Harrison, 1999; Jones &
Shorter-Gooden, 2003; Weitz & Gordon, 1993; West, 2000; West, 1995) and popular culture
since the 1970's (e.g. television, film, and books) suggests a persistence of the Sapphire
stereotype of Black women first made popular during the 1930's by the enormously successful
and controversial Amos 'n Andy Show. Sapphire, the nagging and emasculating wife of George
"Kingfish" Stevens, a scheming but personable ne'er-do-well and star of the show, casts Black
women as uniformly antagonistic and confrontational (Bell-Scott, 1982; Gosden & Correll,
1951; Gosden & Correll, 1952; Gosden & Correll, 1953; Jenkins, 2001; Jeyell, 1993; Jones &
Shorter-Gooden, 2003; West, 1995). At the height of its television popularity in 1951 and 1952,
Amos 'n Andy had a weekly audience conservatively estimated at 31 million (McLeod, 2001).
Translated into meaningful numbers, approximately one out of every five Americans was tuned
into Sapphire regularly. It has been nearly forty years since the NAACP successfully lobbied to
have Amos 'n Andy permanently taken off of the air (Schutz, 2001; Ingram, 2001), yet the
Sapphire metaphor continues as a powerful relational image influencing interpersonal
interactions with Black women.
Like all stereotypes, Sapphire, also referred to as the Angry Black Woman (ABW) and
The Bitch (see Jenkins, 2000; Simmons, 1988), is grounded in a partial truth many Black
females challenge in a direct and assertive way (Turner, 1997; Ward, 1996; Ward, 2000).
However, this partial truth becomes distorted through the Sapphire stereotype in that the behavior
is often taken out of its context, is exaggerated in a negative way, and is rigidly concretized. For
example, on the Amos 'n Andy Show, Sapphire is more often than not shown relating with her
husband Kingfish in a way that is not only confrontational, but also castrating.
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Yet, the viewer is never brought into the larger oppressive and demoralizing world in which
Sapphire and Kingfish are forced to exist- a racist and sexist world in which Black men are given
few opportunities for economic advancement, and Black women are pushed to play out the
superwoman role to meet the needs of those around her. This omission falsely leads the viewer to
interpret Sapphire's behavior as an inherent trait common among Black women, rather than an
adaptive defense against oppressive forces within a system that places Black women at the
bottom of America's social hierarchy. Rarely is Black women's challenging behavior
conceptualized as a learned form of resistance against threats of powerlessness and annihilation.
Looking at the phenomenon through this lens would require that we focus our attention on the
systems that give rise to the individual behavior, and the individuals/groups who perpetuate those
dysfunctional systems, rather than on the individual herself. Instead, it has been easier to think of
this behavior as an innate character flaw found in Black women. But, internalized rigid relational
images such as these set everyone up to experience relational ruptures and dis-ease. The
remainder of this paper is dedicated to unpacking how this phenomenon manifests as a result of
simultaneous processes taking place on the intrapsychic, interpersonal, and institutional levels.
Rigid Relational Images and Relational Disconnections
Relational images are mental representations of patterned interactions. These
representations embody our impression of our current interpersonal reality, and help us to
anticipate the nature of our relational lives in the future (Miller & Stiver, 1997). When we hold
relational images that are flexible and dynamic, we open ourselves to the possibilities of
experiencing connection with others, and ultimately, growth and fulfillment. However,
relational images that are rigid leave us vulnerable to interpersonal disconnections and spiritual
Sapphire 5
The negative stereotype of Black women as Sapphires exemplifies a rigid relational
image that not only adversely affects the image holder, but also compromises the welfare of
Black women, the object of the holder's projection. For example, in research on interpersonal
abuse, scholars have found a link between stereotypic relational images of Black women as
aggressive and antagonistic, and perpetrators' justifications for engagement in relationship
violence. This connection has been shown among both adults and youth (Gillum, 2002; Harrison,
1999; West, 2000). From an object-relations perspective, the holder has split him/herself into two
separate objects one good, the other bad. In this case, one passive, the other aggressive.
Splitting happens when an individual cannot tolerate the notion of an integrated self that is both
concurrently good and bad (Mitchell & Black, 1996). Mental processes become very
black/white, either/or. Out of fear of annihilation at the hand of the bad self (i.e., the aggressive
self), the holder purges him/herself of the bad self by projecting that self onto another, a host.
Because active resistance in service of survival has been an integral part of the Black woman's
lived experience within this society, Black women become easy hosts or objects of the unwanted
aggressive projections of others.
Ironically, those who repeatedly engage in the projection of the aggressive bad self onto
the Black woman are also oftentimes co-conspirators in the perpetuation of systems that force
Black women to be challenging and actively resistant as a means of self-preservation. Equally
ironic is the evidence from the research that suggests that the perception of other as aggressive
can serve to rationalize aggression on the part of the image holder-the very same aggression that
the holder found intolerable in the first place!
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That being said, it is important to note that problems arising in connection to the
persistence of rigid and negative relational images of Black women are not limited to physical
violence. Even in instances where no physical assault has been committed, relational images like
Sapphire can have devastating effects on a Black woman's physical and mental well-being.
Mental health clinicians, in describing their work with Black women, have highlighted the
significance that undoing the damage of internalized stereotypes like Sapphire can take in
therapy (see Daniel, 2000; Sparks, 1996; Turner, 1997; West, 1995 for examples). In their
research, Jones and Shorter-Gooden also found that Black women who violate the stereotype of
Sapphire also pay a heavy price, setting up a lose-lose situation for members of this group
(2003). Additionally, medical professionals have commented on the ways in which these images
can result in systematized differential healthcare treatment for Black women (see Taylor, 1999
for an example). In each instance, relational disconnections resulting from projected and
internalized negative, rigid relational images are likely to have psychological consequences such
as: (1) diminished energy; (2) disempowerment or inability to act; (3) identity confusion; (4)
diminished sense of relational self-worth; and (5) avoidance of intimate relationships among
Black women (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991; Miller & Stiver, 1997).
As stated earlier, those who repeatedly engage in the projection of the aggressive bad self
onto the Black woman are also oftentimes co-conspirators in the perpetuation of systems of
Black women's oppression. In the next and final section of this paper, I will discuss specifically
how White male control and exploitation of various domains of social power have aided the
persistence of the Sapphire stereotype and relational disconnections with Black women.
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Exploitation of Power and Relational Disconnections
The meaning of exploitative power and its function in maintaining relational
disconnections is a central, yet often overlooked, issue in cross-cultural literature. Power as it is
commonly defined, is the capacity to produce desired effects on others; it can be perceived in
terms of mastery of self as well as over nature and other people (Heller, 1985; Wrong, 1980).
According to Pinderhughes, "a sense of power is critical to one's mental health. Everyone needs
it" (1989, p. 110). History has also shown that both individuals and groups will go to great
lengths to acquire and hold onto power including exploiting another's inability to get it. Collins
(2000) speaks to the abuse of power in our society within a matrix of domination that gets played
out in four interlocking power domains: (1) structural, (2) disciplinary, (3) hegemonic, and (4)
The structural domain of power organizes oppression within large-scale interrelated
social institutions such as the law, healthcare, the labor market system, and the media (Collins,
2000). The oppressive relational image of Black women as Sapphires was first generated, and
continues to be propagated, primarily within the various industries that comprise the media (e.g.
television, film, and books), a significant institution under this domain (Jewell, 1993). Recalling
some of the research on interpersonal abuse (Gillum, 2000; Harrison, 1999; West, 2000), the
notion of Black women as aggressive, confrontational Sapphires, a notion made popular by the
media, can lead to attitudes that Black women in particular, need to be watched, dominated, and
controlled. The disciplinary domain of power manages the organization of oppression within
interlocking social systems (Collins, 2000). On an interpersonal level, this control may happen
through the use of physical intimidation, as in the case of violence against Black women, but on
Sapphire 8
a larger systems level, it is more likely to take place through the more subtle use of bureaucratic
surveillance (Collins, 2000).
Exploitation within the hegemonic domain of power aims to justify discriminatory
practices within the structural and disciplinary domains through the manipulation of ideas,
images, symbols, and ideologies. Control of "common knowledge" helps dominant groups
maintain their power and authority (Collins, 2000). For example, White men as a group
have, over time, maintained their control of both the structural and disciplinary domains of
power most effectively through their control of hegemony (Collins, 2000; Turner, 1994).
The media, controlled predominantly by White men, provides a major forum in which
racist and sexist relational images of Black women as aggressive Sapphires come to life.
These images have a major impact on shaping society's consciousness of Black
womanhood. Through the years, negative, rigid relational images of Black women have
been projected onto characters such as Sapphire from Amos 'n Andy, Dee from What's
Happenin'?, Florence from the Jefferson’s, and Lena James from A Different World.
However, because most of the consumers of these television images are disconnected from
the private spheres of Black women's lives, most do not realize that what they see is not a
reflection of reality, but rather White men's representation of their perception of reality
(Croteau & Bargh, 2003; Entman, 2001; Wilson & Gutierrez, 1995). In considering the
potential power of these images, remember that at the height of its television popularity,
one in five Americans tuned into Sapphire weekly. Applying the sentiments of Jones in a
chapter on institutional racism (1997), those who have limited daily contact with Black
women within both the public and private spaces of Black women's lives are most
susceptible to internalizing the Sapphire image put forth by the media. Those who control
Sapphire 9
the structural, disciplinary, and hegemonic domains of power were largely represented
among Amos 'n Andy's 31,000,000 viewers in 1951 and 1952, and they continue to be
among the majority of those disconnected from the private spheres of Black women's lives.
Finally, the interpersonal domain influences individual consciousness and everyday lived
experience (Collins, 2000). Earlier, I discussed how the individual lived experience of Black
women as resisters, and the psychodynamic processes of splitting and projecting, interact to
shape interpersonal disconnections with Black women. When those holding negative, rigid
relational images of Black women also control the larger systems of social power, a reinforcing
cycle of Black women's oppression is created that becomes a part of a Black woman's lived
experienced. As we consider how rigid relational images lead to disconnections with Black
women, it is important to reiterate that Black women are not the only casualties of this system.
Those who hold rigid relational images of Black women also suffer (see Spanierman, &
Heppner, 2004), as they cut themselves off from a significant opportunity for growth and
fulfillment by disconnecting from a part of their own humanity.
The negative, rigid relational image of Black women as Sapphires plays a powerful role
in experiences of relational disconnections with Black women. This image, produced and
reinforced within various interlocking domains of power, can ultimately leave the image holder
and Black women, the object of projection, in a state of emotional dis-ease. In future research,
scholars may want to further consider the psychological consequences of being both the image
holder and the object of projection simultaneously, that is, the consequences that unfold when
Black women identify with, and internalize negative relational images like Sapphire. This
phenomenon would be particularly interesting to study through the lens of Black women's
Sapphire 10
relationships with each other. Additional research is also needed around what happens when this
image invades the minds of men who are intimately connected to Black women in private spaces,
namely Black men. Previous studies have highlighted how stereotypic images can lead to
relationship violence, but further exploration is needed around other potential consequences,
such as the effects of internalized images like Sapphire on the dating and marital attitudes of
heterosexual Black men (see Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2003 for a discussion).
Further investigations around White male perceptions of Black women are also
warranted. With the exception of one study by Weitz & Gordon (1993) examining White college
students images of Black women, most of what we know of White men's attitudes comes from
social analyses of large-scale systems and Black women's narratives of their subjective
experience. The creation of relational images like Sapphire are largely believed to be a
manifestation of unconscious processes; but, additional research that empirically examines
images of Black women that exist in the minds of White men on a conscious level could prove to
offer major contributions to both the fields of Black feminist studies and White cultural studies.
Finally, greater production of work that looks at how we, as a society, can transform
relational disconnections with Black women and move toward greater healing and growth are
needed. I believe that mental health scholar-practitioners, as individuals trained to analyze and
heal the wounds of the heart, are in a uniquely advantageous position to take on this challenge.
The gaining momentum of the positive psychology movement seems to support my assertion that
transforming disconnections with Black women into connections will be a viable topic for social
scientists to pursue.
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