Imagine for a moment when people looked upon your face they assumed you to be promiscuous, dirty, and un-virtuous. Imagine each friendship, courtship, and interview you had in all circumstances, professional and personal, required that you justify your character rather than presuming it. Such a life would feel belittling. Such a life would incline you to believe that perhaps you are not virtuous, for why would such a great many people question your integrity if there was nothing to question. Indeed, you may very well be more virtuous than most of your peers, but, nonetheless, you are questioned.
This is a narrative more often lived than discussed about. It is a plight that most colored women face every day of their lives, one that goes unheard. We read in Jacobs of the intimate tie that virtue had to slavery, that those enslaved were forcibly corrupted by the very institution of slavery, such that they were incapable of purity in any way. The systemic nature of this corruption was not just passed down by experience either, no, it was hereditary and based deeply on appearance. Sure, a free black woman may be free her entire life, able to protect herself from the improprieties of others in HER life, but nonetheless she is the product of intolerable immorality; her mothers, fathers, siblings, all come from a line of rape, ignorance, and abuse.
This is the ethos embedded in the sexual and moral integrity of colored women in America. Now I recognize that this is not always the case, fortunately some are able to look upon this community with fresh and honest eyes, but the tarnish of history remains whether we want it to or not. The fact that this community has so little control over what it means to be virtuous puts them in a permanent disadvantage in all manner of things: family, work, social standing, but particularly the political arena where integrity is everything. Colored women are more disproportionately represented in government than any other community, particularly black and Hispanic women.
Virtue is then almost a gift for anyone not fitting the traditional look of the American white woman. It is rationed out according to who is best able to prove their worth relative to that standard, and it means that virtue is possessed not by these women but by those who bestow it. This takes control of identity and virtue away from minority women and vests that power elsewhere, and the consequences of this power dynamic are clear.
Now I do not purport to know how to fix this problem, but it is important to acknowledge that it is indeed a problem. The first step to addressing this problem is making those who perpetuate it aware of it. And this is important not just to right a wrong, but as both Douglass and Jacobs taught us that slavery corrupts and ruins the master and the slave, so to does this narrative of virtue. White women, who could perhaps be called the beneficiaries of this narrative, may enjoy the presumption of virtue, but they also suffer the consequences of that presumption. They are placed on a pedestal of purity, expected to behave certain ways, to be protected by men, and more.
I encourage my readers who benefit from this narrative, or to those who cannot see it, to give it a chance before dismissing it as foolish. The consequences of what I assert are far more subtle and nuanced than the pointed language I use here; we (as white men and women) often don’t ourselves feel those consequences directly. And most importantly, if you believe this to be untrue, I encourage you to have a discussion with a woman of color and to hear her experiences. It is easy to dismiss what is inconvenient, but our fellow humans deserve better than this.