Virtue as a Gift

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.


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2 Responses to Virtue as a Gift

  1. mschonbe says:


    You bring up an interesting point that I agree does not receive enough exposure. There is much focus on feminism and women’s rights, especially in the business world and while there is progress being made on that front, there is a huge lack of minority women in leadership roles within these realms. This was the first example that came to mind for me when I was reading your post. According to Fortune, Black women hold just 1.5% of private sector leadership jobs and Hispanic women are even lower are 1.3%. Women in public service make up about 25% of the state legislators but just 22% of those women are people of color. There are many factors that go in to explaining why women do not make it to the top of their fields and as you emphasized in your post, why minority women struggle even more. I would agree that there is further discrimination toward minority women since they are basically a “double minority”, they do have more obstacles to overcome. Anyone who does not acknowledge that fact is simply naïve. As we discussed in class today, it can be difficult to empathize with the out group when one has never had to overcome the same adversity or has endured the same discrimination. This is an issue that needs to gain more traction and more exposure. You have already peaked my interest and I will definitely be more aware of this now as I move forward, especially within the professional realm.

    Great post!

  2. rksmith8 says:

    Your argument for the recognition of the inequality that women of color face is, in all honesty, refreshing. I entirely agree with you on the fact that this issue is consistently overlooked by media and movements, and I feel like that is in part to the popular movements not being able to entirely represent a woman of color. Sure, there are feminist activists moving their way through society, but a woman of color cannot be completely represented by a woman’s movement, because while they might face the same discrimination based on sex, a woman of color has added struggles weighing on her because of her race. In the same sense, the Black Lives Matter movement embodies the struggles she faces as a person of color, but it falls short because of the injustice she faces due to sex. Society is under the impression that all the bases are covered, she is a woman and there are people out there fighting for her on that front. She is black, and there are people out there fighting for her on that front, so that should be enough, right? Clearly, it isn’t. Both movements are incapable of protecting and representing a woman of color in her entirety, for neither argues for all of the discrimination she faces.

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