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The Sapphire Caricature portrays black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing. She is tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing or arms akimboviolently and rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men for offenses ranging from being unemployed to sexually pursuing white women. She is a shrill nagger with irrational states of anger and indignation and is often mean-spirited and abusive. Although African American men are her primary targets, she has venom for anyone who insults or disrespects her. The Sapphire's desire to dominate and her hyper-sensitivity to injustices make her a perpetual complainer, but she does not criticize to improve things; rather, she criticizes because she is unendingly bitter and wishes that unhappiness on others. The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.


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Allen, associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, describing focus groups she led with African American women in the San Francisco Bay Area. But others facets of the persona, such as having an intense drive to succeed and feeling an obligation to help others, seemed to be detrimental to health, further exacerbating the deleterious health effects of the chronic stress associated with racial discrimination.

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For those aspects of superwoman schema that worsen the negative health effects associated with racial discrimination, how do we lessen those risks? And for those factors that are more protective, how do we leverage them to inform interventions deed to promote health and well-being for African American women?

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Allen says her interest in superwoman schema was inspired by focus groups she conducted with African American women, in which they revealed that they often acted the part of the strong black woman as a way to cope with the persistent stress of racial discrimination in their lives. So, I wanted to know, is being a strong black woman helpful, or harmful, for health?

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To de the study, she teamed up with researchers across the country who were also interested in this phenomenon, including Cheryl L. The superwoman schema includes five elements: feeling an obligation to present an image of strength, feeling an obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable, a drive to succeed despite limited resources, and feeling an obligation to help others. In the study, participants were asked to rate their experience of racial discrimination in different contexts, including finding housing, finding employment, at work, at school, getting credit for a bank loan or mortgage, and in health care settings.

They also rated to what extent they identified with different aspects of the superwoman schema. Each participant also received a physical exam, with researchers recording their height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and measures of inflammation and other health indicators. Higher levels of allostatic load are associated with greater risk for chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and even for mortality.

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The researchers then analyzed the data for links between racial discrimination, the different aspects of superwoman schema, and allostatic load. Some surprising relationships emerged, Allen said. For example, the study found that women who reported suppressing emotions had lower levels of allostatic load, or less stress, in their bodies.

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This contradicts psychological studies, which commonly show that suppressing emotions, rather than openly expressing them, can increase stress and be detrimental to health. The study findings add to a growing body of research demonstrating how the stress associated with racial discrimination becomes biologically embedded, Allen said.

This article was originally published on Berkeley News.

The sapphire caricature

Read the original article. Kara Manke is a science communications writer at the University of California, Berkeley. Become a subscribing member today.

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Lead study author Amani M. Allen, Ph. Get the science of a meaningful life delivered to your inbox. About the Author.

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