Black Women And Identifying Themselves By Utilizing Rhetoric In Their Everyday Lives

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Coming into this class, I wasn’t quite sure what the term rhetoric meant. When I read the word rhetorical as stated in the title of this class, I found myself thinking of when my dad and I would have a conversation and he would pose a question; sometimes following up with the phrase, “that was a rhetorical question.” When I asked him to elaborate on that word, he informed me that the word rhetorical refers to producing a mere effect, and asking a rhetorical question means that it was asked not as a question that necessarily needed an answer, but for the mere effect to emphasize a point or thought. With that in mind, after attending this class during the 2019 fall semester, I’ve learned that the term rhetorical can also refer to the subject of rhetoric which is the art of persuasion. Rhetoric is the earliest study of verbal and written language with the intention to persuade an audience in any given situation (Herrick, 2013). In contemporary times, investigations of rhetoric address a substantially more varied scope of spaces than in earlier studies. Rhetors such as Aristotle and Plato, practiced during ancient rhetoric times; becoming compelling persuaders in open gatherings such as courts and congregations. However, as opposed to concentrating on singling out certain components of the study, e.g. argument or audience, contemporary rhetoric scholars underscore bigger issues, e.g. the social settings and basic structures of rhetoric. In turn, contemporary rhetoric studies human discourse as a method for understanding and living effectively in a world of symbols (Herrick, 2013).

During the end of the 20th century, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a European scholar, became an intellectual influencer of communication and rhetoric of his day and though he has passed, Foucault continues to maintain that status. Herrick recalls Foucault as a “philosopher, social historian, semiotician, and social critic,” (p. 231). While having a solid impact in philosophy Foucault also had a hand in influencing a wide scope of humanistic and social logical orders (Gutting & Oksala, 2019). In much of his work, Foucault focuses on the “central problem of power,” specifically how power is related to language (Herrick, 2013). Foucault looked at power in relation to how it manifests itself within institutions and how that manifestation ultimately affects the language and discourse used in our everyday lived experiences. In conjunction with language, he also draws his attention to power and its relationship with knowledge and sexuality. As a result, his study has influenced contemporary feminist scholarship by highlighting the structure of power surrounding language and sexuality (Davis, 2018). Foucault’s contribution has provided scholars with a theoretical road map in analyzing communication; specifically aiding in how Black women utilize rhetoric as a form of resistance in their personal and professional lives. By examining the works of Michel Foucault through a Black feminist lens, I will focus this argument on specific symbolic meanings of Blackness and how they signify a primary source of agency and resistance for Black Women, as well as the need to shift the narrative surrounding how Black women choose to identify themselves by utilizing rhetoric in their everyday lives.

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Due to systems of oppression and the social construct of gender, these arbitrary boundaries are parallel to inequality and contribute to damaging the social image of specific out-groups, specifically Black women (Davis, 2018). Starting with physicality, beauty standards affect women differently than they do men, especially in the United States. As a result of the social construct of gender, women are defined by beauty, and women who lack beauty are flawed. Yerima states that the reasoning behind this notion is because these standards have ‘become so embedded in society, both postcolonial and Western society, that it has become accepted and is hardly ever challenged.” (p. 640). According to Davis (2018), this is a double-bind for Black women because, “systems of inequality operate simultaneously, which means that the nature of Black women’s gendered oppression compounds the racial discrimination that they encounter daily,” (p. 301).

To contextualize these standards, we must first look at early American History. Slave masters would physically and psychologically divide their slaves in order to keep them submissive and to minimize the chance of rebellion. One of the main aspects of that division was pitting people against each other based on skin complexion, this notion is later known as colorism. Pearce-Doughlin, Goldsmith, and Hamilton’s (2013) research argue that colorism can be defined as the benefit and impediment as per the lightness or darkness of one’s skin, with bias commonly conceded to those with lighter skin (as cited in Burke & Burke, 2008). This phenomenon was conducted in a study done by Dr. Kenneth Clark when the “separate but equal” clause was being questioned during the Civil Rights era. In this study, Dr. Clark put little black girls and boys in a room with two baby dolls, one white and one black, and asked a series of questions, the last one being which doll looks the most like them. During this test, the children would almost always point out the white doll as being good, pretty, and overall better than the black baby doll. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2019) stated that the test “revealed later that some of the children stormed out of the room and became “emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected.”

This study is important because not only does it aid in the mindset of stratification between Black folk who may view Eurocentric features as an ideal form of beauty as well as superiority, but it also relates to Foucault’s idea surrounding power and knowledge, due discourse, and knowledge being inseparable. This study provides us with an example of power in relation to discourse and how it has manifested itself within a specific institution by illustrating a problematic technique utilized for control that joins progressive perception with normalizing judgment (Gutting & Oksala, 2019). Foucault’s concept of power is not merely defined by one’s ability to influence the behavior of others; especially through social structures and hierarchies where whoever is on top, controls those on the bottom. Instead, he argues that power fluxes from discourse making it indivisible from knowledge (Herrick, 2013). I take this to mean that power is subject to influence and change as new developments in the knowledge and construction of language continue to be studied over time. To support this idea, in a study done by Sawicki (1986), she points out that Foucault also reminds us of the value of finding subjugated insight and make us circumspect about ideas or movements that claim to offer a power-free or transcendence background (as cited in Devaux, 2014).

Black women are especially defenseless against the impacts of European standards of beauty because of these gauges that underline skin hues and hair types that bar many Black women, particularly those of darker skin (Bryant, 2013). Due to Black women being underrepresented and/or misrepresented in mainstream media, it is no secret that many young Black girls experience getting teased for possessing Afrocentric features; lips too big, skin too black, and hair too nappy. But as time has progressed in line with the advancement and accessibility of technology, we have been given tools to provide ourselves with a voice and platform to combat the perpetuated ideals of beauty standards within the U.S. 


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