Whitney: Victim Of The “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype

by Guest Contributor Keir Bristol

It was not inevitable for everyone that Whitney Houston was going to die. Many of us expected her to make a comeback. For those people, her death came as a shock. Many of the people who were not surprised by Houston’s death used her drug addiction as an excuse. As often as I hear that Houston was talented, I hear that she was a crack-head, or that she was Bobby Brown’s punching bag.

Television shows covering Whitney’s death focused most of their energy on her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug use. There was very little discussion of what her life was like before she was apparently using. Never mind that Whitney, as a Black woman, was a successful pop star while most other Black singers were automatically sifted into the R&B or Soul categories. There was barely any mention of an accident she had as a child that could have very well severely damaged her vocal cords, or any of the political and charitable works she had done, like her Welcome Home Heroes concert for the soldiers who had fought in the Persian War in 1991 or her support of Nelson Mandela.

Houston’s drug addiction and domestic violence issues devalue her as an artist and person to many. To these people, she is not categorized as an artist with a drug addiction, or even a human with a drug problem. She is categorized strictly as a drug addict like many Black female entertainers before her, Dorothy Dandridge and Billie Holiday included.

Why is Whitney given a bad name for being a drug addict, but people still idealize Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious and John Lennon?

In Robyn Crawford’s obituary of Whitney Houston in Esquire, Crawford says, “The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me — she fed everybody. Deep down inside that’s what made her tired. It was never easy. She never left anything undone. But it was hard.” There is obviously a pattern in the way our culture expects women of color to take care of everyone, to take care of herself last (if at all). Why are we so surprised when they crack? Why do we forget about their humanity?

Whitney was not only a drug addict. She was a mother, she was a wife, she was a daughter, a friend, and an artist. We know that she was a survivor of domestic abuse, which is a harder situation for Black women to deal with because of the racial injustice in the criminal justice system. We know that she was famous, so she was hypervisible and overcriticized for the decisions she made.

It isn’t fair to judge Whitney without keeping in mind that she was a human being, a Black woman, in a tough situation. African-American women are more likely to suffer from domestic violence than any other race. Women who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to suffer from domestic violence, and men who abuse drugs are more likely to commit it. It also isn’t fair to demonize Whitney for her drug abuse and its affect on her, but ignore its affects on artists like Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson, or Jimi Hendrix.

A Google search of Michael Jackson’s death brings up headlines like “King of Pop Michael Jackson Dies,” and “A Look Back at Michael Jackson’s Long and Accomplished Career.” Searching Whitney Houston’s death draws up headlines such as “Death of Whitney Houston Draws Attention to Problem of Prescription Drug Abuse,” as well as several articles combining the announcement of her death with the phrase “cautionary tale”. Here is where the Strong Black Woman trope comes in. I’m not saying that prescription drug abuse isn’t a problem, but why does Whitney’s death draw attention to that, and not to the dangers of domestic violence or superhuman expectations of Black women?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CKR3VGIMNRHWNODZD564ZEIGHY Sophie G

    I agree with you that Whitney Houston was more than her problems, and the media (as usual) is being awful in the way they’re reporting about her and her passing. That said, please educate yourself before dragging Michael Jackson’s name into all of this. Contrary to the media speculation, there has been no evidence to support the notion that Michael Jackson was an addict. He was treated for a dependency in the 90s, not a drug addiction. No, they are not the same thing. There is a medical difference between being addicted to a substance (be it illegal or legal, recreational or medical) and being dependent (and in Jackson’s case using medication due to medical concerns).

    The autopsy report concluded Jackson’s body was healthier than the average 50 year old, and the good condition of his vital organs negates long term drug abuse. The only drugs in his system was the medication administered by his doctor, all for valid medical concerns, and minus the Propofol (which had been administered improperly) was in safe dosages. Michael Jackson’s death had nothing to do with drug addiction, Propofol isn’t even a physically addictive substance. His death was due to negligence (which in this case, includes a doctor physically abandoning his patient) and this has been proven in a court of law. Individuals who actually spent time with Jackson in his later years, such as Dr. Patrick Tracey (as opposed to leeches that were cut out of his life for valid reasons), have publicly stated they observed no drug abuse. Likewise, in September 2007 Katherine Jackson as well as several other family members signed an open letter stating that no interventions took place, and that Michael was not a drug addict (http://a1.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc6/254955_10150295075116729_218224486728_9023511_614140_n.jpg).

    As I stated earlier, I agree with you that the media has been despicable with how they’ve treated Whitney and her passing. But, there has also been a massive amount of lies and BS (both in the news articles, and yes headlines as well) about Michael Jackson’s life and death (this includes everything ranging from the false accusations, the paternity of his kids, his finances, his appearance, his health, labelling him a drug addict, his naked autopsy photo being blasted all over the tabloids and TV, and etc. Just one indignity after another.) Some people are rallying against negative media spin, which they are right to do. But at the same time, their comments about Jackson prove they’ve fallen for the very thing they’re outcrying against.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kaila.heard Kaila Heard

    Not to discount the race angle in how Houston’s drug addictions are perceived, but I think the varying treatments have to do with the musical genres they are in. 
    Other female, black singers who sang the blues/jazz like Billie Holiday have been given the “Kurt Cobain” treatment as in people assume that their addictions were indicative of a great tormented intellect/emotional sensitivity that the world just couldn’t understand. Their musical styles and subject matters already had a LONG history of drug use to its easy to force them into ready made tormented archetypes. But pop music isn’t seen as having that same depth. Whitney, right now, is complimented for her vocal prowess, not her song’s substance. 

    But anyway, I think its too soon to say just what the popular narrative or memory of Whitney that will become popular will be. 

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    I also get the sense that the Whitney Houston’s death has prompted the media to create more negative and disrespectful coverage about her legacy than other artists that have died suddenly, due to her having been a black female pop singer. Just in the last week after her death you have these two idiot dj’s call her a “crack ho” on air, TMZ post pictures of her last meal and the bathtub she died in, and the National Enquirer post a picture of her dead body in the casket. The only white artist I can think of who has also been mocked like this is Elvis Presley, but then many Americans still regard him as a legendary “king of rock’n’roll” and idolize him after death almost as much as Marilyn Monroe is (which is why films/documentaries/pop culture references are made about him from time to time). With Whitney it seems the mainstream press still remembers her more for her marriage to Bobby Brown and her subsequent drug use than to the time when she was at her professional peak, possibly because some people don’t view pop music as favorably as other genres of music. I think even Amy Winehouse received more respect after death due to the genre of music she sang.  

  • http://twitter.com/TheMil10 Mildred Lewis

    I’m equally depressed about remarks about her mother, Cissy Houston. The general idea seems to be,  I lost my daughter, I won’t lose my granddaughter.   The myth of the strong, no invincible black mother needs to be destroyed. It’s not working for anyone. Love is powerful but it is not enough.

  • Cdj02

    This article is right on time. The fact that Whitney Houston is the biggest selling female artist of all time, most rewarded female artist of all time, the first woman of color to featured  on MTV or the first to break The Beatles record should be the only thing being talked about in the press.

    Whitney suffered from that double edged sword of oppression she was a women and a person of color. Had she been a white male like those listed we would not have heard half the crap we are hearing now and yes like Dorothy Dandridge and Billie Holiday her legacy will go down in the mainstream media as the tortured soul with an addiction even though she had been clean for years (her words not mine).

  • Janet Cantrell

    Ahmen!  I am so sickened with people who would rather focus on her problems with drugs and alcohol rather than on what she was as a person.  Whitney was at her barest a human bieng.  Yes she had deamons but dont we all?  Where do we place the blame on Bobby? On her?  on the Drug?  Why is ther any blame to place?  Cocaine is a VERY addictive drug one that not many of us manage to try and drop!  When you have the resources to maintain it you will!  It is a very sad day for music for society as a whole that Whitney was allowed to continue on her path…. like so many other icons Michael Jackson, Curt Cobaine… John Lennon…. Elvis Pressley…. We as a society just sit back and watch the self destruction even those closest to these stars let it pass…  In a way we are fascinated with the self destruction even think ourselves elevated from it – but are we? 

  • http://twitter.com/MalikPanama Malik

    These Michael Jackson drug comparisons make zero sense. He became addicted to a medical drug because he was in intense physical pain. And his death was a result to a doctor not living up to his Hippocratic oath. The deaths are radically different.

  • Eva

    I think at some point, a black woman has to say, “I’m not going to take care of everybody and focus on me>”  I tell people that in my 12 step program all the time.  Keep the focus on yourself, and if they don’t like it, fuck them; they don’t care about you anyway.    I know that’s what I had to do to save my life. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jennifer-Herrera/30509955 Jennifer Herrera

    I’m personally tired of hearing artist dying because of their drug addictions Whitney, Amy Winehouse and all the other artists we see cracked out it’s not funny and it’s even less funny when fans or others who look up to them are doing the same it’s a real problem and it’s so sad to see them end this way but it is true though the media has portrayed her that way and even I found after hearing them over and over saw her in that light this article definitely opens the eyes to a very important issue.

  • alicat23alicat

    Sid Vicious? Pretty much the only thing most people know about him is he was an addict (it isn’t like the Sex Pistols were known for their musical talent). And his dying the way he did just contributed to the nihilistic image that was part of the Punk image.

    Kurt Cobain shot himself. While his heroin addiction certainly played a role in his decision to end his life, his death didn’t provide an easy narrative of the cautionary tale. And while many people knew about his addiction, he hadn’t been in the public eye for very long, so it hadn’t become linked to him in the public’s mind.

    John Lennon was murdered. His drug use had nothing to do with his death and it would have been inappropriate of the media to imply it had.

    I think you make an excellent point about the media narrative, but by using those examples and failing to consider examples where the media was every bit as negative in their presentation of a white musician–you neglected to mention Amy Winehouse, a white, talented musician who was known almost as much for her substance abuse as she was for her musical abilities. ALL the coverage surrounding her death was the “cautionary tale” sort–I think you do your argument a disservice. 

    • Anonymous

      When Sid Vicious is inspiration for a rocker in the most bestselling Japanese girl manga of all time—there is most definitely a “romance” problem. 

      • http://twitter.com/HeifahHoe Shari Taylor

        ha! I thought of Nana too

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  • Anonymous

     Why is Whitney given a bad name for being a drug addict, but people still idealize Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious and John Lennon?

    Because when white celebrity drug addicts die young, it’s  romantic.  When black celebrity drug addicts die young, it’s only worthy of racist contempt.   

    • Anonymous

       I watched a documentary about Sid Vicious recently and I was appalled–the dude couldn’t even play guitar, was famous for all of 5 seconds, used drugs and possibly killed his girlfriend. WTF indeed!

  • http://twitter.com/charliekelso Charlie Kelso

    I think it’s more about being a woman than being a black woman. Look at Amy Winehouse, she had the same response from the press. And if some people come to attack her because she didn’t write her songs, what about Elvis? He gets lots of respect for being a great voice, but Whitney (even being one of the most successful artists) will never get that much – not if we continue on that path.

  • Shermy

    AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMMMMMMMMMMMMEEEEEEEEEEENNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    I’m hoping that as time moves on Whitney will be remembered more for her accomplishments and less for the other stuff. 

  • Skeptic

     I don’t know. I mean, I want to get it… but even as a WOC who wants to sympathize, I feel like in terms of the openness and notoriety of her drug use, she is closer to La Lohan or Courtney Love, than Michael or John Lennon. I didn’t even know that John Lennon did drugs until this article, and in all fairness, he was shot in his prime. I feel like part of this is generational. When the Michael Hutchences and the Paula Yates were dying, people in that generation were dying, period. People wanted to “leave a pretty corpse”. Everyone did drugs – openly. That was part of their identity. That’s quite different to a modern star privately using drugs, then denying it or claiming to be reformed. So I don’t think the John Lennon/Sid Vicious comparison really holds. Even thinking about Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson is quite simply one of the greatest performers to ever live. Fact. His inner turmoil, his terrible childhood; they were all very much related to that gift. He was almost tortured BECAUSE of that gift. So his drug use and personal problems are excusable because he had to carry such a strong burden.

    Whitney was phenomenally talented but her drug use doesn’t really seem connected to her “gift” in any way, except that celebrity makes you vulnerable. Even her relationship with Bobby Brown didn’t have anything to do with her music. If Bobby Brown had been her manager, or something, maybe that would make sense. A closer and better comparison would actually be Heath Ledger, except that his drug use was not known before his death.

    And bear in mind that her comeback was very successful. It’s not like people held the drug use against her.

    The only thing I think she is rightfully being criticized about is refusing to give up custody of her daughter to her parents. Her daughter is now also an addict. Honestly, Michael Jackson’s kids seem much more well adjusted which is a bit concerning.

    • Anonymous

      Honestly, Michael Jackson’s kids seem much more well adjusted which is a bit concerning.

       

      Michael LOVED kids, and loved his kids, and didn’t want ever to see them come to harm; that’s why they’re quite well-adjusted, IMHO. At least, I hope so.

      Sid Vicious was a big, BIG disaster waiting to happen who should NEVER have been allowed to be a rock musician or part of a rock band. That, and hanging out with Nancy Spungen helped hasten his demise (and hers).

      John Lennon’s drug abuse was just as wasteful and dumb as Whitney’s (he should have stuck to pot and LSD like Harrison and McCartney did) and most likely came out of whatever feelings and issues he had with being a Beatle and with his mother and father (he is said-if one believes Albert Goldman-to have been so high on drugs at one time that he thought he was Jesus Christ, with him telling somebody who met him that). The best thing that he did was to get clean of most of the substances he took, and to retire from public life to take care of Sean Lennon.

      Maybe what Whitney needed to get was an intervention that would have got her to the Betty Ford clinic-with NO Dr. Drew foolishness involved-and then afterward, she could have retired from public life to get her emotional state together before her comeback.

      • Anonymous

        The author messed up mentioning John Lennon. He was gunned down in New York, and certainly changed the world for the better while he was in it. 

        • Anonymous

          I disagree.  As was pointed out, he had a messy private life that in today’s world would have been more scrutinized and certainly picked apart had he been around now.   I’m not sure what change he really brought about but even if that is true, he did not treat his first son and other people in his life well at all. 

          But he would have possibly been insulated by his white male privilege, at least in terms of how his drug use was judged.  

    • Anonymous

      Truth be told, one big issue about Whitney Houston is that there was a narrative that was promoted along with her when she hit the scene that everyone has always accepted as true.  And stars had a LOT more privacy 25-30 years ago, and the kinds of full coverage that we get of celebrities now simply was not around back then.  Your comment kind of indicates how much people were able to get away with in their private lives.  

      We know about the dysfunction of the Jackson’s early life b/c they discuss it and the story has even been told in a movie.  We know about current celebrities because every moment of their lives is chronicled and published in real time online. 

      One thing about Whitney Houston is that she when she appeared she was so lovely, and was a former model, and the church and middle class background were heavily promoted, but there was clearly a lot more to her than the quiet and pretty church girl that everyone thought they knew.

      Also, a lot of people associate her decline with her marriage to Bobby Brown, which I also do not think is true.

      She came to us in an exquisitely beautiful package, and as a result, everyone thinks they know her but we really did not.  

  • Rania

    This is really well written, thank you for your insight. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MQEC5FUPX6GT5FFCFG3RK3LUOI Rebecca

    They treat her like an animal in the media but there are fans, people who have only meet her from the seventy third row of  a concert hall, who go to her grave in New Jersey. It’s ashame that she isn’t given the proper respect from the big voice that control the media and her coverage but it’s nice to see that their are people who still see her as a genuine person.

  • http://twitter.com/EBeezy360 Rock Star

    This is why “Run to You” is one of my favorite songs.  There is a part of the song that says she’s scared sometimes and not always strong.  No matter who wrote the lyrics, I’m glad she (a black woman) sang it.  Life is tough and hurts for black women, too.

  • Rosasparks

    This is what has been swirling around in my head since she passed. I could not find a concise way to say what you’ve said. Thank you for this.