Archive for the ‘Shiprah and Puah’ Category

Listen Up White Girl, You And I Are Different

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

It’s one of the best comeback lines in the Bible.

“The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous in delivery. Before we can get there they have already delivered.”

Nothing like a little ethnic stereotyping to subvert the plans of the dominant powers. You gotta give it to the Hebrew midwives Shiprah and Puah. They were bold and clever. When Pharaoh noticed that his edict that every male infant born to a Hebrew woman be killed was not yielding the desired results he called the midwives in for an explanation.  Shiprah and Puah, ”god-fearing women” we’re told, determined that the best way to answer a fool is to exploit his ignorance (in this case, about women and childbirth) and play into his fears (in this case, his fear of people who are different). Their answer was simple: Hebrew women and Egyptian women are different.

“Those Hebrew slave women don’t need our services. They barely feel a thing when in labor. They are strong as oxen. Their babies just pop out. They are nothing like Egyptian women who cry, fall apart, and take days to deliver up their babies.”

The image of the lowly midwives unblinkingly feeding their tale to the unsuspecting Pharoah is supposed to make us smile. The character of the trickster is well established in biblical literature, and one can imagine the delight Hebrew women got recounting this story back in their slave quarters and for generations afterwards. Such stories teach that the weak can indeed prevail over the strong.

But stories like this one about the Hebrew and Egyptian women traffic in lies, half-truths, and stereotypes for their humor and effectiveness. They are the stories women tell themselves about each other and others to justify their actions.

Stereotypes are handy devices serving as something of a social shorthand when you’re short on experience. At their most positive, we reach for them when confronted with people we have little to contact with, and want to have some idea of what people are likely to be like, which behaviors will be considered acceptable, and which will not. Stereotypes are not only a problem when they are inaccurate, however, but especially when those inaccuracies are negative and hostile. Stereotypes are at their most negative when they allow us to feel justified in avoiding others, denying any commonalities with them and in treating them as less than human

Which brings me to what’s really on my mind.

White woman crying. Run for cover.

While I have gone out out on a limb and given Senator Clinton the benefit of the doubt for breaking down the other night in Iowa, I can’t deny that nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, makes the hair on black women’s neck rise, my own included, like the sight of a crying white woman. Especially when power is what’s at stake.

I don’t wish to resurrect the story of Senator Clinton crying. That’s yesterday’s news unless it happens again. (After all I’ve decided to grant her the “one cry rule” that fellow blogger over at Ms. Jones’ Class  devised.)

I’m not even interested in talking about the Obama-Clinton campaign right now, and who is the better candidate


What fascinate me are the vivid memories lots of black women have of white women whose tears promoted their causes over that of the black women. One of the stories I wrote nearly 20 years ago in my first book Just A Sister Away about the Genesis story of Hagar and Sarah (entitled “A Mistress, A Maid, and No Mercy”) continues to elicit strong reactions from white and racial ethnic minority readers alike even today. I talk about some of my own complicated dealings as a woman of faith with white women in that story.

Many of us, myself included, have stories to tell of white women crying and taking on a postures of weakness to avoid conflict with black women. They cried, they shut down, they ran out the room, and feigned helplessness — especially when confronted with the criticisms black women had about their racism. It’s almost a rule of thumb that senior black women pass along to younger black women to expect white women to faint, get weepy, and come up with stories about their one black friend when the time comes to talk openly and honestly about their complicity in the status quo. Watch for the dagger that follows, I was once told by my own mentor.

Beliefs informed by stereotypes can be so strong that we take them for granted. As black women we know what it is to be saddled with the stereotype of being strong, aggressive, and animalistic in our sexuality. Stereotyping and projecting our worst memories on each other allow both white women and black women to maintain our places in the status quo. It keeps us from finding common ground and from joining forces to battle against the forces bent keeping women sex objects and breeders.

But when is something a stereotype, and when is it true? Not every white woman you and I know has used tears to get her way. Just a lot. Just one too many. Just enough to keep the stereotype alive, I guess.

The midwives Shiprah and Puah manipulated stereotypes to outwit Pharaoah. Miriam trafficked in stereotypes to get her mother into the palace so the older woman could be near the son she thought she’d lost. Pharaoh’s daughter no doubt played into a few stereotypes of her own to get her father to let her adopt a Hebrew baby boy. The Hebrew women survived to tell their story, the Egyptian woman got what she wanted. And Moses grew up hearing the story of how God used the powerful loyalty and cunning of women to preserve his life as a baby. But the fundamental power structure never changed.