Nadia E. Brown and Danielle Casarez Lemi

May 24, 2021

Sister Style

The Politics of Appearance for Black Women Political Elites

Oxford University Press 2021

All political candidates make strategic choices about how to present themselves to voters but not all candidates have to “weigh decisions about their self-presentation alongside stereotypical tropes, culture norms that denigrate Blackness, and European beauty standards, in addition to the historical legacies of racism, colorism, sexism, and heteropatriarchy.” Sister Style: The Politics of Appearance for Black Women Political Elites (Oxford UP, 2021) interrogates the “everyday politicization of Black women’s bodies and its ramifications for politics.” Hair is not simply hair.

Drs. Brown and Lemi use a wide-range of qualitative and quantitative methods, including focus groups with Black women candidates and elected officials to argue that “Black women's political experience and the way that voters evaluate them is shaped overtly by their skin tone and hair texture, with hair being a particular point of scrutiny.” Sister Style explores “what the politics of appearance for Black women means for Black women politicians and Black voters, and how expectations about self-presentation differ for Black women versus Black men, White men, and White women.” For many black women in politics, racist and sexist cultural ideas have been used to “demean and fetishize” them based on their physical appearance. They are oftentimes pressured into changing their appearance to look more like their white female counterparts. But Brown and Lemi highlight the agency of Black women candidates and the book reconceptualizes how “Black women political elites are thought about, assessed, measured, and evaluated.”

The book is organized around several questions. What are the origins of the contemporary focus on Black women’s bodies in public life? How do Black women politicians make sense of the politics of appearance? Is there a phenotypic profile in who which most Black women politicians fit? How do voters process the appearances of Black women candidates?

Dr. Nadia Brown is an Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Purdue University. Beginning in July 2021, Dr. Brown will be a professor of Government and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Georgetown University. Dr. Brown is also the author of Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making (Oxford, 2014) and editor of three books: Distinct Identities: Minority Women in U.S. Politics (Routledge, 2016), Body Politics (Routledge, 2019), and Me Too Political Science (Routledge, 2019). She edits Politics, Groups, and Identities and is a founding board member of @WomenAlsoKnowStuff. Her most recent public facing publication is “Here’s how to teach Black Lives Matter: We’ve developed a short course” Washington Post’s Monkey Cage with Ray Block, Jr. and Christopher Stout.

Dr. Danielle Casarez Lemi is a Tower Center Fellow at the John G. Tower Center for Political Science at Southern Methodist University. Her specialization is representation in American politics with a focus on gender, race, and identity. Her research has appeared in Politics, Groups, and Identities, Du Bois Review, Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, PS: Political Science and Politics, British Journal of Political Science, and Perspectives on Politics.

Daniella Campos assisted with this podcast.

Susan Liebell is an associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Why Diehard Originalists Aren’t Really Originalists appeared in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage andSensitive Places: Originalism, Gender, and the Myth Self-Defense in District of Columbia v. Hellercan be found in July 2021’s Polity. Email her comments at sliebell@sju.edu or tweet to @SusanLiebell.

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Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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