The angry black woman stereotype has permeated many parts of American culture, including the workplace. This pervasive stereotype not only characterizes black women as more hostile, aggressive, bossy, illogical, moody, and bitter, but it can also prevent them from reaching their full potential in the workplace — and shaping their work experiences as a result. general.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that black women make up nearly 7% of the workforce, and yet they are severely underrepresented in leadership positions, especially among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, became the first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 in 2009. As of 2021, Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer and TIAA General Manager Thasunda Brown Duckett are the only two black women currently holding the position. Overall, the US Department of Labor reports that in 2020, The unemployment rate for black women was 10.9%compared to 7.6% for white women.
These realities led to our desire to take a closer look at the angry black woman stereotype. We argue that companies could be missing out on the full contribution of black women in their organizations because of this image.
Where does the angry black woman stereotype come from?
Notably, characterizing black women as loud, short-tempered, overly direct — and just plain angry — is not a new practice. In his book Am I not a woman? : women slaves in the southern plantationDeborah Gray White, professor of history at Rutgers University, notes that the image of the angry black woman is deeply rooted in American culture and dates back to chattel slavery in the United States.
The trope has been a prolific profile for decades in politics, books, movies and, more specifically, popular TV shows. In fact, many characters hailed as cultural favorites use the stereotype of an angry black woman. There is sapphire in Amos and Andy in the 1950s and Florence in The Jeffersons in the 70s. Comedian Martin Lawrence portrayed Sheneneh in his eponymous 90s sitcom, and today reality TV star Nene Leakes is a meme favorite, beaming with disapproval and sass. (Leakes’ famous expressive eye-roll is distinctly immortalized in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.) The angry black woman is an image that seems familiar in pop culture — and organizational life.
How it affects the workplace
Anger is a commonly expressed emotion at work. Corn our research revealed that When some people see a black woman getting angry, they likely attribute that anger to her personality — rather than an inciting situation.
This can be explained by attribution theory, a psychological theory that examines whether people attribute the causes of behavior to one or another internal or external characteristics. Internal attribution occurs when the behavior is perceived to be about the person themselves. For example, we may think that a black woman expresses anger because she has an angry temper. External attribution occurs when the behavior is attributed to a frustrating or unfair situation. In this case, if we see an employee expressing anger at a supervisor, we might believe it’s because her boss is treating her unfairly, leading to less negative assumptions about the person.
As the search in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology points out, stereotypes cause internal attributions.
A deeper look
To learn more about the angry black woman stereotype, we ran two experiments that looked at reactions when people express anger at work. In our first experiment, we asked over 300 undergraduate business students to watch one of eight videos, in which they observed a male supervisor at one of his employees. In each video, three factors were at play: the employee’s race, gender and emotional reaction. (The employee was black or white, male or female, and angry or neutral.) When the employee was angry, his tone began to rise, ending in yelling and yelling at the supervisor.
After watching the video, study participants answered a series of questions, including questions about attributions (like was the employee’s anger internal or external?), performance ratings (like is this employee a good performer?) and leadership abilities (e.g. would this employee be a good leader?).
Our results revealed that female participants were more likely to attribute Black female employees’ anger to internal characteristics or their personality. This had negative consequences as internal assignments resulted in lower performance ratings and leadership evaluations. It is important to note that the demographic characteristics of the study participants did not affect the results; whether male or female, black or white (or other races), participants were more likely to attribute a black woman expressing anger to her personality.
We conducted a second experiment to see if angry expressions of black women activated the angry black woman stereotype in the minds of viewers. We used a similar setup to the first experiment, but this time we only looked at female employees since in the first experiment we found no effect with men.
Learn more about
In our second experiment, the sample included 253 adults working in all industries in the United States. Participants were asked to imagine that they were a sales representative at a marketing company and one day at work another employee from the same marketing company came to their office to talk. Next, participants listened to one of their colleague’s four audio recordings. The recordings portrayed either a black actress or a white actress, and either the anger was expressed or it was not. We used audio clips instead of video clips to avoid distractions, such as the employee’s appearance. The employee in the audio clip who approached the desk either had a traditionally black name, Lakeisha, or a traditionally white name, Claire.
In the recording, Claire or Lakeisha told the participants that she had seen them arriving late for work and how she had mentioned several times before that their being late was unprofessional. In recordings that included expressions of anger, Lakeisha or Claire expressed a stern and hostile tone, raised their voices, and appeared visibly annoyed and outraged by the participant’s lateness. These vocal assignments were absent from the other recordings. After listening to the clip, participants answered questions about stereotypes, such as: Are black women aggressive? They also answered a series of questions about assignments, performance reviews and leadership abilities.
In the second experiment, participants were more likely to attribute the black employee’s anger to internal characteristics (her personality) because the behavior was reminiscent of the stereotype of an angry black woman. Again, this reaction had negative consequences for the black woman, resulting in lower performance ratings and lower ratings of her leadership abilities, even controlling for the gender and race of the study participants.
Our research shows that not all people are treated equally when it comes to expressing anger at work, and people react more negatively to black women who express anger because they activate the stereotype of an angry black woman and internal attributions. Again, there is little evidence suggesting that black women are actually angrier than white women.
Organizations can take steps to help their employees overcome the stereotype of the angry black woman in the workplace. Here are some tips to help identify, discuss and respond to this characterization.
Acknowledge that the problem exists. It seems simple to recognize the problem, but ignorance (intentional or not) can easily get in the way of awareness. Research from the George Washington University School of Law has indicated once people are made aware of different prejudices and stereotypesthey are more likely to recognize them when it appears and are less likely to succumb to the influence bias.
Most people want to have a positive view of themselves (called the self-positivity bias), which could prevent them from seeing the stereotypes they hold. Awareness-raising efforts (such as training) could help combat discrimination.
Be empathetic. It’s powerful to put yourself in someone’s shoes. Another way to combat the angry black woman stereotype is to reflect on yourself. Think about how we react and, above all, try to understand the experiences of our colleagues during the working day.
If an employee is angry, before jumping to a conclusion, ask them why they are feeling such strong emotions. Don’t just rely on guesswork about their personality. Instead, ask, listen, learn, then reflect. Also think of a time when you were angry at work. How did people react and how did you think people would react to your anger?
Be intentional. You don’t have to let the stereotype go unchallenged. Think about your next steps to combat the angry black woman stereotype. For example, getting to know the other person beyond their physical makeup makes a huge difference.
When working in a team, appreciate each other’s unique personality by creating meaningful social interactions, whether in the workplace (asking them how their day is going) or outdoors (suggesting they have a coffee together). In this way, she is no longer just a black woman. Today, she is a trusted colleague and friend.
Ultimately, it’s also important to recognize that the angry black woman stereotype persists beyond the workplace and needs to be addressed in other aspects of life. Wendy Ashley, a professor at California State University, notes that this can influence the effectiveness of mental health treatment for black women. the stereotyping can cause clinicians to misinterpret their symptomsleading to diagnostic error. Additionally, there is evidence that the angry black woman stereotype is reinforced by cyberaggression, where black women are targets vicious and easily accessible messages on social networks. Since this stereotype can produce anger in many facets of life – personal and organizational – the need to acknowledge the problem, be empathetic and be intentional is more important than ever.