Close your eyes and imagine an angry black woman. It only took a moment to visualize it, didn’t it? The image is ready-made: a hand on his hip, a finger pointing at your face, head and neck swiveling. You can probably hear his black English. She probably looks intimidating to you. She is too sensitive and masculine. She is easy to irritate and difficult to calm down. She is aggressive and irrational, too loud and too much.
She is too not true. Let me repeat: the image of the Angry Black Woman (ABW) that has surfaced so easily in your mind is as fake as a fairy tale. It is imaginary, but it is in no way an accident. She – the trope – is meant to control and undermine black women, to punish us for expressing even mild and reasonable outrage, hurt or irritation (not to mention rage), and to protect a status quo in which Black women and girls are often treated as interchangeable and irrational problems instead of human beings with very reasonable complaints.
The angry black woman character goes way back. I see its roots in chattel slavery, when black women’s expressions of anger, especially towards white people, were deeply justified but also inadmissible. With a culture and economy that depended on the vicious control of black women’s bodies and lives, it made economic sense to portray black women’s anger as unreasonable and ugly rather than a rational response to subordination and humiliation.
The trope has found its way into minstrel shows, where white men donned blackfaces and fatsuits to play crude and brooding caricatures of black women. He went from that white imagination of the 18th and 19th centuries to the entertainment of the 20th century, appearing in dramas such as carried away by the wind and comedies like Amos and Andy. Popular 1990s entertainment including The Jerry Springer Show and Lake Ricky – which I consumed as a child – helped to reinforce the stereotype. Over the past few years, our culture has stapled the demeaning ABW label to michelle obama, Serena Williams, Kamala Harris, Shonda Rhimes, Maxine Waters, Congresswoman, Meghan Markle, Jemele Hill, and many more in response to the kind of truthfulness, creativity, and demand for self-respect that we frequently applaud in others. Each of these women has hard-won power and an authoritative voice – but we, as a culture, don’t often want to hear what black women have to say.
I wish I could say that there is one area of my life, or that of all black women I know, that remains untouched by the ABW stereotype, but I can’t. It shows in business meetings even though I deliberately smile and measure my tone when giving feedback. It shows up in personal relationships when I try to deal with the emotional harm I’m going through. This appears in response to my writing when I have been told my voice was too convincing or too aggrieved. It shows up even in therapy (if I’m not allowed to speak up there, then where?). The ABW stereotype is so pervasive that even the smallest gesture of sternness, dissatisfaction, force, or denial can be mislabeled as “anger” when it comes from a black woman. And once we are seen to be angry, the ABW stereotype deems that “anger” to be explosive, irrational, and frightening.
To avoid these scenarios, like many black women, I carefully monitor my expressions and body language to ensure I appear calm and reasonable, calibrating myself into a tight register designed not to frighten or offend people in the dark. power. It’s exhausting. It’s dehumanizing. It hurts my sense of worth and well-being. I can’t say for sure that this contributes to my anxiety — something I’ve lived with since I was a teenager — but anxiety is, in part, a feeling of unease or uncertainty about the way things are going. are going to happen, a feeling that you’re not It’s not totally safe, and the ABW cartoon puts endless pressure on me to be nice in order to remain nominally safe and sympathetic in a world that doesn’t love not or does not specifically protect black women and girls. How could that do not feed my chronic sense of uncertainty and unease? (See also: How racism affects your mental health)
There is also a physical component to this: the allostatic load that black women bear, including pent up anger, can lead to physical health issues that disproportionately affect black women, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes-related deaths, and even breast cancer death rates — none of which are good for anxiety and depression. I can’t help but wonder if we’re less likely to seek help because we know the world often misinterprets our insistence, urgency, and truth as irrational, scary, and strident. And I can’t help but wonder how often that same misreading results in poor care from mental (and physical) health experts. (Related: Why the United States desperately needs more black female doctors)
The fact is, as solange said, we have a lot to be angry about. Structural racism and anti-black bias in all aspects of our lives means that we often don’t have the same opportunity as our white (and non-black) counterparts, no matter how hard we try. We are more likely to die during childbirth; we make less money; we accumulate less wealth; we are overrepresented in the jails and underrepresented in the business world; we are less likely to have success on dating apps; we are less likely to marry (and reaping the financial, physical, and spiritual benefits that often accompany a long-term partnership); we are less likely to be given pain medication when we go to the doctor; we are less likely to be called for an interview if we have names that “sound Black”; we are more likely to be arrested by the police; we are more likely to be targeted by unscrupulous banks – the list continues. None of this is because we don’t deserve it, don’t have talent, or aren’t focused. It’s because we are black women, and despite our contributions to art, science, politics, law, philosophy, cooking, sports, spirituality, music and the very formation of this country, the dominant society does not care about us as it cares about others. Of course we are angry.
Yet the ABW stereotype means that when we express anger or dissatisfaction, others are ready to see us as irrational and unbalanced. It’s so pervasive that even emotions that aren’t anger (e.g., sternness, dissatisfaction, strength, and rejection) are mislabeled as “anger” when they come from black women. Instead of us hearing and responding, society continually says that the problem is our “lack of manners” or “hypersensitivity” instead of structural inequalities. That’s what the ABW stereotype was designed for, and that’s why it still exists. As long as we live under the rule of racial and gender hierarchy, stereotypes that demean black women will thrive.
Now close your eyes and imagine a real angry black woman – not the trope. Can you? Can you see her without the preconceived cartoonish distortion? Let me help. This woman may be crying in pain. She may be at the peak of her power, fair and straight, and doing what white men do all the time: speaking out. She may be a mother, and her “anger” is actually just the determination and courage that defines that role. She may be your boss, and her “anger” is actually honesty about your performance. Maybe she just suffered a racial affront, or maybe her anger has nothing to do with race. She may have every right to be crazy, much crazier than she looks or expresses. She may also feel scared, alone and helpless. Or exasperated, impatient and overwhelmed. Or courageous, full of energy and in full possession of oneself. She is also, without a doubt, as strategic and thoughtful as possible, aware that the ABW stereotype makes people less likely to take her seriously, more likely to be afraid. of that she is afraid for her, even when she is the one that is so often threatened.
A real The angry black woman is multidimensional, not flat, not easily summed up by a trope. He is a richly layered, sophisticated and intelligent human being, not a caricature. She has the right to feel and display the full extent of human emotions. And she deserves your respect while she does it. So let me offer an alternative view of black women’s anger. There is a world in which we recognize that the anger of black women is beautiful. Beautiful as a response to racism, misogynoir, and injustice everywhere. Beautiful as an act of resistance and creation – resistance to systemic, anti-black and anti-women biases, and, simultaneously, something propellant, political and generative, something that allows all of us to witness and explore the full depth of our shared humanity.
There is a world in which the anger of black women is a tonic we can all drink. This world exists on the other side of demonizing and inaccurate stereotypes; we can create it. It’s a world where we care about what black women do and where we want to hear from them.