Ban 'Bossy' and Reject 'Angry': Why We Must Stop the Mislabeling of Black Women

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by Janice Fuller-Roberts

Recently, the news and the Internet have been abuzz with stories about Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and pop star Beyoncé Knowles and their mission to ban the word “bossy” as it applies to girls and women.  Their campaign makes sense.  It’s no secret that in America, attributes praised in men are often vilified in women.  Where a man is bold, confident, daring and a real “go-getter”, a woman is aggressive, bitchy, cocky or a “ball-breaker”.  In other words, assertive girls and women get called “bossy”.

Little girls who emerge as natural leaders on the playground are discouraged from being “bossy”.  Where little boys might be encouraged to seize the reins of whatever game or activity in which they’re engaged, little girls are scolded to “share”, and “let so-and-so take control, now”.  It’s as if being a natural leader is a bad thing, a threat to their femininity.  Or worse, a girl’s assertiveness emasculates the boys around her.

Labelling anyone with a negative description like “bossy” damages their self-esteem.  And it just isn’t fair.  It isn’t fair to squash a girl’s natural leadership skills so that she isn’t labelled as aggressive.  Yet while I agree with the thesis behind Ms. Sandberg’s and Ms. Knowles’ campaign, I believe that another term should be eliminated as well.  I want to destroy, once and for all, the myth of the “Angry Black Woman”.

 Just like the “bossy” label, the Angry Black Woman (ABW) label diminishes and trivializes the experiences and feelings of Black women.  If every time a Black woman asserts her rights she gets pigeon-holed as an ABW, her voice is silenced.  No one hears her.

The exception, of course, is when Black women speak out for issues that affect men, too.  Our outrage is fine as long as we’re marching for civil rights or protesting new voting laws which seek to disenfranchise minorities.  Our wrath is justified when we decry the modern day lynching of our young Black men under the Stand Your Ground laws.  When we’re rallying against these injustices, our tears are celebrated, held up as emblems of the struggle: grieving mothers, clutching the photographs of our slain sons.  But the moment we speak up for ourselves, we become the Angry Black Woman.

This isn’t new.  Stereotypes about Black women in America go way back.  But history illustrates that this particular label is also effective as a divisive tactic.  For example, after the Civil war, abolitionists who’d fought for the end of slavery sought to enfranchise Black men, while early feminists demanded the right to vote for themselves.  And, as would happen during the civil rights and women’s movements of the mid-twentieth century, Black women were caught in the middle: we betrayed our race and emasculated our men by advocating for women’s suffrage; or we betrayed our gender by fighting for the enfranchisement of Black men.  Both sides called us difficult, angry, and aggressive.  In the end, Black men got the vote first with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870.  It would be another 50 years before women got the vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The ABW label has morphed into an insidious stereotype that is entrenched in American culture.  Just turn on any popular reality TV show and you’ll find caricatured images of the Angry Black Woman.  She’s the loud, coarse, fighting woman on any show about housewives, bad girls and wives of sports stars.  And if a popular sitcom has a Black female character, it’s guaranteed she’ll be the one ready to “jump off” at the slightest provocation.  It seems that every genre of television and film with a character written as a Black female has to have at least one scene where she “goes off”: cursing, neck rolling, and firing off one-lined zingers.

There are several problems with this imagery.  For one thing, it paints all Black women with a broad, one-dimensional brush.  And like the “bossy” label, it stifles us.  If we’re too scared of being seen as angry, we’re less likely to speak up and advocate for ourselves; we’ll refrain from actively pursuing that promotion or asking for that raise; we’ll stay quiet when our ideas and programs are co-opted by others.

We must eliminate the myth of the Angry Black Woman once and for all.  Let’s stop allowing mainstream media and popular culture to define us.  We have every right to assert ourselves.  Our feelings are valid.  Our ideas have merit.  And our voices must be heard.

We aren’t any less Black when we demand equal pay for equal work along with our non-Black sisters.  We aren’t any less female when we decry conservative efforts to subvert minority votes.  And we aren’t just angry when we stand up for ourselves, demanding to be treated as people deserving of the same rights and considerations as everyone else.

I met a woman online who crystallized this point for me.  We’d been engaged in a discussion about whether any of us had used the ABW stereotype to our advantage.  This woman stated that she did not “subscribe to the notion of the Angry Black Woman”.  She simply refused to acknowledge this stereotype even exists, much less applies to her.  This shocked me.  I’d spent the better part of my professional life trying to avoid this label as I’d seen first-hand how it could crush careers and destroy reputations.  Yet this woman, younger than me, refused to even acknowledge it!  That was a turning point for me.

Now I also reject the myth of the Angry Black Woman.  I will stand up for myself and

assert my rights without censure.  I will speak loudly enough to be heard, and demand that my feelings and experiences be considered.  I am not an Angry Black Woman … unless I’m angry.  And if I’m angry, you better believe I have a reason to be.

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