I am deeply interested in why Black women are received and portrayed as both “angry” and “strong” Black Women. It may seem inexplicable that a respected black woman educator would stamp her foot, jab her finger in someone’s face and scream while trying to make a point on national television, thereby reconfirming the notation that black women are irrationally angry. When confronted about race and gender, as a black woman I stand in a crooked room. I have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warping images of humanity, I sometimes tilt and bend to fit the distortion.
From the single mother who complains about child support to the first lady of the United States, it seems like Black women of all ages and classes have been accused of either being “angry” or too “strong” at some point in life. For centuries, the angry black female has been a pervasive stereotype in the United States. You may have heard the term “Angry Black Woman Syndrome (ABSW)”. Angry Black Woman Syndrome is not only the dynamics between black woman and black men. It is definitively not an official clinical diagnosis or anything.
The attitudes behavior of some black women, by some can best be described as a word that starts with “b” and rhymes with the word “itch”. Angry Black Woman is just as inescapable today as it was during the slave era. Melissa Harris-Perry, suggests that anger is still one of the most ubiquitous stereotypes faced by black women in modern society. In a recent Super Bowl commercial, Pepsi was criticized for perpetuating this negative perception by depicting a black woman kicking, shoving and punishing her husband for cheating on his diet.
America’s first lady had to address the stereotype: In a recent television interview on CBS, Michelle Obama denied the “angry black woman” depiction of herself that emerged in some coverage following the release of The Obama’s, a book by Jodi Kantor. Mrs. Obama defended herself by saying instead that she is “merely a ‘strong’ woman”. By calling herself “strong” is she somehow trying to overcompensate for feelings of shame? Although many may think that the Angry Black Woman is a white supremacist myth, they are wrong.
In fact, it is a regularly revived and recreated perception in the Black community. The anger black women have is something that ignites strong feelings among black women. The idea of the angry woman is particularly recreated by African-American men who have an interest in displaying Black woman as emasculating or overbearing or angry as a means of basically controlling. Preconceived ideas of black women as dominant and assertive may hurt when it comes to romantic relationships.
Yes, there are black women that need to seriously check themselves – particularly black women who think it is cute to be bitter, argumentative, man-hating, and generally feels angry. She is that woman that frowns or rolls her eyes when smiled at, brands all men as being “dogs” or “no good” and she is that woman that thinks it is necessary to curse out another female if she bumps into her in the store even after she has received a sincere apology. It is unfortunate that black women have attitudes and behaviors like this.
It is this type of female that sometimes gets acknowledged as the representative for all black women. At the end of the day, the vast majority of black females do not suffer from Angry Black Women Syndrome. If you ask for what you want need or what you want, you are just an angry Black woman. If you do not ask for what you need and try to do everything on your own, however, you could then be labeled as a “strong” Black woman – a term that may sound like a compliment, but in reality contributes to a derogatory ideal that holds Black women back from progression.
When black women respond to racism they are responding with anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege of racial distortions, of silence ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, and of betrayal. Black women may have a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. —Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (1981).
The emotion which accompanies the first steps toward liberation is, for most women, anger. Through the exercise strength may be gained. As a black woman I envisioned a new America in the 1990’s, anger may have been a vital political tool. I was provided new perspectives, new understandings of oppressive conditions that had previously remained unquestioned. I was introduced to my anger through relationships, through individual and collective political consciousness; because the angry black women had been theorized.
Attention seemed to have been drawn to the anger of black women; it exposed knowledge that had been buried and speech that had been silenced. Anger was a link to previous suppressed histories, and a revolutionary coalition. I couldn’t believe—still can’t—how angry I can become, from deep down and way back, it sometimes feels like a five-thousand-years of buried anger. Every black woman in America lives her life somewhere along a wide curve of ancient and unexpressed angers, Audre Lorde observed. Only when women are able to feel anger, and then recognize, accept, and direct it towards the real enemy can an association occur.
If black women can identify their sources of anger and analyze why they use it is a form of expression. Their anger may then be used as a paradigm for understanding the ways in which black women, at different historical moments, have responded to myriad forms of oppression. Even though, there is this long-lasting and unfair stereotype it is typically seen as a negative one, standing for abrasive brash and even ill-tempered, it is also consistent with qualities that is often associated with leadership, such as being decisive, aggressive and resolute.
In a recent study conducted by Robert Livingston and Ella Washington of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, it was found that black women leaders who displayed dominant behavior when interacting with subordinates got more favorable reviews than their white female or black male counterparts who behaved the same way. In fact black women were evaluated comparable to white male leaders who display similarly dominant assertive behavior. Black people are proud; African Americans feel a sense of kinship with other Blacks with whom they can take pride in the accomplishments.
The other side of racial pride is the underlying feeling of shame. Because we feel pride, about accomplishments of Blacks not related, we can also feel ashamed for failure, transgressions and misbehaviors. The ‘strong’ Black woman’ is a negative image of Black women. Black women are super-strong, hyper-competent; we do not have that many individual needs, we really can take care of others, and we can handle business. Despite the “angry” figure that some may try to replace with a “strong” image, Black women are not superhuman. We are not universally strong; we do sometimes feel weak and need help.
Whether being labeled angry or strong, the biggest danger as a Black woman is when I began to think the labels were accurate, and began calling myself a “strong” Black woman. My goal is to recognize that labels are false. They are not indicative to who I am. I may be angry but I am not inherently angry. I am angry about something. So my anger has a meaning. It is not a personality trait. I may be strong enough to make it through difficult circumstances, but that is not because I have an inherent inborn capacity for strength – it is because I have very few other options except to be strong or be destroyed.