Stereotypes permeate our society through media depictions and social interactions. Popular stereotypes are often based on race, gender, or class.
Experiencing both a combination of race and gender, Black women are faced with stereotypes of being mean, aggressive, or overly assertive. A perception that created the “Angry Black Woman,” a label that stereotypes Black women and manipulates characteristics about them into a negative light.
In a 2019 NPR interview, Dr. Brittney Cooper discussed utilizing the power of anger in her book, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Cooper, an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, gives reasoning to what this label for Black women means in broader, societal terms.
“Whenever someone weaponizes anger against Black women, it is designed to silence them. It is designed to discredit them and to say that they are overreacting, that they are being hypersensitive, that their reaction is outsized,” said Cooper.
Black women’s reactions not being taken seriously or seen as exaggerations are another way of silencing them and relegating them to being background characters in their own narratives. Instead of being acknowledged as an individual along with their experiences being seen as valid, Black women are placed back into their proverbial box with the stereotypes of overreacting, being too loud, or taking things too personal.
The emotional response of anger is normal and should be seen as such when an individual has been disrespected, but this courtesy is not granted to Black women. Black women aren’t allowed to be seen as complex individuals.
“Black women are generally framed as either angry, strong or both. While anger and rage are a reasonable response to oppression, the danger is that it caricatures and dehumanizes Black women, making them instant memes while refusing to engage them as emotionally intelligent and vulnerable,” said Dr. Robin Boylorn.
Boylorn, a professor in the Communication Studies department at The University of Alabama, connects her comment with the notion that if a woman is not smiling or in some state of happiness, she is perceived to be angry. For Black women, this works against them even more in combating perceptions of being less than and the capacity to showcase only one emotion.
Digging deeper into this stereotype the history of which spans into the spheres of academia and popular culture. The feminist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins, coined a series of intellectual frameworks that shape the ideas about Black women, one being “controlling images.”
The controlling images framework encompasses historical stereotypes from slavery, being labeled as either a mammy, jezebel, or sapphire. Images showing Black women only as overworked laborers, hypersexual, or too angry. All of which expanded into media interpretations, fueling and framing the public’s view of Black women.
One influential media depiction was the 1950’s television show, Amos N’ Andy. Friend of the main character, Sapphire Stevens was shown as an aggressive and demanding woman. With the popularity of the show, the character of Sapphire became associated with the image of what an “angry” Black woman is as this representation acted as a marker of comparison to be used against Black women and only grew in different examples throughout time.
The 1970s’show Sanford and Son saw the character of Aunt Esther inhabiting the “angry” Black woman stereotype as she belittles the main character, Fred Sanford. Additional depictions show the character Sheneneh from the 90s’ sitcom Martin, the 2018 Tyler Perry film, Acrimony and even a meme of former The Real Housewives of Atlanta star, Nene Leakes.
These portrayals are reinforcements of the “angry” Black woman trope. They cause Black women to be misperceived. Any critique becomes seen as hypercritical. And so Black women become misread. In many ways, who Black women truly are becomes invisible, all because Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that Black women have the right to be outspoken and assertive.
Portrayals and images that have ingrained themselves into the societal psyche and formulated an idea that is considered true has affected Black women by having to walk a proverbial tightrope of how they are perceived, leading to them negotiating their anger and tempering their responses.
Black women have been unfairly tasked with carrying the weight and responsibility of their entire race and must consider this labor when combating against stereotypes. A relief is found among fellow Black women in recognizing these familiar burdens and not reducing one another to a simplified label.
As explained by Dr. Boylorn, “It is a way other people label us, not a way we label or understand ourselves. We may recognize anger or pain, but we understand it is not a characterization as much as a response to misogynoir and oppression. We know that our anger is not inherent, it is prescriptive.”
This stereotype has been one that has and continues to affect Black women but is also being used as a signifier of their strength and weaponized to elevate their voices and concerns to a society that has tried to silence them for their own benefit.
Black women use their anger through movements such as Black Lives Matter or pop culture influences such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade. These examples and others showcase Black women reclaiming the label of “Angry Black Woman” to work for and not against them in order to push back against negative imagery and injustices. Allowing Black women to showcase their entire emotional spectrum and individuality.