What Society Gets Wrong About the 'Angry Black Woman' Stereotype

Firstly, she's not real. But she's by no means an accident.

Close your eyes and picture an angry Black woman. It only took an instant to visualize her, right? The image is ready-made: one hand on her hip, one finger pointed in your face, head and neck swiveling. You can probably hear her Black English. She probably strikes you as intimidating. She's overly sensitive and mannish. She's easy to piss off and difficult to calm down. She's aggressive and irrational, too loud and too much.

She's also not real. Let me repeat: The image of the angry Black woman (ABW) that surfaced so easily in your mind is as fake as a fairy tale. She's imaginary, but she's by no means an accident. She — the trope — is meant to control and undermine Black women, to punish us when we express even slight and reasonable indignation, pain, or irritation (let alone rage), and to protect a status quo in which Black women and girls are often treated as interchangeable, 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 expressions of Black female anger, particularly toward white people, were profoundly justified but also impermissible. With a culture and economy that depended on viciously controlling Black women's bodies and lives, it made good economic sense to portray Black female anger as unreasonable and ugly instead of as a rational response to subordination and humiliation.

Once we're seen as angry, the "Angry Black Woman" stereotype deems that anger as explosive, irrational, and scary.

The trope found its way into minstrel shows, where white men donned blackface and fatsuits to play boorish and brooding caricatures of Black women. It moved from that 18th- and 19th-century white imagination to 20th-century entertainment, showing up in dramas such as Gone with the Wind and comedies such as Amos 'n Andy. Popular entertainment from the 1990s, including The Jerry Springer Show and Ricki Lake — which I consumed as a child — helped reinforce the stereotype. In recent years, our culture has stapled the belittling ABW label to Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Kamala Harris, Shonda Rhimes, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Meghan Markle, Jemele Hill, and many others in response to the kind of truth-telling, creativity, and demand for self-respect 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 there's an area of my life, or that of all the Black women I know, that remains unsullied by the ABW stereotype, but I can't. It shows up in work meetings even though I purposefully smile and measure my tone when offering feedback. It shows up in personal relationships when I try to address the emotional harm I'm experiencing. It shows up in response to my writing when I've been told my voice is too convicting or too aggrieved. It even shows up 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, strength, or refusal can be inaccurately labeled "anger" when it comes from a Black woman. And once we're seen as angry, the ABW stereotype deems that "anger" explosive, irrational, and scary.

Studies indicate that the belief that Black women are naturally strong and self-sacrificing is associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms in African American women in the United States
Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

To avoid these scenarios, I, like many Black women, carefully monitor my expressions and body language to make sure I sound calm and reasonable, calibrating myself into a narrow register designed not to scare or offend people in power. It's exhausting. It's dehumanizing. It cuts into my sense of worth and wellbeing. I can't say for sure that it 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 how things will go, a sense that you aren't totally safe, and the ABW caricature puts endless pressure on me to perform niceness in order to stay nominally safe and likable in a world that doesn't particularly like or protect Black women and girls. How could this not feed my chronic sense of uncertainty and unease? (See also: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)

There are quantifiable consequences to living in a culture that plasters a demonizing stereotype to people who express normal human emotions. Instead of showing your anger, you stifle it — and it burrows inward and hurts. Mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and higher stress are often the results of stifled anger. And, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety among Black women is more chronic and has more intense symptoms than those experienced by their white counterparts. Studies show that Black women are less likely to seek help for anxiety and depression and, when they do, are at higher risk of ineffective and damaging treatment.

There's also a physical component to this: The allostatic load Black women bear, including repressed anger, can lead to physical health issues that disproportionately impact Black women, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes-related death, and even breast cancer mortality rates — none of which is good for anxiety and depression. I can't help but wonder whether we're less likely to ask for help because we know the world often misreads our insistence, urgency, and truth-telling as being irrational, scary, and shrill. And I can't help but wonder how often that same misreading results in poor care from mental (and physical) health experts. (

The fact is that, as Solange says, we have a lot to be angry about. Having structural racism and anti-Black bias across every aspect of our lives means we often don't have the same fair shot as our white (and non- Black) counterparts no matter how hard we try. We're more likely to die during childbirth; we make less money; we accrue less wealth; we're overrepresented in prisons and under-represented in the corporate world; we're less likely to have success on dating apps; we're less likely to marry (and reap the financial, physical, and spiritual benefits that often accompany long-term partnership); we're less likely to be given pain medicine when we go to the doctor; we're less likely to be called for an interview if we have names that "sound Black"; we're more likely to be stopped by police; we're more likely to be targeted by unscrupulous banks — the list goes on. None of this is because we're undeserving, untalented, or unfocused. It's because we're Black women, and despite our contributions to art, science, politics, law, philosophy, cuisine, sports, spirituality, music, and the very formation of this country, mainstream society doesn't care about us the way it cares about others. Of course, we are angry.

Instead of hearing us and responding, society continually says the problem is our "lack of manners" or "hypersensitivity" instead of structural inequities. That's what the Angry Black Woman stereotype was designed to do, and why it still exists.

Still, the ABW stereotype means that when we express anger or dissatisfaction, other people are primed to see us as irrational and unhinged. It's so pervasive that even emotions that aren't anger (e.g. sternness, dissatisfaction, strength, and refusal) get inaccurately labeled as "anger" when they come from Black women. Instead of hearing us and responding, society continually says the problem is our "lack of manners" or "hypersensitivity" instead of structural inequities. That's what the ABW stereotype was designed to do, and it's why it still exists. As long as we live under the rule of racial and gender hierarchy, stereotypes that debase Black women will thrive.

Now close your eyes and picture an actual angry Black woman — not the trope. Can you? Can you see her without the pre-conceived cartoonish distortion? Let me help. This woman may be crying in pain. She may be at the peak of her power, righteous and right, and doing what white men do all the time: expressing themselves. She may be a mother, and her "anger" is actually just the determination and grit that define that role. She may be your boss, and her "anger" is actually just honesty about your performance. She may have just endured a racial slight, or her anger may have nothing to do with race at all. She may have every right to be mad, far madder than she looks or is expressing. She may also be feeling scared, alone, and powerless. Or exasperated, impatient, and overwhelmed. Or brave, energized, and in joyful self-possession. She's also, no doubt, being 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 her than afraid for her, even when she is the one who's so often under threat.

A real angry Black woman is multidimensional, not flat, not easily summarized by a trope. She's a richly layered, sophisticated, intelligent human being, not a caricature. She's entitled to feel and display the full scope of human emotions. And she's entitled to your respect while she does it. So let me offer an alternative vision of Black female anger. There's a world in which we recognize Black female anger as beautiful. Beautiful as a response to racism, misogynoir, and injustice everywhere. Beautiful as an act of resistance and creation — resistance in the face of systemic, anti-Black, and anti-woman biases, and, simultaneously, something propulsive, political, and generative, something that makes space for us all to witness and explore the full depth of our shared humanity.

There's a world in which Black female anger is a tonic we can all drink. That world exists on the other side of the demonizing, inaccurate stereotypes; we can create it. It's a world in which we care how Black women are doing, and in which we want to hear them speak.

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