Don’t Be That Girl: Black Women And Stereotype Threat

April 11, 2013  |  

Source: Shutterstock

By Ashley Pettaway

A couple weeks ago while sitting in a staff meeting a coworker made a comment that was undeniably offensive. I stared at her blankly trying to find a way to explain to her why what she said was not only ridiculous but also prejudiced. I made sure to check my tone and say things clearly, but as I made my point her reaction was less than satisfactory. I could feel my voice rising and a little voice in my head began to scream, No don’t do it. Do not be the angry Black woman. Of course, I had to be respectful but this voice was different from the usual “keep it professional” mantra I generally live by. This was about a second layer of corporate professionalism we worry about as Black women.

We’ve all had that experience when someone has said something they shouldn’t have and you have to make the decision whether to address or ignore the comment. That little voice in your head that says, “No, don’t be that girl. You don’t want to be the angry Black woman” is an example of stereotype threat. Psychologist Dr. Claude Steele first identified stereotype threat in 1995 as essentially the anxiety that you feel when you fear that you will confirm a negative stereotype. [Source] We mostly talk about this concept in relation to school performances and things of the like, but stereotype threat follows us throughout our lives, in the workplace, and in relationships.

As Black women, we navigate several stereotypes, most notably the angry Black woman and the clingy girlfriend. For some, the fear of confirming these negative stereotypes prevents us from expressing ourselves in times when it’s truly necessary. I get it, you want to put your best foot forward, but at what cost? Let’s be clear, this isn’t about holding your tongue because you know you can’t just go off on whoever you want for looking at you the wrong way. This is about times when you keep silent on important issues simply because you don’t want to be perceived negatively.

Stereotype threat can also influence our behavior in relationships. How often have you said things like, “I’m not like other girls,” to indicate that you’re not clingy or overly sensitive? The problem with this assertion is that it does not allow you any individuality. Being angry, or sensitive, or whatever emotion is part of being human. Women, and especially Black women, do not have the monopoly on these emotions. Trying to avoid them for fear of being negatively stereotyped denies us a part of ourselves.

What are we giving up when we allow these stereotypes to influence our decisions? Of course, some of this is beyond our control. We cannot help the negative stereotypes that folks will place on us, but by stifling ourselves to avoid confirming these stereotypes we are giving away our power. We have to be honest with our coworkers, our loved ones, and most importantly ourselves.

So let’s talk about stereotype threat. Have you ever held your tongue because you didn’t wanted to be seen as a negative stereotype?

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  • scandalous7

    Dont even know how much this article spoke to my heart

  • scandalous7

    Dont even know how much this article spoke to my heart

  • MM82

    I over tip at restaurants all the time whether the service was good or not. I found myself shaking my head at other black women in disgust when I thought they were being inappropriate . I found myself just totally doing too much to not be considered a stereotype. What I had to realize is that I’m not a stereotype so I should just be me. No matter how much I try to show others how intelligent and articulate I am: there will always be someone who sees me as an angry black woman.

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  • Fair and Balanced

    Since we will be stereotyped regardless of how we carry ourselves I have always spoken my mind as I refused to allow anyone to manipulate the way I carry myself. I am a well educated professional whatever you are are going to think about me is on you and quite frankly none of my business as long as you keep your mouth shut. However, if you choose to speak it and I find it offensive then you just made it my business as such, I will address it. The way I see it is if you were brave enough to say it then I will be brave enough to respond to it. Professionalism does not always work especially when anyone states something that is obviously meant to degrade or cut someone down. Caucasian women are experts at doing this, thus I have become an expert at letting them know just how ignorant their statements are regardless of what someone thinks of me. The question must be asked did you think the same of the person who made the statement?

  • CKB

    If someone wants to say I am the “angry Black woman” because I speak out when I see something that is universally wrong. Then you are missing the point. But that will never stop me from voicing my thoughts when the thought needs to be heard.

  • hb

    If you’re actually saying that in your head, worrying about a so-called stereotype, then you’re clearly acknowledging that it’s factual and not just a stereotype.

    • Fergie

      Huh? Uh no. Your argument is made of straw.

      • MiB

        Are you serious? So other people can get angry all they want but if a black women just thinks about it then the stereotype is true? You fail at logic so hard…

  • tara

    I notice that a lot of black women are starting to walk around almost in a stepford wife fashion trying to counteract the stereotypes of black women on reality shows. I was doing the same things holding my tongue because I did not want to be seem like an angry black woman. No more. I am not an angry black woman. I will choose my battles but I wont allow anyone to stifle me.

  • kb

    Maybe when I was younger, but now IDGF. Not that I act out. Black people worry too much about what white people think, if someone thinks I am angry because I speak my mind, they would probably think that anyway. Obama is just about the best black dude out there, and half white people still don’t like him! The saying goes, people who like you will make any excuse for you and people who don’t like you will take any excuse not to like you. Something like that anyway 🙂

    • You can get your point across without yelling and making a scene. Being loud does not equal being correct. It’s not about “what white people think” it’s about acting like an adult and a professional. You’re at work, not in high school or hanging out on the corner with your friends.

      • kb

        So I guess, you didn’t read the part about ” Not that I act out” , and I am very professional. However, I won’t be afraid to voice my opinion on matters, or disagree for fear of being labelled a certain way. Like i said, there are white folks who try to discredit the president at every opportunity, if he can’t impress them , what I chance do I have? I know who I am , and many others to do so I am not going try to be the “best black example” to folk who would dislike me regardless. You keep tryin’ to impress ol’ massa , see if they still like you.