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?