By Lisa Fritsch
I read a quote that said American women are liberated but not empowered. That one can have confidence, but not dignity. For African-American women both liberation and dignity are ensnared in the persona of “The Angry Black Woman.” Not until we can be liberated from the fear of being seen as angry in the face of serious discourse and confrontation will we be empowered to rise up and step into the fullness of our humanity. To exercise authenticity of our presence and purpose, not only have a place at the table but a voice when we get there.
I was meeting with my policy team during my gubernatorial campaign when in one particularly heated session, my voice rose (excitement), I leaned in (intensity), spoke with fervor(passion) and in a way that let others know my words had a mission. I was on a roll and just at the crescendo of my most brilliant observation when one of my main guys said, “ Whoa, there. You might need to calm down, you’re looking like, “The Angry Black Woman.”
I instantly felt a heat hit my throat, but calling on my ability to keep my cool, I feigned one of those breathy laughs, waved him off and tried to get back on topic. But after being identified as “The Angry Black Woman,” the table turned their attention away from my point and sunk their teeth into this assessment. Seeing the confusion on my face, advice rolled in about how I could under no circumstances ever be seen as “The Angry Black Woman,” on the campaign trail. I would lose credibility and the media would turn on me. The more I pushed back on the absurdity of their claims and this myth, the more the moniker stuck and the less ground I was able to gain.
And so, in order to regain ground, I was forced to back off. Silenced.
Nothing scares a successful black woman more than being deemed, “The Angry Black Woman.” It’s the highest insult. “The Angry Black Woman” is a stereotype most successful black women do their best to avoid, though it can be nearly impossible to do so.
Much of my own life—I am loathed to admit—has been designed around escaping any stereotype that could in any way identify me as an ‘Angry Black Woman.’ Striving to be in control of and above this criticism, I liked to think I could direct my fate by managing myself (diction, pitch, pronounce your ‘r’s) and putting my best self (good manners, stand up straight and tall) and face forward (ABS: always be smiling) against the label.
When the label finally caught up with me, I was astounded at my failure to recognize its full and loathsome consequences. I had not allowed myself to acknowledge just how deeply and why it burned me in my bones to be called “The Angry Black Woman.”
One of the first issues Michelle Obama had to address sadly was to defend herself against the stereotype. Educated, successful, assertive and passionate about her views for education and working class Americans she early on had to defend, “I’m not ‘The Angry Black Woman.” In delivering a speech on her experiences of growing up black in America, the First Lady openly discussed the frustrations of being tagged in negative stereotypes and the unique pressures she faced as the first African-American First Lady. In revealing the vulnerability she felt when her first magazine cover depicted her in an afro with a machine gun, and an innocent fist bump with President Obama, then Presidential nominee was hailed as a “terrorist fist jab,” she opened up the fine line Black woman walk between respect and ridicule.
Critics immediately pushed back that her speech was trite, negative, and well… angry. That she “played the race card.” Where critics saw anger, the students in her audience saw passion and truth.
Shonda Rhimes was hit with “The Angry Black Woman,” label after a columnist decided Rhimes’ lead, many Black, female characters were molded in her image as “The Angry Black Woman.” These characters, the actresses, and Ms. Rhimes herself are highly educated, powerful, determined women earning success in a male dominated arena. In defining them as “The Angry Black Woman,” the columnist sought to overshadow and undermine the milestones they’ve made in their fields when anger had a lot less to do with it than perseverance, talent, determination, and craft.
The danger is that society has widely assigned “The Angry Black Woman” to any black woman who expresses strong emotion and varying degrees of humanity, exasperation included. At some point most Black women no matter their level of education, economic status, looks, or temperament will have “The Angry Black Woman” moniker thrust upon them when they play in the big leagues, have serious ambitions, or are seen as an assertive in their marriage. But the fact it, that it’s her audience who prematurely assumes anger as a natural side effect of being Black and female.
We must stop allowing this label to silence and demean us. Our world is missing out on the wealth of knowledge and experience of Black women. Women, and Black women especially, remain silent across several industries: tech, finance, elected government and leadership, and oil and gas — the list goes on— not only because they don’t speak up but because they aren’t even there in the first place. “The Angry Black Woman” stereotype fortifies these barriers and biases.
Black women make up only 3 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. Ursula Burns is the lone black female chief executive in all of Fortune 500 companies. And, Burns who describes herself as having a “big mouth,” with “patience not being one of my strengths,” is no wall flower. Nor, can she be to effectively do her job.
According to a study by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, “Black women were evaluated comparable to white male leaders who displayed dominate and assertive behavior. Further existing studies have shown that professional white men have been granted greater status and power when they’ve expressed anger rather than sadness.”
Black women must be empowered to have passion, pluck, candor and raise the stakes and their voices the same as male counterparts without people assuming they’ve lowered their IQ and the ability to be logical.
I’m reclaiming “The Angry Black Woman” label. Originally when I gave a TEDx on this topic, I thought I would talk on how we should change the ‘A’ to more empowering adjectives such as audacious, ambitious, or assertive. But that would set the bar too low. This would miss the point of human connectedness that understands that humanness employs an array of emotions. We can do better than to relabel a stereotype.
What’s better and what is right is to aim for connection and consciousness around this label. We’re all “The Angry Black Woman” at some point in our lives no matter our ethnicity or gender. The idea isn’t to redefine the proper way for Black women or any woman to conform in order to be taken more seriously. We must educate ourselves to the value women with these traits bring us and to think differently about the role anger can play in gender.
Like happiness, sadness, wonder, anger is a human emotion like an array of others that isn’t constant but can also be useful in the right context.
Christy Matta, a behavioral therapist and researcher tells us that anger can serve an important purpose. Anger helps us overcome difficult obstacles, right wrongs, stand up for ourselves and alerts us to those things that are important to us. And, get this, it is possible to be angry and stay in control of how you behave. According to The Scientific Monitor, research has shown that anger can lead to creative flow and thinking outside the box.
The Angry Black Woman is essential to us as we speak up and out, break down barriers, and push forward. The Angry Black Woman is sensitive because she cares so deeply. She’s passionate because there is a lot at stake. Think where we would be in our society today without all the angry Black women who put progress over posture. So many women who have gone before us saw a situation that made them angry and took a stand. When I’m tempted to back down, speak more softly, or to just grin and bear it, I think of them. Then I give myself permission to rise.
I see now when I was called “The Angry Black Woman,” I shouldn’t have been insulted, rather I should have been proud. Because where anger may have been the catalyst, love was the reason.
Lisa Fritsch is a speaker, author and equity strategist in Austin, TX. Watch the TEDx on this article below.