Posted in Blog, Mental Health

The “Aggressive” Black Woman Label (Essay)

 

When we focus our discussions on sexism and racism, targets of sexism tend to focus on white women, and targets of racism tend to focus on Black men, while women of colour get forgotten about.

 

As a Black woman having grown up around white-centric environments, growing up, I was always described as shy, soft-spoken, reserved and quiet but then in my late twenties, when I began to embrace my Black culture, I was subjected to negative stereotyping in many different areas of my life.

It wasn’t until my negative Teacher Training experience last year, that I was ever described by anybody as “aggressive” for the first time. This was also the first time that I was seen as a Black woman. I was shocked. My Black friends were bewildered because I was the quietest in the group. However, as only one of two Black teachers in the very white comprehensive school, this was not just about the colour of my skin. This was also about my actions: speaking up for myself and for my Black pupils who were being unfairly targeted. However, my employers thought otherwise and quickly labelled me as “aggressive” for speaking “out of turn”.

 

The second time I was called “aggressive” was shortly afterwards, in a mental health Facebook group, when somebody referred to the Grenfell fire as “just a fire”. The initial complaint came from one white woman who was asking for sympathy, because the media coverage a month after the tragedy was still too overwhelming. In response another white woman said: “remember it was just a fire”. As a Black woman from London, I was shocked that people from outside London could refer to such a tragedy in my hometown so carelessly and flippantly. While a community was (and still is) grieving and my city was raging you’re asking for sympathy, because you’re incapable of basic empathy? I remember my words explicitly: “I implore of you, please don’t refer to it as ‘just a fire’”, before I was ganged up against by the entire group and labelled as “aggressive” for daring to so insensitively call out the person who had made the comment.

I have Epilepsy and would talk openly about the negative side-effects of anti-epileptic drugs, as well as what it’s like to live life as a Black woman with Epilepsy. However, the more I’ve been reading into Epilepsy research, the more it has become apparent just how racist empirical research is — in fact, most of the medical studies do not contain any people of colour whatsoever. And now that I am making this racism known as part of my campaigning, other campaigners are labelling me as “aggressive”.

 

Wendy Ashley explains the stereotype of the “angry Black woman” as a characterisation of “ignorant without provocation” (Ashley, 2014, DOI: 10.1080/19371918.2011.619449). However, in all of my examples you can be assured that I was never ignorant, and I was definitely provoked. One thing my Teacher Training experience opened my eyes to was to explore the question: why are Black women never permitted the freedom to display anger as a valid expression of emotion? We are constantly forced to police our emotions, for fear of not slipping into that “angry Black woman stereotype”. Even Serena Williams throughout her career, has been consistently labelled as aggressive, even though she is retaliating (with class I must add) to constant racial macrogressions and aggressive provocations.

 

If you’ve been hurt, and somebody has caused you pain, you have every right to be angry! Just like any other woman of any other colour, girl!

 

So where does this stereotype even come from?

 

In light of not so recent events where Serena Williams was also labelled as aggressive by the media, Black women are suffering this every day where they are subjected to negative stereotyping, while juxtaposed with invisibility – particularly in the workplace.

Unfortunately, as Black women we struggle to be heard and struggle to be visible, due to being “intersectionally disabled” (Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008, DOI/10.1177/1368430216663017). Research also describes “angry Black women” typically being “aggressive, unfeminine, undesirable, overbearing, attitudinal, bitter, mean, and hell raising” (Malveaux, 1989; Morgan & Bennett, 2006, DOI/10.1080/19371918.2011.619449). This is of course in direct comparison to our white cis female counterparts, who are perceived socially as fair, more feminine, less-aggressive and therefore more desirable.

 

Having a strong sense of self is equally perceived as aggressive and threatening: So many women struggle with their self-image and self-constructs, that Black women who are perceived to have a handle on theirs (even when we don’t!) may be misunderstood by their peers to be aggressive. However, the concept of the confident Black woman is a phenomenon that has become more widespread — particularly in UK, mostly thanks to social media, which millenial Black women are wholeheartedly embracing: the Slumflower instigated the #saggyboobsmatter movement and is also empowering women to embrace their gut feelings. Unfortunately, people still perceive these drives towards positive mindsets as aggressive.

 

I have just finished reading Americanah (2014) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In it, Aunty Uju says: “These [white] people make you aggressive just to hold your dignity”, which is always my response when provoked. I feel like I’m being put onto a stage against my will and the audience are hurling abusive insults at me, just waiting for my reaction.

This relates to Personality Theory: there, behavioral tendency refers to the way an individual prefers to act, heavily influenced by the individual’s preferred thought process, the current situation, the current available resources, and the authority the person currently has. Using this, we are constantly proven not to be aggressive in many situations we are forced into:

Black women reported that, like me, they were forced to encounter negative race-based stereotypes in the workplace on a regular basis (Catalyst, 2004, DOI 10.1177/0894845308325645). Another study was able to make correlations between experiences of negative race-based stereotypes for Black women in employment and historical misogynoir:

Thus, Black women are forced to contend with many negative racial stereotypes, which can obstruct their professional lives and connections with others in the workplace. Historical stereotypical images—such as the caretaker Mammy, the loud-talking Sapphire, and the seductive Jezebel—in addition to emerging images, such as the unstable Crazy Black Bitch (CBB) and the constant overachieving Superwoman, may affect Black women’s professional goals, work relationships, and overall organizational experiences” (Reynolds-Dobbs et al, 2008, p.130-131, DOI, 10.1177/0894845308325645).

 

So, sometimes it simply doesn’t matter how much of a “workface” we put on, how much overtime we put in—due to the overpowering negative history of the “angry Black woman” stereotype, for us the glass ceiling is still significantly lower.

 

Social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw reminds us that the law does not recognise intersectionality and therefore, as Black women we cannot look to the law as our saviour.

 

Unfortunately as a Black woman, you just have to be your own.

 

Author:

I’m Cece Alexandra and I have Epilepsy. Since being diagnosed, my life has changed significantly. After studying and teaching Humanities and Literature for all of my adult life, I was bullied and lost my job a month before qualifying to become an English Teacher. Once you fail the Teacher Training course in England, you cannot ever retrain; I then became too sick to work because of my Epilepsy. I am now currently studying an MSc in Mental Health Psychology with the University of Liverpool. My disability provokes me into raising awareness for invisible disabilities, which I also actively partake in with Epilepsy Action. Part of that awareness is to help fight against invisible disability discrimination - I believe that this behaviour is not cognitively unconscious; modern society is actively partaking in a hierarchy of disabilities and I believe that there is not enough psychological research to prove this. I am also clinically interested in Cultural Psychology - particularly Collectivist Culture, and wish to pursue this further in my academic career.

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