On Being an Angry Black Woman

Yes, I am an Angry Black Woman and I’m not sorry for it. Last Monday, The Root featured an article from Clutch Magazine by Shayla Pierce titled, “Sorry to Disappoint You, But I’m Not an Angry Black Woman.” This immediately piqued my interest and I read both the short excerpt on The Root’s website and the full article online at Clutch Magazine with a fair bit of wary curiosity.

In the article, Pierce recounts an encounter with a waiter while having lunch at a restaurant. There was something amiss with her soup, a foreign body floating in the broth, and Pierce called the waiter over and asked for her soup to be replaced. Pierce says that the waiter then became very tense, asking her to calm down, and everything would be taken care of. Now Pierce doesn’t recall getting loud, being contentious, or doing anything that would have provoked such a defensive response on the part of waiter. In her estimation, the waiter responded to the stereotype of an Angry Black Woman, instead of to the dissatisfied customer who was in front of him, who happened to be a Black woman. I recognized this in my own life; I have been told usually by White women that they find me “intimidating” and even that they were “afraid” of me. Like Pierce, I am pretty sure I’ve never given a public display of rage or even a level of impatience that would justify that kind of reaction. Granted, I don’t mince words often and I enunciate when I speak so that I can be heard and understood clearly; I don’t let my voice rise at the end of a declarative sentence as though I were asking a question and I don’t get easily intimidated by someone cutting me off while I’m speaking. None of this has to do with me being “angry” and I think a lot of it comes from being born and raised in New York City, attending high school at an all-girls school (Convent of the Sacred Heart), and being socialized in Black rhetorical styles on the playground, at church, and foremost in my own house. All of this upbringing has shaped my personality such that I’m usually somewhat stern at first glance and speak clearly, directly, and don’t take anyone’s b.s. Guilty as charged.

However, Pierce’s key point was to assert a certain way of being as a Black woman. As the title indicates, she’s sorry to disappoint those who expect her to become enraged at the slightest provocation, the epitome of what I guess she thinks it means to be an Angry Black Woman. She says, not necessarily incorrectly, that the Angry Black Woman is a myth, a stereotype, and she proactively and assertively disputes the stereotype through deliberately refusing to display anger, especially when White people are present. I heard a mid-level student affairs professional, a Black woman, express a similar sentiment in a training I did last Monday. She confessed that sometimes, many times, she would hide her authentic reaction to a situation fearing that if she were to show up authentic in that moment that she would be seen as the Angry Black Woman and lose her credibility as a professional working with a staff of predominantly White people. Pierce also acknowledges that Black women’s anger is often dismissed, causing real, substantive issues to be ignored while folks focus on the display of anger being performed and judge it to be a farce.

Hmmmm.

Anger does make people awfully uncomfortable, especially when they and their actions are the target of that anger. When marginalized groups get angry about their oppression, dominant groups tend to get jittery. In the same vein, anger is not always the appropriate response to every situation. As Pierce recounts in her article, something floating in her soup that wasn’t on the menu wasn’t much cause for rage. However, there are many issues and situations in life where anger and rage are not only appropriate and justified but are demanded.

I find it interesting that anger has been used to negatively stereotype Black women, “saucy” Latina women, Asian women, indigenous women, lesbian women, PMSing women – do you see a trend here? Yup, they’re all WOMEN who are systematically oppressed because they do not fit into the ideal trope of hegemonic femininity. Women aren’t supposed to be angry apparently and when they are angry, it’s a farce, a ridiculous display of inappropriate emotion. Moreover, women aren’t supposed to clearly and directly express the changes they want to see in their lives and in the lives of those around them (I’d like a new bowl of soup please). Women must control themselves and not be intimidating (read strong) otherwise people (read people with power) won’t take them seriously (read won’t be able to see them as cute anymore).

Oh please.

Several years ago, I read a book by bell hooks* called Killing Rage. When I first saw the title, I thought killing was meant to be a verb and assumed the book was going to be about squelching rage. Consequently I read it with a fair amount of apprehension; this was meant to teach me how not to be angry and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. But no, killing is being used as an adjective in the title and as a verb. Once I realized that, reading the book became very transformative for me. In her book, hooks justifies the need for what she calls a killing rage – a rage that is inspired by recognition of oppression and a passion for justice. This kind of rage should be stoked, not for the purpose of destructive violence, but rather to maintain one’s fire when you want to give up. But that’s just half the lesson of the book. hooks also documents the ways in which dominant systems try to squelch, or kill, the rage of marginalized groups for the purposes of maintaining the status quo. The first step to maintaining power and control is to diffuse people’s anger.

So, sometimes, when it’s warranted, I am an Angry Black Woman and I am not sorry for it. I am angry in response to systematic oppression and privilege, not because there’s a fly in my soup, Aldo’s doesn’t carry men’s size 6 in stock in Toledo, or even because somebody stepped on my foot in a crowded line outside the World of Coca-Cola. I am reclaiming the Angry Black Woman because her anger is useful and historically and presently justified as a fitting response to the killing and maiming of her sons and fathers, the raping of her daughters and sisters, the drying up of dreams like Langston Hughes’s raisin in the sun, and the constant threat of horror upon horror unleashed by an oppressive state.

I am not giving up my anger. As that participant said by the end of the training, it’s time to stop caring what everybody else thinks and show up authentic. Being angry doesn’t mean that I could be subject to psychotic rage at any given moment – that’s the stereotype, the farce that makes for high ratings on reality TV. Real anger, bell hooks’ killing rage, is fuel for action. Bayard Rustin didn’t school Martin Luther King, Jr. in nonviolent protest tactics because they weren’t angry, but because they knew how to use their anger as fuel, as motivation. Anger isn’t the absence of love, either. Both anger and love are rooted in passion, but moreso, anger is an outgrowth of loving something so much that you can’t stand to see it fail to fulfill its promise. Anger is also a sign of hope and faith that says you have not resigned yourself to the inevitability of the outcome. As Popeye used to say, “I can’t stands it no more!”

I think we all need to get angry so that we can all make change happen on behalf of justice.

Next time on #higheredWed, my response to the Penn State controversy.

*bell hooks intentionally does not capitalize the first letters in her name and so neither am I.

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4 thoughts on “On Being an Angry Black Woman

  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful post! As a multiracial woman, this definitely resonates with my experience. There have been many times in meetings where authentic emotion or concern for student development gets mistaken for being irrational, overly emotional, angry, or perceived as a professional liability. I have also been disappointed with the number of times other women, typically white women, have criticized me for being passionate about these issues, suggesting that I try to be more constructive and subdued in my responses.

    I sincerely appreciate this reflection and how you describe hooks’ killing rage. I’m curious if you’re familiar with Beverly Harrison’s essay, The Power of Anger in the Work of Love. A lot of the themes seem to mirror well with this piece. Thanks again!

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