A stereotype is defined as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Underrepresented minority groups often find themselves having to overcome widely-held stereotypes about their groups. For Asians, they are dubbed the model minorities, with many of the labels and stereotypes about this group being more positive in nature, although they do experience stereotyping about their lack of interpersonal skills and their inability to be assertive. Women in the workplace must overcome the glass ceiling, which is the invisible barrier that prevents them from career ascension and progression.
For black women in the workplace, this glass ceiling may seem even more impenetrable. Black women must overcome the angry black woman stereotype, which characterizes black women as bad-tempered, hostile and overly aggressive. For evidence of this stereotype, one must look no further than recent headlines regarding Serena Williams. Other examples of this stereotype being applied include Michelle Obama, Jemele Hill and Shonda Rhimes.
The origin of the angry black woman stereotype is believed to stem from the 1950s radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, which depicted black women as sassy and domineering. The angry black woman stereotype has persisted over half a century later. Columbia University professor Kimberlé Crenshaw states in her research that the intersectionality of the black woman’s experience is unique to that of black men and white women.
Crenshaw also asserts that the double minority status of black women makes them more vulnerable to further marginalization. How can black women overcome the angry black woman stereotype in the workplace? What can organizations do to stop this stereotype from persisting?
1. Educate yourself. Part of the problem and the reason why this stereotype persists is a lack of awareness that this stereotype exists as well as a lack of understanding regarding black women’s experiences. There are a number of different books that detail the black woman’s experience and will give outsiders a deeper understanding of what black women go through on a daily basis. Education is a powerful tool in dismantling prejudiced and racist ideals. A lack of understanding and awareness of the experiences of different marginalized groups only further widens the perceived gap. Take the time to learn more about your black female coworkers.
2. Express yourself. Although the angry black woman stereotype can lead to negative workplace experiences and outcomes, one ground-breaking study found that because black women are more likely to be thought of as assertive, dominant and exhibiting traits often associated with white male leaders, they were not penalized for displaying these traits, whereas their white female and black male counterparts were. The research found that because of the double minority status of black women, they experienced something like a canceling out effect, which minimized the discrimination they experienced in relation to their counterparts. This research is encouraging for black women who fear expressing their emotions and displaying certain traits at work.
In addition, black women were found to experience many negative health outcomes including anxiety, at a greater rate than their white counterparts. Repressing emotions like anger for fear of adhering to the angry black woman stereotype may actually end up being more damaging in the long run. Aside from the fact that bottling up one’s emotions is an unhealthy practice in general, when black women display a range of emotions, this can help others to see that black women are multifaceted and dynamic. Witnessing black women displaying different emotions, whether that be anger, sadness, or joy helps to normalize it.
3. Check yourself. Unconscious biases may further perpetuate the angry black woman stereotype at work. Diversity and inclusion training should focus on these unchecked beliefs and views that each employee holds about other groups. Employees should be given the opportunity to listen to black women’s experiences and stories.
Employees should also be encouraged to amplify the voices of black women and women of color, especially during board room discussions and meetings. When was the last time you supported a black woman at work? What formal or informal mentorship opportunities does your company offer? What are the ways that you could utilize your knowledge and expertise to uplift a black woman are your company? These are all important questions that each employee should ask themselves.
It is imperative to speak up when you witness the label being applied to black women. Whether it is you who is being labeled or another employee who this stereotype is being applied to, it is critical to speak up and speak out.
When stereotyping goes unchecked, this gives employees the perception that this behavior is acceptable. It might even be something as seemingly benign as a coworker commenting on Michelle Obama’s demeanor or giving an opinion on Serena Williams’ approach. Any employee who is complicit when witnessing stereotypes being perpetuated is contributing to the larger problem.
The responsibility of deconstructing racism and sexism belongs to each employee. Using your voice to amplify the voices of black women, learning more about how you could be contributing to the problem, and speaking out against labeling and stereotyping are all methods that employees can utilize to foster a more inclusive workplace.