The Myth of the Angry Black Woman
"If you want to heal, take responsibility for your behavior. This is the only way to recognize the pattern of abuse in which you are engaged."
— Paul Ferrini
As a child, my grandmother warned me repeatedly, "You can't be like everyone else. You can't do what everyone else does. You can't get away with what other people get away with 'cause you ain't like everybody else." I never really understood what that meant until I became an adult and someone called me "angry" for the first time.
Having been taught, like so many of my peers, that anger is bad, wrong, and that I am not entitled to feel it, I defended myself against the accusation, denying the anger as well as the hurt, pain and confusion I was experiencing. Reared in a childhood that was one step above poverty, being shuttled from one family member to another (with my deceased mother's Social Security check attached to my name), being sexually violated at age 9, and pregnant and abandoned at 14, I had a right to be angry with a number of people—including myself. However, because, unlike other people, I could not have an authentic emotional experience, feel or express it, I denied my physical and emotional reality. I was a black woman, burdened by dehumanizing stereotypes, laboring under familial expectations and social judgments. This meant I was required to label my experiences with the realities given to me and those expected of me. Yes, I was angry, and that is not all I felt or experienced; anger was the part I was taught to deny or cover up.
There are dangerously false stereotypes about black women that not only diminish our humanity but also distort our self-image. While it is perfectly natural and acceptable for human beings to engage in a variety of emotional expressions, when a black woman's expression makes others uncomfortable, the labels given to those expressions become her identity. A white woman's emotional reactions, regardless of how outlandish or inappropriate, are perceived differently than those of black women. When white women express their emotional states, it is perceived as a "bad-hair day" or, perhaps, a hormonal imbalance. When a black woman does the same, her behavior becomes who she is in the sight of others. She is assumed to be easy to trigger and difficult to control. The label silences the natural, organic expression of feelings of being overwhelmed, fear and the experience of being stripped of personal power or private space.
Not unlike all people, black women bring the burdens, traumas and wounds of childhood into adulthood. Many of these things are not specific to race. They are a function of relationships: how they are established, what is expected and how we are treated. But, because we are not like everyone else, we cannot get away with the same things others express as a result of their relationship experiences.
Black women are not expected to feel disappointed or hurt. We are often not given the time to be sad or to grieve. We are not entitled to feel violated or diminished. We are not expected to experience or express feelings of being lost or confused or, in some instances, human. These emotional experiences do not align with the labels of mammy, savior of the race, beast of burden or the oversexualized jezebel. Who we are and how we express ourselves has historical, political and social implications that are rarely acknowledged or addressed truthfully and authentically. Like all people, we do hold and carry anger. It is not, however, the sum total of who we are or what we feel. Unfortunately, anger has become what we exploit, bowing down to express it or bending over backward to deny it.
Historically, black women have not been treated as if they matter unless someone else is reaping the benefit from our presence or existence. In fact, many of us have been taught by word and experience that we don't matter to the people who matter most to us.
The average black woman holds the expectation that she will be treated badly by almost everyone and that her feelings about her treatment do not matter. We are expected to serve, to give, to be in alignment with the expectations of others, no matter what we feel. There is a sense that many white women are taught to have a stronger belief that they matter. This means they have an expectation that what they need, desire or have to say will matter to someone. Black women must be taught that they matter, that their voice matters and that their pain matters.
How do you teach someone that they matter? When a person knows that they matter, how do they behave? What does it look like when people are treated as if they matter? How do you live a life that matters?
These are the inquiries every black woman and society at large must begin to examine and explore without heat or the judgment that to do so excludes and diminishes the experiences of everyone else. The labels that loom over the behaviors and personalities of black women have historical and political roots that must be examined and transformed. The question is, Whose responsibility is it to spearhead the examination and shift the perception? More importantly, who will be the beneficiary of the shift?
Iyanla further explores the myth of the angry black woman on the return of her show, Iyanla: Fix My Life, airing Saturday, September 10, at 9 p.m. ET on OWN.
Meet the women featured in the four-part episode