Sunday, June 14, 2009

Confronting the Angry Black Woman in Me

It sometimes seems I’ve lived my life trying to avoid becoming one of the ugly stereotypes that plague black women. I’ve avoided becoming a Welfare Queen or a Teenaged Mother. I’m not a ‘Ho or a pillar of the church. I do my best not to become wider than I am tall, not to speak to my husband in Sapphire’s emasculating tone, or to adopt any “Sho ‘Nuff” Mammyisms. But there’s one stereotype I can’t seem to avoid. Every time I’m confronted with it, I find myself struggling to straddle the balance between the truth of my feelings and a proper response.

Perhaps you’ve guessed the stereotype I struggle with?




Just last night, I had a tangle with the ABW as a result of annoying experience in an ice cream parlor. All I wanted was a scoop of chocolate ice cream—not even for myself, but for my soon to be 4-year old who was playing outside with her father. But I couldn’t get waited on. Even though the store wasn’t crowded, even though there were two employees available (all three of the young people working were girls no older than 18), no one spoke to me. It was like I was invisible.

Then a young man walked in behind me. One of the un-busy girls giggled out a “Oh hi,” and immediately made him an ice cream cone (which he didn’t pay for). The boyfriend special, I supposed. The other girl pretended to scrub the counter and refused to look up.

As I waited unsuccessfully to get an ice cream, my efforts at defying stereotype completely failed.

I was angry.

I was black.

I was a woman…

And I was about to blow.

(Un)fortunately, my husband walked in right then to ask what was taking so long. I complained to him that I’d been standing there, watching others get served (free) ice cream and at that moment, the little girl who’d served her boyfriend decided maybe she should ask me if I’d like something, while the girl who had been cleaning the table looked up as though she had just realized I was standing there. My husband, seeing these girls were about to get a tidal wave of an answer, quickly ordered the ice cream, and I took our daughter to a table.

Now, of course, my irritation under this circumstance is justified. And while it was tempting to play the race card (everyone else in the store was white) as I sat fuming, I couldn’t in all fairness blame race. Immaturity? Yes. Poor customer service? Absolutely. Bad teenaged judgment? Yes, ma’am. Worth a letter to their manager? Already written—with special mention of the free “boyfriend ice cream” service.

But in the car home, I thought about my own conduct… and my anger. I could have loudly announced myself sooner… but I didn’t. I could have insisted I was ahead of the young man, but I didn’t. And instead of complaining to my husband (within the girls’ earshot, of course), I could have just gone off about the lousy service and demanded better treatment. I didn’t do that either.

Perhaps, as you’re reading this, you’re thinking: “You should have.” And perhaps, when I make peace with the angry black woman inside me, I will. But for now, she symbolizes something I’m deeply uncomfortable with and I generally choose NOT to express that side of personality in public.

That’s because in black women what would be considered little more than assertiveness in a woman of another race, often gets painted as something much more strident. The slightest expression of displeasure is read as neck-rolling, finger-waving dressing down. Indeed, I have been accused of “seeming angry” when I’m simply concentrating or thinking. A non-black woman wearing the same expression probably wouldn’t be considered angry. A black woman’s neutral face immediately creates that presumption.

It shouldn’t take a study to support that black women get no angrier than any other group of people—but there has been a study to show just that. If you want to read it online, follow this link:

In the 2000 revision of her ground-breaking work Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins wrote about “anger privilege” explaining that anger is something rewarded in white males—and largely resented or punished in other groups, in minority groups in particular. In order for black women’s anger to be validated, we have to dismantle white male privilege and eliminate the stigma associated with the black women’s worth in society must be elevated. How to dismantle white male privilege? Education, opportunity, and changing our long-ingrained images about how power is held-- and who should hold it.

I believe these changes are underway—President Obama flies in the face of white male privilege, as did Condi Rice, as do the millions of black people holding supervisory sway all over the country—but obviously, there’s still work to do. The Angry Black Woman image is still pervasive in our media (anyone seen a Madea movie, lately?), still alive and well in our cultural shorthand about what a “typical” black woman is like. And therein lies the reason I restrain myself: there is no typical black woman and the efforts to cast us all in a common mold must be resisted, reshaped and reconstructed.

While these types of incidents point to larger social issues, in the final analysis, however, the question of anger is ultimately more personal. I know I have to resolve my own discomfort with expressing my feelings even in situations that I perceive to be potentially racially-charged or where I might be perceived in terms of racial stereotypes. I have to decide how best to express myself to achieve the results that I need. In this case, I didn’t “go off” in the store and maybe I wouldn’t have, even if Kevin hadn’t walked in when he did. After all, it’s just ice cream.

But I did write the letter to the store manager, and I will send it, copying (as we lawyers do) up the corporate ladder. To me, this seems an appropriate expression of my irritation that will probably get a better result than anything I might have said or done in the store.

I’m betting a well-written missive from an unhappy customer will be the end of the Boyfriend Ice Cream special. You never know who you’re ignoring, right?

Note: I received an apology for my experience at the ice cream parlor from the owner along with a gift certificate for a return visit. What me, angry? Not anymore!


  1. I feel ya! I think you did the right thing by writing the store management. I actually use a free service, PlanetFeedback, for this purpose.

    peace, Villager

  2. I suffer this same quandary all the time - wanting to be assertive and stand up for yourself without playing into negative racial stereotypes. There's such a fine line between appearing angry and speaking up, especially in the heat of the moment. And I resent the fact that we are probably the only race of women that have to deal with this question before we speak our minds.

    Don't even get me started on the Tyler Perry garbage... I wish black women would stop bankrolling foolishness. I'm usually lenient on black women when it comes to pointing fingers, since we get blamed for SO much. But I don't see black men or any other group supporting his garbage like black women do. He ties with Michael Baisden as the #1 spot on my protest list!

  3. Hey Karen, I saw your blogsite mentioned over on Prosechild's site.

    Under those circumstances, I would have wondered for a few secs why I wasn't getting waited on and I would have then said, "Excuse me, but I would like some ice cream?" And I would have made eye contact and said it with an authoritative voice. I've found that usually gets a quick response of some sort, and it usually puts the other person on the defense. That usually causes the person, especially in that type of position to become apologetic or to snap into action to wait on me. That almost always works.

    If the person becomes defensive in a negative way, I then refuse to talk to him/her and will cut them off and say, "I need your supervisor's (or the owner's) name and number." At this point, the person becomes almost always becomes very apologetic and that usually defuses the situation. I'm still not ANGRY at this point because my goal is to get what I'm there to get.

    What I'm saying is that I usually will assert myself before I get ANGRY and that's something I learned to do early in my life to prevent me from becoming really ANGRY.LOL! This is actually a way to protect myself because when I pop, I really POP!

  4. Hi, Karyn

    Great post! This comment really hit home with me:
    "That’s because in black women what would be considered little more than assertiveness in a woman of another race, often gets painted as something much more strident. The slightest expression of displeasure is read as neck-rolling, finger-waving dressing down."

    This reminded me of an incident with one of my professors last semester. I expressed my displeasure with something I felt was unfair and later on when class started he felt the need to tell the class what I said to him in private, concluding his statement with "You guys should have seen Muse - she was shaking her neck and everything!" He then proceeded to roll his neck, imitating something that never actually happened.

    I was shocked and completely caught off guard. I had no idea how to respond in that situation, so I didn't.