From the single mother who complains about child support to the first lady of the United States, it seems like Black women of all ages and classes have been accused of either being “angry” or too “strong” at some point in life.
In response to claims that she tried to forcefully impose her will on White House aides, First Lady Michelle Obama recently tried to defend herself against being labeled an “angry Black woman,” saying instead that she is merely a “strong woman.” By calling herself “strong,” however, could she be trying to overcompensate for feelings of shame?
In her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, author, professor and newly appointed MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry studies and breaks down stereotypes, including the portrayal of both the “angry” and “strong" Black woman.
“I am deeply interested in how Black women are received, how they discover and create space for citizenship,” Harris-Perry tells BET.com. “Part of why I’m interested in that is because it’s a struggle that I have been personally a part of, but also because I’m raising an African-American daughter and I am sometimes incredibly optimistic and sometimes incredibly distressed about the world that she will face as a Black woman over the course of the next few decades.”
Although many may think the Angry Black Woman is a white supremacist myth, Harris-Perry says they’re wrong. In fact, she says, it is a regularly revived and recreated perception within the Black community.
“The idea of the angry woman is particularly recreated by African-American men who have an interest in displaying Black women as emasculating or overbearing or angry as a means of basically controlling us from actually asking for what we need,” says Harris-Perry. “If you ask for what you need or what you want, you’re just an angry Black woman.”
If you don’t ask for what you need and try to do everything on your own, however, you could then be labeled as a “strong” Black woman — a term that may sound like a compliment, but in reality contributes to a derogatory ideal that holds Black women back from political progression.
According to the professor, one way to understand the terms is through the lens of racial pride. Black people are proud of Harriet Tubman for her acts of liberation. They are proud of Martin Luther King Jr. for his courage and bravery; they are proud of Michelle Obama for her grace under fire. Although they may not know these people personally, African-Americans feel a sense of kinship with other Blacks with whom they can take pride in their accomplishments.
There’s a flip side, however. The other side of racial pride is an underlying feeling of shame, according to Harris-Perry: If you can feel proud about the accomplishments of a Black person not related to you, then you can also feel ashamed for their failure, transgressions or misbehavior as well.
“The 'strong Black woman' is a response against all of these negative images of Black women. Part of what we do is create this positive image of ourselves: We are super-strong, hyper-competent; we don’t have that many individual needs, we really can take care of others and we can handle business,” she says.
Despite the “angry” figure that some may try to replace with a “strong” image, Perry says the reality is that Black women are not superhuman. They are not universally strong and they do sometimes feel weak and need help.
Whether being labeled as angry or strong, Perry says the biggest danger for Black women is when they begin to think the labels are accurate, and in response try to line their abilities up with, for example, the strong Black woman.
“I think our goal has to be to recognize that [the labels] are false. They’re not indicative of who we are as human beings,” Harris-Perry says. “We may be angry, but we're not just inherently angry, we’re angry about something. So our anger has meaning. It’s not a personality trait. We may be strong enough to make it through difficult circumstances, but that is not because we have an inherent inborn capacity for strength — it’s because we have very few other options except to be strong or to be destroyed.”
Harris-Perry says once we recognize that the terms are false, room is opened for the “strong Black woman” to ask for help, from our loved ones and from our government.
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(Photo: Yale University Press)