On Anger…

1 Oct

This post does not contain images because I don’t want to animate the stereotype, but in Google image searches for “Sapphire” and “Angry Black Woman,” Michelle Obama was prominently featured.

In a brilliantly provocative paper at ASALH this year, Dr. Gwendolyn Pough invited us to rethink the black woman stereotype of Sapphire, the emasculating black bitch who’s always ready to fight. Pough notes that the “angry black woman” is the least investigated of the stereotypes of black women and the one people are most likely to assume is true. Pough’s paper was a jumping off point for a lively discussion about the political utility of black women’s anger and the questions it raised reverberate in my mind. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, also had the uses of anger on her mind and wrote a piece for Womenetics, imploring black women to get angry and use their intellectual gifts to create the world we want.

Anger has been a really tough emotion for me to grasp. When I was little, my anger wasn’t valid because I was a child. As I got older, the sapphire script was something I actively avoided. It seemed that as a dark skinned black girl, I was always already being told that I was angry. I smiled a lot. I learned to self silence to the point that I don’t even always tell friends when little things hurt my feelings. I didn’t express anger, opting for sadness with no tears, as opposed to righteous indignation.

On a recent flight from Ithaca to Atlanta, I was subjected to additional searching. This included the TSA officer taking my lunch, a burrito, out of the paper bag it was in and swiping the chemical detection cloth over the paper bag and foil covered burrito, putting the burrito into the small tray for wallets and pocket change and running it through the conveyered x-ray machine two times. Needless to say none of the other passengers I saw who had food were subjected to the same. I was livid. Ithaca has a small airport and all the other passengers on my flight witnessed this extra search of my things. I was so flustered, I dropped my hat and it was the other black passenger who pointed to where it was. I was hot with anger and embarrassment but I didn’t say anything. I called a friend and we discussed the incident briefly, coming up with non-confrontational things I could have said like, “Wow, so people are trying to hide things in food now?”  I couldn’t think of anything in the moment. I swallowed the incident down and boarded the plane.

I worry about this now default reaction of mine when confronted with moments like this. While the incident itself wasn’t physically violent, I felt it in my body. I got hot; my stomach churned. I had some kind of internal reaction the incident that left me feeling unwell. This doesn’t happen every time of course but microaggressions are sometimes so frequent, it’s hard to gauge their impact. There are black women and other women of color in my life who have had bouts with or sucumbs to cancer that I link to this swallowing down of the daily assaults on our personhood. It adds up and that ish is toxic.

Sheri Randolph, a panelist with Pough, also mentioned colorism as it related to anger as the people mentioned in the talk, Melissa Harris Perry, June Jordan, Audre Lorde were all lighter skinned Black women whose anger erupted in the public sphere. Was/is there more room for their anger than mine? I try to think of dark skinned black women’s anger in public and how it is read and what seems to be different is the assumption of anger initially. Michelle Obama has perhaps never lost her cool but is always already assumed to be angry. But as an audience member in the room said, “Anger darkens,” meaning any expression of anger moves you further to the dark side of the color line. Both Jordan and Lorde died of cancer though, so whatever room they had was not enough.

One audience member during the session reminded us that because even speaking directly or pointedly as a Black woman is read as anger, many of us hold back and suppress feelings in general. This silence won’t protect us but it seems like it is harming us as well. This blog is a safe space for my anger but I need more than this corner of the internet to unfurl my tongue and release my truths.

23 Responses to “On Anger…”

  1. Annemarie October 1, 2012 at 10:41 AM #


    The experience of racism does manifest in illness and poor health outcomes for black women. And, in the case of poor birth outcomes, a team of researchers were able to isolate that as a likely culprit, regardless of education/class, etc.

  2. focsimama October 1, 2012 at 10:45 AM #

    Thank you for sharing. During the course of my career in a field dominated by white males, speaking bluntly or point blank with just the facts, is often viewed as attitude. I was told I needed to add some fluff or not be so direct, because it was perceived as anger. No matter how many times I expressed that I was nowhere near angry.

    At times when I was angry, I found a way to express that anger in a professional manner, & then I was simply being confrontational despite being correct. That however did not matter, I learned that I was supposed to “take it” whatever “it” was with a smile, and stay in my place. To that I say, “Go straight to hell. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. I will not be a doormat, verbal punching bag, or whipping post.”

    Showing emotion is a negative when you are a woman of color, but a white woman or any other woman who is often viewed as submissive is deemed assertive, a real go-getter instead of angry, a ball buster, a b*tch, etc. It is a movement, a cause to rally behind, but with US it is often seen as being petty, unjustified, over the top, melodramatic, and unprofessional no matter how many $100 words you drop and leave them perplexed and confused as to what you even said.

    It is unfortunate that, women of color, cannot express righteous indignation without being labeled an angry black woman. Thank you reality tv. You have done us no favors in that department.

    • teresz October 3, 2012 at 2:55 PM #

      “…speaking bluntly or point blank with just the facts, is often viewed as attitude. I was told I needed to add some fluff or not be so direct, because it was perceived as anger. No matter how many times I expressed that I was nowhere near angry.”

      You took the words right out my mouth. I have gone through this scenario in the workplace countless times. I’ve even asked a co-worker why is that when I’m simply stating facts honestly and politely, you suddenly claim I have an attitude? I think he was a little lost for words, but finally after some ‘deep’ thought he said, “You know I’m just playing with you.”
      Hm, Really?

  3. prettyfoot58 October 1, 2012 at 11:09 AM #

    An expression of anger or indignation does not have to be violent…however i wold say that often when we feel that someone has crossed that line..that there is also a feeling of fear of what might happen if we resist or respond..

  4. Kyndra Frazier October 1, 2012 at 11:12 AM #

    Thank you for sharing this Moya. It is right on time. As I become older I grow in the awareness of the necessity to get in touch with my anger. Similar to you, I was raised in a family where anger was often suppressed and I was taught how to “play the game” of life by “keeping my cool” and “never letting them see me sweat”. Due to this silenced anger and a host of other issues, many of the women in my family have fibroid tumors and are survivors of cancer. I understand that many of the health issues in my family stem from an unwillingness to voice opinions based on not ruffling the feathers of not only the majority but of other family members. I join you in finding more outlets and constructive ways to release my anger. Thank you again.

    • M October 1, 2012 at 6:26 PM #

      “Due to this silenced anger and a host of other issues, many of the women in my family have fibroid tumors and are survivors of cancer. I understand that many of the health issues in my family stem from an unwillingness to voice opinions based on not ruffling the feathers of not only the majority but of other family members. “

      Thank you for speaking about this relationship.

    • justanotheropinion October 8, 2012 at 2:49 AM #

      Thank you! As a black woman, we suffer greatly (physically & mentally) for keeping our mouths shut while we ‘suck it up’. By force of nature, I don’t keep my mouth shut nearly as often as I should (grin), and consequently, I am considered a “Sapphire”. (Side note: once ppl get to know me, they express how they didn’t know how honest & funny I could be…hmmmm). Decided a long time ago that I’d rather be considered angry than die from being angry and holding it in.

  5. Tina Minkowitz October 1, 2012 at 11:26 AM #

    Thanks for this post and its consciousness raising that will make me be aware of this racist labeling and resist it. I’m wondering if you see psychiatry playing out here. As a white woman and lesbian, survivor of psychiatric abuse, the notion that anger is unacceptable coming from me, or that it somehow amounts to a psychiatric condition, and the equation of anger with violence, has been damaging. We know from statistics that people of African descent in the US and UK are disproportionately likely to be labeled with the “heavy” psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia, and to be subjected to coercive treatment (like compulsory treatment in the community). Do you think this psychiatrization of anger along with racist/sexist stereotypes is relevant for black women?

  6. Sistah October 1, 2012 at 11:35 AM #

    Wow! I never heard of Sapphire until I rad this article…Well I’m one to know this attitude to be quite me at one time in my life…Yes, I was a angry black woman…I grew up in a home where I was raised with a mother and grandmother who were either physcially and mentally abused by men they trusted in their lives at one time…So I say this…Let’s not judge a book by its cover…Yes, we as black women are strong and fierce…and at times whe can become strong forces of nature…yet, since salvation I’ve learned to allow GOD to control that anger within me…but for my Sisters who still have those strong, fierce ways I say this…pick your battles carefully, don’t allow every little thing get you railled up and so anger that it later effect your health, wealth, and relationship with mankind…God bless you all Sistah…

  7. sexNspirit October 1, 2012 at 12:18 PM #

    i used to be uncomfortable with confrontation, disagreements, & expressions of anger because i didn’t know how to come back from those places. somehow i developed an understanding that relationships are irreparably damaged after such occurrences. and i didn’t want my relationships to end or become perpetually strained just b/c i told you how i feel or what i think.

    yes, stuffing my anger did have physical consequences – back pain, muscle spasms, sciatica, etc. w/ that kind of pain i was completely compelled not to care anymore about consequences – immediate or long-term – of my self-expression! 😉

    however, over time, i have learned that relationships can be managed & nurtured beyond confrontations, disagreements, & expressed anger. i have also learned that most of us don’t know how to do this – well or at all. so, that means i’m usually the one who has to manage the process along w/ being a participant in the dynamic, which isn’t ideal or helpful. but that’s another conversation. ;-(

    • aj October 11, 2012 at 11:39 AM #

      Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s good practice though. And besides, they always say ‘those who know better, do better’. I agree and actually I’ve found that confrontations, disagreements and expressed anger actually are the nurturance of the relationship. They say, “hey, this right her is the precise point where you end and where I begin. Let’s try to find a middle that doesn’t hurt, rob, or disenfranchise either of us.”

  8. Rochelle Spencer October 1, 2012 at 2:51 PM #

    When I was younger, I spent too much time trying to be liked, and so I was polite but sad–I had turned too much of (often justified) anger inward. I am just now figuring out how to properly channel anger. Properly channeled anger can be a very useful tool for social change!

  9. liftingasweclimb October 2, 2012 at 11:22 AM #

    We really, really have to learn how to let this perception remain other people’s problem. Seek the right partnerships and right platforms until you find them, then thrive. cf. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox. And while I love the insights of Audre Lorde, she’s been dead for 20 years. Time to start living her insights and passing them along. If young black girls are growing up without this, shame on us.

    • jusRhae October 3, 2012 at 9:47 AM #


  10. Rae October 2, 2012 at 7:16 PM #

    Thank you so much for this post! I learned very early to saturate what I say with “sweetness,” or “unsureness”; I attended a primarily white and asian high school with boys who often told me that I was too “angry” (when I was not). It’s something I deal with now (disgust with myself when I don’t say what is on my mind, and swallow what I’m being told). And I’m sure this stereotype has a huge connection to depression.

  11. jusRhae October 3, 2012 at 9:45 AM #

    I have known all too well this, of course as a Dark Black Person of Color. I use to feel quite the same about my anger in my younger years, however as I have gotten older I have regained a hold of this “angry black woman” type stereotype and completely ignore those that misunderstand (purposefully) that most times my anger isn’t out of immature actions yet solely out of standing up for self and my rights, as a living-being. Why should my anger be made invalid because of someone else’s view on what it appears to be, as I am Black. I know why I raise my Blakc Fist, I know why I am passionate about change, I know why I would march along side another strong determined black woman. Because our anger is valid in its tone. Not solely so that we are heard but also so we are remembered. So that we remind others, that it is not about just the anger, it is about having a voice WITH passion.

    Thank you for sharing such closeness to your heart. And although this forum my seem to be the only space for you to release your anger…know well, that is felt by others in a non-stereo type manner.

  12. AJ October 10, 2012 at 11:26 AM #

    I find I have the most trouble expressing my anger toward other Black women…particularly big ones with attitudes.

  13. Rose October 11, 2012 at 1:26 AM #

    As if black women don’t have a REASON to be angry! That’s what I hate most about this discriminating gas lighting phenomenon. People are so quick to denounce the “angry black woman” without realizing that maybe the struggles she deals with daily have fucking pissed her off.

    • aj October 11, 2012 at 11:34 AM #

      Interesting you should say. My friend and I were having a conversation one time and she was like “I’m just gonna start claiming it. You say, ‘you know y’all Black women are just so angry’ and I’m just gonna say, ‘yeah, we are. And let me tell you why'” I thought that was so on point and I hadn’t even thought about it till then; I hadn’t thought about the fact that it’s a very vaild strategy to disarm the critics and start the conversation that’s long overdue.

  14. L October 11, 2012 at 1:05 PM #

    Very interesting article it highlights what is an ongoing hurdle black women have to face. The stage play Angry Sistah was written on this subject and the group Voices of Angry Black Women for Positivity was started to combat the damaging stereotype of the Angry Black Woman.

  15. Doris Walkins November 15, 2012 at 10:50 PM #

    I was just talking to my son about Michelle Obama being prominently displayed when I was searching for images of an “angry black woman” for a meme I was creating. I was like, when the heck has Michelle Obama EVER come across as upset, angry or even given side eye in public. I just couldn’t believe how prominently her image was displayed in google images. And the kicker is, she didn’t even look angry in 99% of the images and the other 1% she just looked solemn. If a black woman displays any inkling of power, self confidence, or simply knowing what we’re talking about and not afraid to express it, we’re labeled as “angry black women” and man haters and its unfair and is is just an excuse to not have to see anything a confident black woman says as legitimate or as a force to be reckoned with or respected bc we’re just “angry” and therefore crazy…I could go on and on about the link between the “crazy black bitch” and the “angry black bitch” as a stereotyping mechanism but i’ll save that for another post.


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