NYC257 cover image See all stories from issue #257, May/June 2017

Speaking My Truth
Don’t dismiss me as an ‘angry black girl’
Aishamanne Williams

My high school journalism class functions a lot like a real newsroom. When we’re preparing the next issue of our school’s magazine, we have editorial meetings to discuss ideas we’d like to cover. These meetings happen every few months, and by now, my classmates predict what I’m going to say.

“Let me guess—police brutality? White supremacy?” one will ask. Another will say, “Aishamanne, we have enough about racism from you. Don’t be so angry.” They’re being playful, but sometimes they make me feel like the “angry black girl”—and it doesn’t feel like a joke.

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The “angry black girl” stereotype really makes me, well, angry—particularly if it’s me that’s being labeled that way. As actress Amandla Stenberg once said, “I have strong opinions. I am not angry.”

The angry black girl stereotype goes back to the 1870s, when white men used blackface makeup to depict black women in minstrel shows as loudmouthed and masculine. Later, in the 1940s and ’50s, a popular TV show called Amos and Andy featured a character, Sapphire, who was dominant, overbearing, and unreasonably demanding of black men.

These and many other exaggerations have helped shaped the meme of the angry black woman as a finger-in-your-face, neck-rolling, hands-on-hips loudmouth. It makes me feel misunderstood to be labeled this way just because I am speaking my opinion or standing up for myself or for what I feel is important.

I’m passionate about racial issues. My parents introduced me to black thinkers like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou. Being raised by parents who were conscious of racism in America affects me and I’m interested in learning as much as I can and writing about what I learn. As an aspiring journalist, I want to share with other people of color how and why we continue to be oppressed and how we can overcome this oppression. This process of expanding my knowledge and helping others to do the same was empowering for me—at first.

All About Race

Once I showed a black friend an article I’d written about police brutality, and she was impressed with how outspoken I was. But a few months later, when I showed her another article about how a lot of stereotypes about black men were created by racist white people, she sighed and said, “Another rant? Life isn’t about being angry at white people all the time, Aishamanne.” I wasn’t ranting in the articles, but the fact that they were both about racism made them seem like rants to her.

One day, my journalism class was preparing for our next issue and my teacher asked what I wanted to write about. “The way society views black youth as less innocent or childlike than white youth,” I said.

“More rants about racism?” said Lakai, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, she’s one of those ‘black power’ girls,” said Aderemi and then chuckled.

The comments weren’t malicious. These kids were my friends and they were black, so I wasn’t offended. But I did feel uncomfortable, and their comments confused me: Why were they labeling me as aggressive?

Black Power Girl

After class I went to lunch with Lakai and Aderemi and a few other girlfriends from journalism class. I asked Lakai, “There have been times when you appear tired of my writing about racial issues. Why is that?”

“It’s just that I know you’re a good writer and I’m interested in what you have to say about other topics,” she said. “I know a lot about racism already because we were raised being taught about it. Now that I’m older I want to be exposed to things that I don’t know about, so that when I go to college I can have conversations with people about things other than race.”

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“Just because I speak up, particularly about racism, I’m viewed as an angry black girl,” I said. “It feels like society doesn’t allow black girls to be opinionated without assuming they’re angry.”

“I think it’s true that a girl of color who speaks up, particularly about racism, is looked upon as an ‘angry black girl.’ I see it in the media; usually the black girl on TV is the one who’s angry or ‘ratchet,’” said our other friend Anisa.

Schaina also agreed that the stereotype exists. “I’m the epitome of the ‘angry black girl!’” she said. “But I have no problem with it. I’m always going to stand up for myself, especially on racial issues. Everyone already calls me angry or assertive anyway, so I have no problem voicing my opinion. I don’t care what people think.”

“Sometimes I can’t help but care, because it makes me think that being outspoken is a negative thing—for black girls at least,” I said. “For example, Aderemi called me a ‘black power girl’ once, and I don’t want to be seen in a negative light for that.”

Aderemi replied, “No, your being a ‘black power girl’ isn’t a bad thing. It’s just different, and it’s a good thing actually. You can tell in the way that you speak and write that you’re both knowledgeable and proud to be black, which is powerful. It’s just rare; there aren’t a lot of girls who care about that stuff. You remind me of those activist women in the ’70s.”

That made me feel proud, but I did wonder about whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to be viewed as an “activist.”

Raising Awareness, Creating Change

I thought about Schaina not caring what people think and I wanted to be more like her. But I feared that there was a limit to how much I could express my opinion, so I asked my friends what they thought. Schaina said that there was no problem with being outspoken. “The only time you should stop talking about it is when that issue stops being an issue. When you talk about a problem, you raise awareness and let people know about it so we can work together to create a solution. If people like you don’t talk about it, how are we supposed to create change? The first step is always raising awareness.”

However, one of my other friends thought that it could get repetitive. “I get that racism is important and it’s a problem, but we know it exists so it gets annoying to keep hearing about it,” Janaisha said. “Like, as black people we should talk about different things, since the fact that we’re black makes people think that racism is all we can talk about. That’s why people always accuse us of ‘pulling the race card,’ because we talk about it too much. We have to show that we know about more issues.”

I can understand why people might feel this way. Being black in America is not easy, and it can be a relief not to have to hear or read about racism when we already have to deal with it all day, every day.

Still, because racism has been part of my past and my present, I don’t want it to be part of my future. Writing is my contribution to the fight to dismantle racism for good. I don’t think that all black people should focus on racism alone, since it’s important for everyone to broaden their perspective and speak on different things, but it’s the main issue that I am focused on.

Expressing My Truth

I can see that the “angry black woman” stereotype is often used to discredit many women’s perspectives. Now that I’ve recognized that, I feel less intimidated by what others think of me. I asked my journalism teacher Ms. Rey about it.

“It’s important to own your voice. You’re a writer and you want to be a journalist, so that requires you to be outspoken and speak your mind,” she said. “Your voice in areas of political issues is strong right now because that’s what you’re passionate about. You’re good at writing about how those things affect you. Expressing your truth is part of who you are, so if you listen to others telling you not to, you’re limiting yourself.”

Now that I’ve spoken to my friends, I understand that the place they’re coming from isn’t one of malice. They’re not “teasing” me, they’re just commenting on my passion, and I’m OK with that. If I’m going to be true to my passions, people are going to talk about it. It’s important for me to be comfortable with that instead of assuming they are criticizing me. The next time someone tells me that I seem like an activist, I will proudly embrace it, knowing that I’m doing something right.

Speaking up about oppression, or just being outspoken about your opinion, doesn’t make you an “angry black girl.” It makes you an engaged, passionate, and driven person who can help incite change.

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