The stereotype of the “angry black woman” at work

The angry black woman stereotype has permeated many parts of American culture, including the workplace. This pervasive stereotype not only characterizes Black women as more hostile, aggressive, bossy, illogical, moody, and bitter, but it can also prevent them from realizing their full potential in the workplace and shape their overall work experiences.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that black women make up nearly 7% of the workforce, and yet they are severely underrepresented in leadership positions, especially among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Ursula Burns, a former Xerox CEO, became the first black Fortune 500 CEO in 2009. As of 2021, Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer and TIAA CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett are the only two Black women currently holding that position. Overall, the US Department of Labor reports that in 2020, The unemployment rate for black women was 10.9%compared to 7.6% of white women.

These realities led to our desire to take a closer look at the angry black woman stereotype. We argue that companies could miss out on the full contribution of Black women to their organizations because of this image.

Where did the stereotype of the angry black woman come from?

In particular, characterizing black women as loud, hot-tempered, overly direct, and just plain angry is not a new practice. in his book Am I Not a Woman?: Slaves on the South PlantationRutgers University history professor Deborah Gray White points out that the image of the angry black woman is deeply embedded in American culture, dating back to slavery in the US.

The trope has been a prolific profile for decades in politics, books, movies, and, specifically, popular TV shows. In fact, many characters who are welcomed as cultural favorites use the stereotype of an angry black woman. There is sapphire in amos and andy in the 50s and Florence in the jeffersons Back in the ’70s Comedian Martin Lawrence played Sheneneh in his eponymous ’90s sitcom, and today, reality TV star Nene Leakes is a favorite meme, radiating disapproval and sass. (Leakes’s famously expressive eye roll is markedly immortalized in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.) The angry black woman is an image that feels familiar in pop culture and organizational life.

How it affects the workplace

Anger is a commonly expressed emotion in the workplace. But our research has found that when some people see a black woman get angry, they are likely to attribute that anger to her personality, rather than an inciting situation.

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This can be explained by the attribution theory, a psychological theory that analyzes whether people attribute the causes of behavior to internal or external features. An internal attribution occurs when the behavior is perceived to be about the person themselves. For example, we may think that a black woman expresses anger because she has an angry disposition. An external attribution occurs when the behavior is attributed to a frustrating or unfair situation. In this case, if we see an employee expressing anger at a supervisor, we might believe it is because his boss is treating him unfairly, which leads to less negative assumptions about the person.

as research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology points out, stereotypes cause internal powers.

a deeper look

To learn more about the angry black woman stereotype, we conducted two experiments that looked at reactions when people express anger at work. In our first experiment, we asked more than 300 college business students to watch one of eight videos, in which they watched a male supervisor with one of his employees. In each video, three factors were at play: race, gender, and the emotional response of the employee. (The employee was white or black, male or female, and angry or neutral.) When the employee was angry, her tone began to rise, eventually yelling and yelling at the supervisor.

After viewing the video, study participants answered a series of questions, including questions about attributions (was the employee’s anger internal or external?), performance reviews (is this employee a good performer?), and leadership abilities. (eg, Would this employee make a good leader?).

Our results found that participants were more likely to attribute black female employees’ anger to internal characteristics or their personality. This had negative consequences because internal attributions translated into lower performance ratings and leadership evaluations. It is important to note that the demographics of the study participants did not affect the results; whether male or female, black or white (or other races), participants were more likely to attribute a black woman expressing anger to her personality.

More information

We conducted a second experiment to see if black women’s angry expressions activated the angry black woman stereotype in the minds of the people who were watching her. We used a similar setup to the first experiment, however, this time, we only looked at female employees as, in the first experiment, we found no effect with men.

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In our second experiment, the sample included 253 adults working in all industries in the United States. Participants were asked to imagine that they were sales representatives at a marketing company and that one day at work, another employee from the same marketing company came up to his desk to talk. The participants then listened to one of four audio recordings of their coworker. The recordings showed a black actress or a white actress, and anger was expressed or not. We use audio clips instead of video clips to avoid distractions, such as the employee’s appearance. The employee in the audio clip who came up to the desk had either a traditionally black name, Lakeisha, or a traditionally white name, Claire.

On the recording, either Claire or Lakeisha told the participants that she had seen them arrive late to work and had mentioned many times before that their tardiness was unprofessional. In recordings that included expressions of anger, Lakeisha or Claire expressed a harsh and hostile tone, raised their voices, and sounded noticeably annoyed and indignant at the participant’s tardiness. These voice affectations were absent in the other recordings. After listening to the video, the participants answered questions about stereotypes, such as: Are black women aggressive? They also answered a series of questions about attributions, performance evaluations, and leadership abilities.

In the second experiment, participants were more likely to attribute the black employee’s anger to internal characteristics (her personality) because the behavior was reminiscent of the stereotype of an angry black woman. Once again, this reaction had negative consequences for the black woman, leading to poorer performance evaluations and a lower evaluation of her leadership abilities, even when controlling for the gender and race of the test participants. study.

Our research shows that not everyone is treated equally when it comes to expressing anger in the workplace, and people react more negatively to Black women expressing anger because they activate the stereotype of an angry Black woman and internal attributions. . Still, there is little evidence which suggests that black women are actually angrier than white women.

Organizations can take steps to help their employees overcome the angry black woman stereotype in the workplace. Here are some tips to help identify, discuss, and respond to this characterization.

Acknowledge that the problem exists. It sounds simple to recognize the problem, but ignorance (whether intentional or not) can easily get in the way of being aware. Research from the George Washington University Law School has indicated once people are aware of different prejudices and stereotypesthey are more likely to recognize it when it appears and are less likely to succumb to the influence of bias

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Most people want to have a positive view of themselves (called the self-positivity bias), which could prevent them from seeing the stereotypes they hold. Efforts to raise awareness (such as training) could help curb discrimination.

Be empathic. It’s powerful to put yourself in someone’s shoes. Another way to combat the angry black woman stereotype is to reflect on yourself. Think about how we react and, most importantly, try to understand the experiences of our co-workers during the workday.

If an employee is angry, before coming to a conclusion, ask him why he is experiencing such strong emotions. Don’t just rely on assumptions about his personality. Instead, ask, listen, learn, and then reflect. Also, think about a time when he was angry at work. How did people react and how did you expect people to respond to his anger?

Be intentional. You don’t have to let the stereotype go unchallenged. Think about your next steps to combat the angry black woman stereotype. For example, knowing the other person beyond their physical constitution makes a big difference.

When working as a team, appreciate each other’s unique personalities by creating meaningful social interactions, whether in the workplace (asking them how their day is) or outside (suggesting they have coffee together). In this way, she is no longer “just a black woman.” Now, she is a trusted colleague and friend.

Ultimately, it’s also important to recognize that the angry black woman stereotype persists beyond the workplace and must be combated in other aspects of life. California State University professor Wendy Ashley points out that she can influence the effectiveness of mental health treatment for black women. The stereotyping can lead doctors to misinterpret your symptomsleading to misdiagnosis Furthermore, there is evidence that the angry black woman stereotype is reinforced through cyber aggression, where black women are targets of vicious and easily accessible messages on social networks. Since this stereotype can generate its anger in many facets of life, personal and organizational, the need to recognize the problem, be empathetic and be intentional is more important now than ever.