As I patiently read the text messages my friend sent to me about the treatment he receives within his society at university, my mind wanders to what could cause them to act in such a disapproving way towards his character. Holding a management position within the society, polite and understanding, hardworking… You would think that there would be some sort of respect for what he provides. There was no reason for their behaviour when he asked, however each time my friend was assertive about what he disagreed with, it seemed to cause an argument. Even with his Caucasian counterparts expressing themselves in the same manner, there was never any disapproval towards their character, just his own. Was it the colour of his skin that threatened them so much? Could being the only black boy in that committee really be the reason for their behaviour?
Black people, especially black women, are snowed under the stigma that they are angry, aggressive, or violent. Simply disagreeing with the norm will stimulate this stereotype which clearly has no place with being at all factual. In fact, this stereotype – named the Sapphire – came from the 1800s to the mid-1900s. This was used to portray black women as sassy, emasculating and domineering. The caricature described black women as aggressive, loud and angry. It earned its name from the CBS television show “Amos ‘n’ Andy” relating to the character, Sapphire Stevens.
Many of the stereotypes that were created happen during the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and were used to help turn black people into commodities and give reasoning to the business of slavery.Unfortunately stereotyping is natural and automatic. For us, to make sense of the world, our mind takes mental shortcuts; categorising and seeing the world based on generalisations that are made from the information fed to us. Psychologists call these mental shortcuts heuristics. When something is still fresh in your mind, it is more like to influence how you think.
I have faced the forefront of stereotyping on numerous occasions, without even saying a word. The assumption that “all black people are angry” is simply not true and yet, it becomes so easy to be fearful of them, just by them being themselves. After a while, I started to notice myself becoming complacent with this stereotype. I would constantly try to reform myself – my speech, my tone, even my posture, just so I don’t come across in the way that is thought of me. I was being forced to become quieter and compliant, to the point I was afraid to speak my mind against anything in an educational, professional, or even social setting.
The moment I realised the stereotype had influenced my actions so much, I knew I had to write about this. The words “I don’t want to be seen as the angry black girl” slipped out mid-conversation to my Caucasian friend after he told me to be more honest with what I thought. Confusion washed over him as he asked, “what does that even mean?” I didn’t even know what it meant. I just said it. This was already engraved into how I behaved around others growing up and now I’ve become accustomed to it.
I learned that I was also allowing myself to become defined by this stereotype. However, this wasn’t something I could easily slip away from. For me to try to express my thoughts assertively, I would constantly be greeted by barriers blocking me from speaking my truth. I learned that the problem was rooted within the racial injustice systems already in place.
I wished the only advice that I had to give was “don’t assume”. However, it is deeper than just an assumption of black people. The act of stereotyping is natural and automatic. The only way we can work upon this is unlearning the stereotype. Reminding yourself constantly that this group of people are not a threat and you shouldn’t treat them as such. There is no easy way to go about how to tackle stereotyping however, you can learn more about how to be anti-racist. Creating awareness for what it is to be black is so important for others to change their perspectives, so these articles are written to highlight these struggles. Despite this, I know it will be a slow journey before we can change the mindset of everyone completely.
So, I tell my friend – 6’2, black boy, not sure of what to do – I tell him: “don’t let them think of you as the angry black guy.” I tell him to hold his peace, shut up and smile. Pretend he knows no better. If he does that, then at least they’ll have no reason to say anything against him. Even if unintentional, racial stereotypes will continue to exist and this is the harsh reality of being black.