“always meeting people / with a mean mug always / brooding out of the blue / the world calls you difficult / a black girl with attitude.”
These lines came to mind after a relative criticized my aloof personality. I had grown accustomed to such rebuke, but I still wrote the words with wearied fury. I found solace in them. They were my sanctuary against everything anti-Black, anti-woman or anti-attitude. They were my rebellion against a world fomenting the intersection of these antagonisms. I thought the poem would speak to the smart-mouths. Because those women never needed anybody to speak for them. I wanted it to talk to the ladies who like to talk back. My words were reserved for the so-called Divas, Ice Queens and Sapphires – titles and tropes tailored to independent Black women while our white counterparts are embraced as edgy or exciting. Few people affirm the Black Girl With Attitude, but I will. She matters to me. She is me.
In the 2004 film “Mean Girls,” artsy outcast Janis Ian gives new student Cady Heron a hand-drawn map of the cafeteria cliques at North Shore High School. The camera then conducts a cursory pan of the illustrated groups as Ian assigns a label to each. As a table seating Black teenagers appears on screen, Ian issues another designation. Unfriendly Black Hotties. Throughout my childhood, I had confronted similar labels. Difficult. Stubborn. Snooty. Attitudy. Black girls that seem sulky are problematized, pathologized. They are perceived as in need of correction. In a 2020 Georgetown report on the lived experiences of Black women and girls, participants described educators perceiving them as sassy or threatening as early as preschool. Participants cited this stereotype as a reason for Black girls’ disproportionate rates of disciplinary action. These findings align with a 2020 New York Times analysis of the Department of Education’s discipline data. The Times found that Black girls are suspended from school at least once five times more frequently than white girls and that they are referred to law enforcement three times more frequently.
At 10, I experienced the same policing of my personality. I endured the same remarks implying my justified punishment. Once, I went to a white friend’s home where an innocent visit escalated to an insulting encounter. While in my friend’s bedroom, we talked as she presented her new toys. Later, she left for a few minutes to retrieve an item from another room. I sat there quietly awaiting her return. Then, I approached a bulletin board hanging on her wall. As I stood there staring silently at the board, her father stopped near the doorway. He greeted me, and I replied politely but without visible enthusiasm. Bothered by my blank face, he said simply, “How about a smile?” It was more of a command than a question. My face gradually underwent a forced grin – one fit for a “Happy Negro,” the mask assumed in writer Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem. He had fixed my face into a broken smile. It is an expression well-worn among Black girls who intuit the kind of fate that awaits their frowns.
The only time I felt confident, instead of condemned, as a petulant child was when I listened to rap music. It was the sound of scowling swagger, and I reveled in it. I grew up with Lil Wayne’s legendary 2008 record “A Milli,” on which he laced blistering lyricism with bleeding bass. Whenever I rapped the song in all its overbearing braggadocio, I felt liberated. Ensconced in this sizzling noise, I could finally conquer the comments directed at me. I could fuel myself with people’s enmity, rise as a phoenix from their fire.
While Wayne taught me how to fight the world’s fire with my own, his protege Nicki Minaj made me feel empowered as a sullen Black girl. Here was a Queen, a Black Barbie, making the planet tremble at her dominant personality. In a clip from her 2010 documentary “My Time Now,” Minaj addresses the backlash she faces because of this dominance. “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He bossed up!” she says in the footage. “No negative connotation behind bossed up. But lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch.” It was because she sought to dismantle this double standard that I worshiped Minaj. Her bars were frigid, unflinching. “Bitch, I get money, so I do’s what I pleases / I live where the motherfuckin’ pools and the trees is,” she raps on “Did It On’em,” a song from her 2010 debut album. She was equally impenitent on the 2014 single “Only,” asserting: “When I walk in, sit up straight / I don’t give a f— if I was late.” These lyrics validated my eye rolls, mean mugs and hand waves. They were the words of a Black woman with a dimpled smile and withering glare. The words of a Boss Ass Bitch.
Negative perceptions of assertive Black women continue to pervade our society. In a 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that when a Black woman shows anger in the workplace, observers give her poorer performance evaluations than Black men, white men and white women due to stereotype activation. Rumors about Vice President Kamala Harris creating a toxic work environment and displaying a domineering leadership style have also persisted since her presidential campaign. And complaints about the tone-policing of Black women have been leveled against everyone from former President Donald Trump – who reportedly called Harris “extraordinarily nasty” – to J. Cole, who chided fellow rapper Noname’s “queen tone” in his 2020 song “Snow on tha Bluff.”
I doubt the world will ever welcome a Black woman armed with her own agency. I maintain this skepticism in spite of tremendous contributions from the Ninas and Serenas, the Nickis and Naomis. But still, we triumph as First Ladies and as Madam Vice Presidents. As Queen Bees and founders of – and instrumental figures in – movements ranging from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo. Despite society’s incessant slights, still we reign. Still we rise.
Zeniya Cooley, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.