While hanging out with friends on my most recent visit home, I found myself in a conversation with said friends on “the problem with brown (black) women” and I had to explain to my male friends present who claimed that we have “issues”, that brown women have no more issues than women (or men for that matter) of any other race or ethnicity.
Of course the definition of issues in this context was not in relation to the various challenges and realities that we face as women of colour and more specifically brown women of colour – simply because we are women, because we are brown and because we are brown and women – on a day to day basis. The word issues here was used to indicate an alleged inherent affliction/ defect that we have as a sex compounded with being a particular sex in a particular race group. My one male friend claimed that non – brown women are more “pleasant and more amicable” than his brown “sisters” who tend to always, allegedly without fail, “bring with them some type of drama.”
I was reminded of this conversation a week ago when I came across an American radio interview of Dr. Asha Tarry by Jacque Reid where they were tackling the myth of the Angry Black Woman Syndrome (ABWS) and some of the issues raised resonated with some of the points we’d discussed with my friends which includes an alleged attitude problem and an alleged inherent stubbornness. I must point out that this “syndrome” is not an actual condition but is instead a myth that has been allowed to circulate and grow rather exponentially in popularity (mostly in the U.S.) over the years and has been accepted by a lot of people as an actual condition that only afflicts brown women.
In Afrika, or at least in the few parts of Afrika that I know and I am exposed to rather regularly in one way or another, ABWS is not really “a thing” as it is an American term so this “crazy” shaming as I like to call it isn’t necessarily packaged in the form of a phantom illness with a name but often manifests itself in the form of the repeated use of adjectives such as angry, bitter, aggressive, loud, crazy, problem, man-hating or stubborn etc to define brown women, especially opinionated, confident, assertive and independent-in-thought women or the mockery of our expressions of anger. Of course, my male friends in this scenario are, to an extent, products of American pop-culture socialisation, as a lot of us in our generation and younger are, so even though they are Zimbabwean and may not use the term ABWS, they are viewing brown Zimbabwean women using an American gaze.
When people are not viewing us through an American male lens, they are viewing us from the colonial/post colonial cultural lens that projects Afrikan brown women as inherently docile. The trouble is, a lot of brown Afrikan men that view us using this lens believe that agency in brown Afrikan women is unnatural/inauthentic and is instead a western import.
In a recent article titled Why are African Women so Desperate to be American Sandile Memela, a South African man, reinforced this problematic perception by attacking modern and urban women whom he calls an imitation of Afrikan American women who are the opposite of what he believes to be the “true” Afrikan woman. He purports to be an ally and an expert on Afrikan women and our womanhood and he attempts to defend and revere one type of Afrikan woman; which he presents as the only and true type; by being paternalistic and attacking another type he obviously deems unpleasant and inauthentic when in fact the archetype he champions as the standard and sole archetype is just one of the many types of Afrikan women which also existed in our communities even before the influence of colonisation and globalisation.
Our ancestors acknowledged this diversity and accepted it and this is seen in various aspects of indigenous cultures that have managed to survive through the centuries with minimal contamination from non Afrikan cultures and this includes our folk/praise songs, folklore, spiritual practices and even in our languages and totem culture e.g. in Zimbabwe, women of the Mpofu (Eland) clans who are known as vanaChihera are notorious for being very opinionated, strong willed and “difficult”/ “vanonetsa”.
In fact, our history, not only as a country but as a continent, is studded with strong, assertive, expressive and confident women such as Amai Sally Mugabe, Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Queen Dihya, Ambuya Nehanda, Queen Yaa Asantewaa, Muhumusa, Nefertari and many others who expressed their strength in ways that were deviant from the mainstream versions of feminine strength that are often aligned with our maternal and reproductive responsibilities and they certainly weren’t deemed as “unnecessarily angry” brown women.
Whether we are dealing with an American ideology of brown female agency and anger or an “Afrikan” one, what remains a recurring theme is the idea that female agency is often undermined and considered negative and/or irrational. Thanks to patriarchy which favours hypersexual expressions of masculinity coupled with global systemic racism, brown women become double victims of a hegemonic masculine and racial oppression. This racialised and patriarchal society constantly seeks to pigeonhole women in general but more specifically brown women with passionate women being labelled as sluts, resilient women as angry, self-assertive women as bitter and fearless women as aggressive. When we dare to criticise or challenge things that displease us, be it in the public or private space, we are callously dismissed as militant or aggressive regardless of whatever tone or approach we might take.
What is disheartening to note is that, for all the “crazy” shaming that takes place, no one is particularly interested in unpacking why it is we lose our shit when we do. When Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) activist, Bertha Sibanda and ZANU PF activist Sheila Mutsenhu took off their clothes in a police station in protest to police brutality and in front of the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe protesting the targeted sanctions imposed by western countries, respectively, they did not receive support from most of their fellow country folk, but instead they were ridiculed. This is quite common in our society and is not surprising given that acknowledging the legitimacy of brown women’s anger would mean upsetting the current socio-political structure of inequality and patriarchy. If there is one thing we know about privilege, be it racial or gender, is that those who have it are often loathe to relinquish it, even if it’s for the betterment of the community as a whole. One of the ways people, and in this case heterosexual brown cismen, protect their privilege is through the repeated refusal to address the legitimate concerns of brown women, especially in the private spaces. The constant questioning of the rationale behind a woman’s outburst is aimed at redirecting the blame and drawing attention away from the actual issue being raised in said outburst.
Often, people who claim brown women are irrational and unreasonable when we express our anger, condone male expressions of anger and accept them in our societies as normal even when they are more violent. Male anger and the reinforcement thereof are considered a part of masculinity while women are believed to have no right to that anger. There is a grave misconception that all women are soft and all men are hard purely based on their sex and gender yet nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to this, there is an attempt to polarise the (to borrow from Memela) “self-effacing humble” Afrikan woman and the more self-assertive Afrikan woman, and not just by brown men who support and subscribe to patriarchy but also by (mostly western) feminists with both sides supporting one archetype and working to obliterate the other. Neither side understands that our strength as brown women (as with other women) manifests itself in different ways whether it’s by being humble or by being vocal and even then being humble does not necessarily mean not being vocal and vice versa.
In our everyday lives as brown women, we are constantly forced to repress our anger, our hurt, our displeasure because we are afraid of being labelled as angry or crazy. We even fear, or in the very least, are forced to constantly second guess our ambitions and success in areas that are not considered to be our rightful space because we will be accused of not being real women or of trying to be men or trying to be western. We are even forced to be silent about injustices we experience or see others experience because apparently it is not our place to challenge these things.
Being in a state of anger is undeniably not ideal, for anyone, male or female, but be that as it may, people, especially women, have a right to be taken seriously when they express it. My wish as an allegedly “angry black woman” is not to alienate men and contribute to the dissonance between brown women and brown men that exists today in many brown communities around the world but is instead to bridge the gaps that hinder the establishment of unity, cohesion and brown (black) love in our communities. The healing of our communities from centuries of oppression can be achieved if brown women and brown men start supporting, respecting, communicating with and listening to each other. The empowerment of brown people should not be considered as only attainable through the repression and suppression of women or the alienation of men.