Written by: Dalyah Schiarizza
So sassy, Sapphire.
Bold with an attitude.
So sassy, Sapphire.
When I was told about the prompt for this month, I was immediately reminded of this common stereotype for Black women that has snuck its way into the media. I also greatly suspect it won’t be leaving for a very long time. The sassy, take-nothing-from-no-one, angry-with-an-attitude, “ghetto” Black woman is the Sapphire stereotype. It is not difficult to find characters in TV and film aligned with this stereotype, such as Cookie from Empire or Madea from the Tyler Perry movies. The name “Sapphire” actually comes from an old radio show called Amos’ n’ Andy. The show featured a character named Sapphire that was sassy, rude and aggressive towards her husband. This stereotype was dubbed the “Angry Black Woman” that many of us know today and have seen used against passionate Black women. Even though these women are strong and confident, it is based on a stereotype that all Black women have this angry persona and take it out on everyone else.
With this stereotype, in particular, there’s a common question of whether or not it’s a “good thing” because it initially comes off as portraying Black women as strong, confident and resilient. In my opinion, it does more harm than good since it insinuates that Black women must be strong because the world is so cruel. There is no attention to the need for the world to improve so that Black women don’t have to fight twice as hard for the same rights and respect that their white peers receive. It is incredible that Black women are often respected for their resilience. Still, it diverts attention away from the issues that require us to be so resilient. I ultimately wish for a better world where racism and misogynoir don’t exist so Black women aren’t expected to always be strong. As human beings, our mental health fluctuates. So we should feel safe to express that, which can already be very hard, without the additional stress of not living up to this untrue and unattainable standard.
Now I want to discuss some of my experiences with the Sapphire stereotype. As a biracial Black woman, I don’t experience this stereotype to the most extreme. Still, I have experienced it quite a bit living in a white dominant area. I wish I could count how often white people have been surprised by my voice and tone, which is relatively soft when I’m in public places. This stereotype is so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that they’re actually taken aback when encountering a Black woman who doesn’t fit into the Sapphire box. There are some other cases where I speak in my actual voice, using my sense of humour, which becomes the expectation for who I am. It’s not because of my true character, but because people catch a glimpse of this and my complexion and assume that relationship. When I speak comfortably, like not always pronouncing the “g” at the end of some verbs, white people sometimes look at me differently. They look at me with interest for aligning myself with this stereotype but also with some hesitancy because I don’t sound like them all the time. They think I either act “too ghetto” or “not Black enough,” which is offensive in itself for assuming a relationship between the two and pushing that onto me. Or when I do really focus on my enunciation and diction, they often act surprised and say how I’m “so well spoken.” This has made it relatively hard for me to decode my sense of self. I end up asking myself, “Am I actually funny or is my wit and sarcasm putting me in a box?” or “How often do I have to actively monitor my tone?” It can be hard to navigate because these are aspects of my personality and upbringing that have made me who I am. Still, at the same time, I don’t want to establish or perpetuate stereotypes. It can come across as that because of the lack of mainstream understanding of the Sapphire and its adverse impacts. In these cases, I find myself very disappointed with society because it can’t change enough to disregard these stereotypes and move past confining Black women into offensive categories.
Throughout my life, I also have had some experiences being portrayed as the “Angry Black Woman.” As I became more and more aware of social issues around me, I became less and less compliant when I saw it. For example, when my peers were openly making sexist and racist comments, I was “angry” or the “blue-haired feminist” when I offered any kind of rebuttal. To this day, I find it remarkable that even though the other party was wrong for their commentary, I was the one vilified for trying to intervene. I was made to seem angry over nothing, loud and rude for ruining their “fun.” At the time, I just thought that they didn’t want to appear in the wrong. I now realize it contributed to this concept of Black women always being angry and having a bad attitude towards everything.
Stereotypes like the Sapphire will likely exist in the media forever. They will follow me around for a very long time. The more we can learn about these stereotypes, the more we can push them out of the media and eliminate these racist expectations for Black women. With further discourse and sharing, many more people will recognize the Sapphire and understand why it’s wrong. The Sapphire stereotype, and others like it,can have substantial adverse effects for Black women and have influenced how I see and understand myself. Just as I started this post, I want to end it with some words I came up with while really reflecting on the Sapphire.
I’m not aggressive, I just don’t talk to you like you’re a kid. I just don’t act like some damsel in need of your opinion. I’m not angry, I’m just not compliant. I have no desire to listen and watch your offensive commentary. I’m not “ghetto,” I just embrace parts of my culture. I’m not sassy, I just have a sense of humour. A sense of humour, kind of like yours. I guess it’s different for me. Different for me, because I’m not white-passing. Different for me, because I speak a little differently. With a bit of style and flair, not that different from you. But I’m not white-passing, so I guess it’s different for me.