Attitude; a word I believe we use more than what is necessary in society. I would go as far as to say that “attitude” has been deployed as a racialised term to characterise black African and Caribbean women in social discourse. When a “black” woman is positioned and characterised as having an attitude, she is then devoid of all other human emotion. Having an attitude becomes the universal lens in which her behavior, actions, feelings and emotions are understood.
As a Sociology student at the London School of Economics (LSE), I remember visiting my French professor (I took a French module in 1st year) to discuss my grades, which I thought were quite low and did not reflect the work I produced. Honestly, I was quite disappointed that my first assignments were not all going well at uni. I was concerned that I had low grades – as I did not go to university to fail – and disappointed that my work didn’t seem to be up to the “LSE standard”. Needless to say, I was met with some resistance and negativity from professor when I raised my concerns. I was told that I had an attitude and maybe if I didn’t have an attitude, I’d do better. Wow.
This encounter, quite early on in my university experience let me know what I would be up against for the remaining three years. Given that I was pretty quiet in class, I was pretty stunned by the way in which the word “attitude” was flung into the conversation as a means to justify a wrong (my grades) and move away from the real issue at hand (my grades). It was clear that there was little I could do in the situation, so I took it on the chin, and aimed to work a little bit harder to see of my grades improved – there wasn’t much change. I remember later in the year, when we were discussing identity as a class (in French) and I described myself as British (Je suis Britannique) as opposed to English (Je suis Anglais) and the same professor shut my narrative down and told me I was English. Now, I do not “claim” Britishness or Englishness however, in this context, I had to explain how it works in England and the fact that black people and other minoritised groups are not even considered English – hence, Je suis Britannique. Again, I was met with the “attitude” rhetoric for simply explaining identity politics in Britain.
As the only black student in the class, it felt as though any point I raised, any issue I pointed out, was met with this discourse around my attitude as a black woman.
The London School of Economics and Political Science, like most institutions, is a microcosm for wider society. The black girl with an attitude rhetoric is prevalent within wider social discourses in society and stems from the historical racialisation of black women. Any point or issue we raise, which is opposed, is met with this discourse around the attitude of the black woman. And if we raise a point that mainstream society agrees with, it is only fact when someone else comes up with the same idea.
Now, what I am not saying is that black women cannot and do not possess attitudes because if you look at the definition of the word, an attitude can be defined as a point of view, a feeling or a way of thinking, and does not have to used negatively to depict uncooperative behaviour. By this definition, an attitude is a human characteristic which should not be racialised. The constant misuse of a word or label for a particular group of people distorts our understanding of the word, depriving the group of being anything but that label.
The problem is definitely a racial problem, evident within mainstream discourses – such as those within the media. However, within the “black community”, both men and women help to co-construct the “angry black woman” narrative by berating and problematising, often dark-skinned, black women, reinforcing the racism already inherent in the system. Thus, reproducing racisms. For example, there are people close to me who perceive my disagreement with their point as me having an attitude. In actuality, I merely have an opinion of my own which differs from theirs.
According to society, black women cannot be passionate; we can only be angry and have attitudes.
Certainly, there are moments where our emotions get the better of us and we have to focus that energy in a positive way however, brushing these emotions off as attitude removes the opportunity for black women to deal with the actual, real, existing feelings which may be reflected/projected as attitude.
If black women are not afforded the opportunity to feel and express their emotions without being pathologised as angry black women or WWAs (Women With Attitudes), I struggle then to understand how a black woman would have anything other than an attitude if society continues to shame her for emotions we all experience and express.
So shame on my university professors, old employers, family members, boyfriends etc. for overusing and misusing the word attitude.
I am human.
Sometimes I laugh, cry, shout and scream.
Sometimes I am happy, sad, angry and passionate.
But what I am not, is an angry black woman with an attitude.