“Why You Look So Mean?” Tales of an Angry Black Woman

Apparently I have Angry Black Woman Syndrome.

ABWS. But it’s a complete farce, an absurdity, a diagnosis that doesn’t exist. I’m not mean. Or angry. Nor do I have a terminally chronic attitude. In fact, usually when I’m accused of looking mean, for a brief moment my pleasant face actually does twist into an unflattering ball of confusion as I process the question. Here I am floating down life. Blessed, highly favored, on cloud 9, feeling myself, and then out of left field, someone hits me with the “mean” accusation. A total vibe-killer. My natural high hijacked by some stranger with a sudden concern for my mental stability.

“Why you look so mean?” If I earned $1 for every time I heard this question statement rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny, I could buy ALL the Trump Towers. In cash. And then still have some money left over to treat myself to the cosmetic facelift I apparently need to restore world order.

Over the years, I’ve heard different variations, some quite creative:

“Why you look so mean?”

“It can’t be that bad, is it?”

“Would it hurt you to smile?”

“You’re too pretty to not be smiling. Why you so mad?”

Like dude. I didn’t even realize I was mad! Yo! You just put me on to my own feelings!

Insulting statements disguised as faked concern. The accusation that loudly and clearly says: “Ma’am, I’m here to break the devastating news that you have chronic Angry Black Woman Syndrome.”


So basically, I’m a problem in my natural form. It doesn’t matter what I do. I can be daydreaming about my next meal. Making a mental grocery list. Thinking about how to word the PowerPoint presentation due by noon. Or simply, just existing.

It’s funny, I’m commonly asked why I look so mean and then the person actually pauses and waits for me to provide a thoughtful response. An explanation they may or may not be able to help me with, I suppose. How ungrateful of me to turn down their Captain-Save-A-Smile offer. As the conversation goes from bad to worse, my faux angry look morphs into genuine pistivity. By this time, I’m pretty sure I’ve been graciously upgraded to full-blown, Stage 4 “Bish” Syndrome. I hear that one is incurable too.

Not Smiling = Angry = Problematic

America has a disgust for black women. Our society is notorious for lumping us all into one box and referring to us as angry. As a whole. All 23.5 million of us, huh? Like, our entire group was born with an identical genetic mutation that presents itself as a perpetual attitude. Like all our DNA strands read “angry face,” and that we need chemo for the malignant chip on our shoulder.

But it defies logic and is really just a dumb notion. We are no angrier than men or other racial groups. And yet, society expects black women to smile harder, look more trustworthy, and be less threatening than everyone else seated around the boardroom, combined. A black woman’s serious face represents anger, aggression, a non-team player. Perhaps a bitter trouble-maker in a dress. By no fault of our own, we exist at the intersection of a triple consciousness and are expected to adjust our demeanor so America can rest easy.

Related: Black Fathers are Actually Winning at Parenthood

Reclassified: Angry Black Woman Syndrome by Proxy

“By proxy:” when someone fabricates, exaggerates, lies, or induces a physical or mental illness that isn’t there.

In layman terms: people make ish up and force ailments on other folks that ain’t real.

ABWS is a form of Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome. I took it upon myself to rename my “disorder” when I realized there is nothing I’m doing wrong. I don’t have a syndrome. This actually has nothing to do with my face, my attitude, how my eyebrows arch, my RBF, or the way I’m supposedly “angrily” existing. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s totally someone else’s need to stigmatize me because they have the cancer: a discomfort, an insecurity, an underlying fear of what I/we represent. Anyone that collectively labels us as angry subscribes to a larger societal narrative laced in a disapproving discontent for black women. And what IS clear is that this syndrome is definitely “by proxy.” In short, it ain’t us that’s sick, it’s them.

It’s rooted in racism.

The mockery of the angry black woman is nothing new. Over the centuries, we were referred to as “negro wenches,” mammies, and Jezebel. These characters were known for their flaws of being grotesque, fat, and over-sexual, respectively. All demeaning characteristics. The modern idea of the angry black woman was made popular on the 1950s Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, echoing sentiments of the minstrel stage and Jezebel ideology. It’s no surprise that this caricature followed us throughout the decades and attached itself to our collective identity.

“This history isn’t marginal to American culture—it’s central. Amos ’n’ Andy was one of the most popular programs on radio and television. Popular minstrel songs like “Camptown Races” and “I Wish I Was In Dixie” are still sung today. Softened minstrel images are still on supermarket shelves in the visage of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. And evidently, the stereotype of the angry black woman is also with us, still, as a lead in the Times.”-Blair L.M. Kelley, The Root

Why does everyone care about what we look like anyway?

Why is everyone all in our grill? I’ll tell you why. We are a threat.

You see, it’s not really about my face. Or how happy I am on a scale of 1 to 10. Rather, it’s about control. Other folks’ needs to simmer us down. The world needs us to be women that won’t cause physical or mental harm. Women that won’t intellectually rise up and take over ish. And how do they want to deescalate the perceived threat? They want us to smile. Look calm and agreeable. Sit poised and proper, like a happy slave positioned comfortably on a pretty pallet in the field. Why? Because if I look quiet and content, they feel secure. My smile alerts them of my complacency in society and reassures them that I’m not coming for them. Their job. Their money. Their life. Smile = threat disarmed.

How’s this? Is this better?

It’s a form of misogyny.

It’s harassment. Men target women. They don’t yell “smile” to other men walking by. I have yet to hear a man ask another man why he looks so mean or to fix his face. Man-law violation? Nah. It’s an unwritten rule that women should look happy. Soft. Nurturing. As if we are wallflowers placed strategically about to brighten a room. And I tread lightly because I love my black men. But I gotta ask y’all real questions. Is “why you look so mean?” a subtle request to put us back in our place? Is it to tame fears that we may outsmart, out-talk, out-perform, and emasculate you? Is it an attempt to break us down and put us back in the flower vase so everyone can feel comfy-cozy again? Or…. are y’all simply trying to holla? Because generally speaking, WE DON’T LIKE THAT. 

Related: Breastfeeding While Black. Let’s Normalize It.

Money doesn’t give you an angry pass.

The angry stigma transcends money. Poor black women come down with it and it manifests in cat-calls as they are waiting on the bus stop. But powerful and rich black women can’t escape it’s cancer either. Michelle Obama was diagnosed with ABWS a few years ago. When I first heard the accusation, I was livid! I kept wondering, what were they were seeing that I couldn’t see? All I saw was a beautiful and striking black face. And then I realized it was an attempt to disarm her power. Back in 2012, she grappled with the fact that so many people portrayed her as being angry. Rumor had it that she even reshaped her eyebrows to be less angry and soften her fierce fire.

Recently she had an interview with Oprah and expressed her sentiments in the most endearing and elegant way. 

Michelle feels the Angry Black Woman Syndrome is rooted in fear. “We are so afraid of each other, you know?” she said. “Color, wealth, these things that don’t matter still play too much of a role in how we see one another. And it’s sad, because the thing that least defines us as people is the color of our skin, the size of our bank account. None of that matters.”-Michelle Obama, CNN

To see the full clip click here.

I don’t owe it to anyone to fix my face.

None of us should have to reshape our eyebrows. Or get a facelift. Or walk around with a perpetual smile to overcompensate and make America breathe a collective sigh of relief. We shouldn’t have to alter our features and become an unrelenting smile machine to make men feel in control. I shouldn’t have to “fix” anything about me in order to transcend race, gender, and conform to anyone’s rules. What I do recommend is that America get a prescription for it’s “by proxy” syndrome because the root ailment is it’s hate for me.

Motherhood softens me and makes me appear nicer.

There is one time in my life when society miraculously relinquishes me from my anger syndrome, and that is when I am parenting. I suppose motherhood softens me and disarms my inherent angry nature. When I’m perceived as a nurturer, my threat is canceled and I’m suddenly seen as warm and pleasant. In fact, both men and women of all races smile when they see me with my kids because now, they can relate to me as a person. Imagine that, I’m a normal person! Motherhood humanizes me to the world. Threat disarmed. And I laugh to myself thinking, “suckers!” Don’t let this mommy face fool you because I’m unapologetically fiery and fierce, and I’m claiming everything I deserve in life.

Moral of my story: you may not like my natural face. You may think I’m a threat. You can even order me to smile. But you won’t break me down because I know who I am. Black women are going places with or without America’s stamp of approval. And we don’t need to smile get the last laugh 🙂

And my advice to you Michelle, if you ever read this. You already have the power. No need to stoop to America’s cancer.

If you or someone you love have been diagnosed with Angry Black Woman Syndrome and want to change the narrative, please share this blog!

I am a career-driven mother of 3 dedicated to the health, spiritual, and emotional well-being of moms.