Commentary Race

Banning ‘Bossy’ Won’t Help Black Women and Girls Seeking Justice

Amber J. Phillips

Sheryl Sandberg and others want to see us ban the word "bossy" when talking about girls. But for many Black women, being called "bossy" and being bossy have the potential to save and change our lives.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

Recently, Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez, and friends introduced a new campaign, called Ban Bossy, meant to encourage girls to lead by banning the use of the word when talking about girls. The campaign, announced in a Wall Street Journal article, is based on research conducted by social scientists on “how language affects society.” The research found “that even subtle messages can have a big impact on girls’ goals and aspirations. Calling a girl ‘bossy’ not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her,” explain Sandberg and Chávez.

Instead of just being swift in criticizing Ban Bossy, which I have been in personal conversations, I believe the introduction of this campaign presents us with the opportunity to find an intersectional approach to developing leadership skills in girls and women that could also address some of the most pressing problems facing Black women and girls, specifically issues of gender, as well as race, class, power, and privilege. Black women are often known for being or are called bossy. While it may be said in malice, we have to be bossy if it means taking charge of our lives, protecting our families, and holding down our communities.

While campaigns like Ban Bossy focus on whether or not girls and women are called bossy and how that affects their ability to lead, it’s also important to expand societal notions of leadership to include the ways that women lead outside the board room and classroom, and the ways Black women and girls are systematically inhibited or punished for doing so because our motivations are seen as misplaced anger and spitefulness.

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Black women and girls are not just faced with the fear of how we might be perceived when we raise our hands in class or ask for a major promotion at work. We fear that being assertive will threaten our quality of life. While it may just sound like strong galvanizing rhetoric, Black women are under attack, so despite our fears we know we have to be assertive and aggressive just to have a chance at fighting back. Because the systems—political, judicial, and social—are constructed in such a way that is oppressive for some groups and not for others, when a particular group, such as Black women and girls, break away from being silent or passive to take the lead through expressing justified rage while aggressively fighting to defend ourselves, we can end up facing unreasonable consequences. We saw this in the recent events surrounding CeCe McDonald and Marissa Alexander.

CeCe McDonald, a transgender Black woman, spent 19 months in a men’s prison after fatally stabbing a man while defending herself during a racist and transphobic attack. For CeCe McDonald, being “bossy” meant implicitly saving her own life by standing up for herself against verbal harassment and a violent attack from her perpetrators. Though this seems like the perfect example of when claiming self-defense under the law should be justified, McDonald was not granted this projection. Her bodily autonomy was further assaulted when she was forced to spend time in a men’s prison despite identifying as a woman. In an interview with Melissa Harris-Perry following her release from prison, McDonald said, “I felt like they [the prison authorities] wanted me to hate myself as a trans woman. They wanted to force me to be someone that I wasn’t. They wanted me to delegitimize myself as a trans woman, and I was not taking that. As a trans woman, as a proud Black trans woman, I was not going to allow the system to delegitimize and hyper-sexualize and take my identity away from me.”

Then there is the case of Marissa Alexander, a Black woman in Florida who now faces 60 years in prison—triple her original, repealed sentence because “the judge in the case gave improper jury instructions”—for firing a warning shot at her abusive, estranged husband. (The shot did not harm or kill anyone.) This case is particularly interesting because Alexander is seeking immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. This is the same law that allowed George Zimmerman to be acquitted for pursuing and then murdering an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. For Marissa Alexander, being “bossy” meant defending herself during an ongoing attack by only firing a warning shot in the direction of a man who has a history domestic violence toward her just to get the violence in that moment to stop. Additionally, Alexander had just given birth to a baby before the tumultuous altercation that may result in her being imprisoned for the rest of her life and the lives of her small children. In both cases, claiming self-defense/the right to stand your ground failed to be recognized as a valid defense, which is often how it is for Black women who must use force to defend their bodies against greater force.

These are two examples of what happens when Black women “lean in” to stand up for themselves but are ultimately punished for it. And they show that Black women will lead even despite highly unfavorable consequences. 

In the examples above, these women had no other choice but to be bossy, protect themselves, and demand that their lives be valued. In order to take on transphobic violence, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex’s detrimental effects on the entire Black community regardless of gender or sexuality, we have to be bossy. In order to take on Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, who failed to secure murder convictions for the killers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis yet wants to lock away a domestic violence survivor for the rest of her life, we have to be bossy.

I am grateful for CeCe McDonald, Marissa Alexander, and countless other phenomenal Black women leaders and activists who are able to find their voices and strength to lead out of adverse situations. We make sacrifices to our personal lives, risk being viewed as unreasonably angry Black women, and some of us even risk our lives to fight for justice while paving the way for the girls who will follow behind us. I’d like to see the Ban Bossy campaign incorporate leadership development that meets the needs of the women and girls facing (or who will face) these issues.

Though Black women continue to be victims of patriarchy, as displayed by our criminal justice and political system’s inability to protect us, there is always hope and the possibility of actual progress. This is especially true when we take our liberation and the liberation of our communities into our own hands. While our situation is dire, we will proudly take on the bossy characteristics of being assertive and aggressive to forge ahead. Young Black women and young women of color need to be acknowledged and continuously developed as the leaders and experts in advocating on their own behalf without the fear of being seen as too emotional, violent, or angry in addition to this idea of being called “bossy.” This will help to combat the negative connotations Black women face when inserting themselves as leaders that will not undermine their goals, aspirations, or the reasons (often induced by enraging situations) for taking on leadership roles; which is overall what the Ban Bossy Campaign sets out to accomplish.

Developing girls and women to be leaders with this type of intersectional approach will give us the opportunity not only to be CEOs but also to be proactive in fighting to improve our overall quality of life in a system that has historically sought to keep us in a state of despair. We need a campaign that acknowledges that when we fight back or speak up for ourselves, even if it is out of anger, that our feelings and emotional responses are valid. Acknowledging our anger as just volatile instead of taking a moment to realize that our aggressiveness and anger is righteous and justified is silencing. Black girls and women deserve a voice especially in the decisions that impact our lives, because no one knows the issues that we, our families, and our communities face better than us.

I’m a Black woman and organizer who has turned my bossiness into a lifetime of organizing for progressive issues, developing community leaders, and writing to ensure that the voices of young people, people of color, and folks from communities of limited resources are heard. My passion for being “bossy” and being one out of countless people collectively fighting for justice comes from my lived experience as someone who holds the identities of those who often go unheard and victimized in our society. Our families and communities call on us every day to be leaders, whether we’re called bossy or not. Sure you can try to ban the word (thought I must admit, I will never give up having an occasional sing-a-long and private dance party to my favorite Kelis song). However, banning the word will do little if we aren’t also working to remove the systemic barriers in our political system, while doing the cultural work of understanding how Black girls and women exhibit leadership qualities beyond being just being accommodating and accepting.

For starters, women—specifically young women—should find every outlet possible to grow, develop, and execute our capability to lead with the ultimate goal of eradicating our social vulnerabilities. This can include applying to civic engagement leadership programs like the PolitiCorps, which focuses on training young leaders who are ready to commit themselves to working in public service full time; working with the 1 in 3 Campaign, which seeks to develop leaders and campus based student groups to destigmatize abortion by creating a new dialogue that puts people at the center of the conversation about abortion rights and access; or getting involved with Black Women For, which is a leadership development network for professional Black women ages 21 to 34 who are committed to changing the world.

There are countless organizations that are going beyond just addressing rhetoric to develop leadership skills in women and teach them how to make the change they want to see in the world through whatever medium is best for them, such as by showing them how to use their voice to express their frustration toward an oppressive system while also directing their passionate feelings to incite change and having the patience to see their work through to the end. While encouraging young women to apply to leadership development and activism programs, we must also remove the barriers of oppression that stand in their path to success.

Whether young women are bossy or have a less confrontational, more introverted approach to leadership, they are the future leaders we have been waiting for. We should tell them to harness their power, be a leader, and use their voice in order to create the type of change that will create options and equal access within our society for all people. And, we should say: Please be bossy!

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