It wasn’t until I went to an exclusive, conservative, and predominately white university that I was first called “sassy”. Back home in my small New Jersey town, friends and family alike considered me to be a highly opinionated person. If you ever wanted to know my perspective on a certain issue, I would let you know without any filters. I gained respect from a lot of people in my hometown and wore this attribute like a badge of honor until I received a culture shock. When I tried to carry this trait with me to Princeton, although I still received respect from my colleagues, my outspoken nature was greeted with mimicry underscored with overly exaggerated stereotypes. I’m a black woman and can barely reach some cabinets at an impressive five feet and zero inches. Before my collegiate life, these were just characteristics of myself that I never had to explain because they were obvious. But now I wonder whether my sex, my height, and most importantly, my blackness have caused others to place a box over me within which I myself cannot find the boundaries. And as such, I have become afraid to speak my mind not only because someone is limiting me to a racial stereotype but also due to the fact that I sometimes feel as though my words, the only thing I have in this world that prove that I have a right to be, are powerless to transcend these barriers.
I hate mimicry in general unless one is doing so to provide a mirror to the subject so that he or she can change for the better. The first time someone mimicked and mocked my manner of speaking was the fall semester of freshman year. I was giving my opinion on something (as usual) speaking with my usual booming, elevated voice. I wasn’t angry about the particular topic being discussed. Perhaps my volume of speaking was due to how my mother would speak—she’s also short and you guessed it: black too—or maybe it’s due to my upbringing in an ecstatic, Pentecostal church where the voice of the Bishop, my grandfather, would reverberate throughout the four corners of the sanctuary. Whatever the origins come from, they were bastardized once a friend interrupted me and started to snap his fingers, bob his neck, and say “Na-uh, girlfriend.” I immediately stopped talking. My coherent train of words began to dissemble into fragmented pieces in my mind when my friend belittled me to the “sassy black woman” stereotype. We have seen it in every scope of the media from “Sheneneh” of the iconic Martin show to “Madea” of Tyler Perry films. And frankly, I’m tired of it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that we should do away with this stereotype. I’ve grown up around plenty of black women who many believe are like the stereotype: they are outspoken, extroverted, and maybe even aggressive. If they speak in a dialect, bob their head, or snap their fingers, this isn’t more low class than an orator who outstretches his hands towards an audience or leans over his podium. These are all just embellishments designed to enliven our speeches. Black women imbue the same amount of passion into our bodies as we do with our words. But what I want is for people to not overlook the individual personas of African-American women, like myself. I love being the center of attention when I express my opinions. But I’m also a reserved individual and have to remind myself to have human contact lest I spend all my days reading, writing, and listening to music on Spotify. I may bob my head at times but I don’t snap my fingers after giving an opinion. Sometimes I look down at my lap and fidget with my fingers because I’m afraid of potential backlash for saying how I feel. I’m strong yet vulnerable. I’m extroverted yet introverted. These attributes are not dichotomized within my being. They are of me. When I speak, recognize who I am but do not assign me to a stereotype because in doing so you are robbing me of the ability to make myself known to you as a multi-dimensional person. When you place black women into a demoralizing “box” called a pre-conceived stereotype, you are looking at us all with a blurry vision; you’re not really seeing us in our entirety. Don’t limit yourself and please don’t limit me. Now let’s get to know each other the right way, shall we?