I learned that I was sassy in the first grade. I don’t exactly remember what I did to deserve that adjective but suddenly it was me. All my actions, my behavioral traits, my words, my movements, the things I liked to do, the things I didn’t like to do, the way I talked to my friend’s parents, the way I played soccer or sold Girl Scout cookies was sassy. I adopted the trait as my own, proud that I was sassy, that I was worth remembering because of my rambunctious personality, that I was different, more outgoing, louder, likeable. I liked that I was easy to categorize. I liked that my personality could be summed up into a singular adjective. But that didn’t mean I knew what the word meant.
Webster defines “sassy” in a few different ways; their primary definition is “impudent, vigorous and lively.” While this might be the prominent connotation, Webster’s second definition found further down the webpage is “having or showing a rude lack of respect.” It’s this definition I think applies to the sassy black girl trope.
Having not defined the term back then, I looked to the world around me for answers. Beyonce was sassy. Oprah was sassy. The black best friend every white lead character had was sassy. I soon learned that black women are, inherently, sassy. If they are outspoken, if they speak their mind, if they are clear about their goals, their opinions, their desire to see a certain outcome, they are sassy. I am too.
The term sassy is not just reserved for black females — it can be used to describe men and women of all ages and races. But there is a connotation of the word that is highly racialized. By grouping all black females under one umbrella of a term–outspoken or not, lively or not–by labeling us all as that “sassy black girl,” you are ridding us of individual personalities. You are dismissing our thoughts and our voices as being out of anger. By labeling our words as sassy, you are reducing our opinions to a trope. Instead of talking, we are always talking back. Our emotions are set aside. Every feeling–anger, sadness, discontent–is sassy. But we are so much more than a single word. We speak up because we are brave enough to. Because in this society that works to silence our voices, we speak up anyway. Black women are beginning to rise, ushering a new wave of voices. Oprah Winfrey’s 2018 Golden Globe speech echoes this. She stands in front of a crown of predominantly white men and women and says, “[…] a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, […] and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again.” These Black voices are brave because they yell loudly enough that someone hears us. The voices that do escape do not deserve to be dismissed as sassy.
In my 18 years, it has only just occurred to me that I may be an introvert. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been known as outgoing, personable, outspoken–I don’t know how well I actually embody any of those personality traits, but those were me. It didn’t even occur to me not to ignore that feeling of anxiety when in large crowds I maybe didn’t want to be in. I am slowly learning that just because people assume that to be me, it doesn’t have to be me. Just because I’m meant to be sassy doesn’t mean I need to be.
On top of that, maintaining a sassy persona is a feat in and of itself. A lot of young black girls felt pressure to be that sassy sidekick. The way the media portrays the black woman is flat and one dimensional, consisting of one liners and and dramatic personality flairs. We have no substance, no opinions worth actually taking into account. We are simply the sidekick to the ever so emotionally complex white woman. Our existence is portrayed as a foil–highlighting aspects of others personalities delegating ours to the sidelines. I ask young black girls to forget that. They are not the side character, they are not the sassy trope, they are not anyone or anything ascribed to them. They are who they want to be.
I propose that intersectional feminists discredit the term sassy in their fights to discredit the term bossy. The word “bossy” is considered offensive because it tarnishes women’s presence as leaders; when women assert power or try to suggest something over a man, they are dismissed as bossy. Feminism can very often be a white woman’s movement. Some white feminists are blind to the fact that “sassy” acts as a black woman’s “bossy.” It can be just as offensive and stigmatizing.
I’ve spent the past year of my life trying to discover myself from under the umbrella of the term sassy. I hope that other black girls will realize long before I did that they are more than a label or a sidekick. Your opinions are not rude, they are just opinions. I hope they understand that being strong, black and female is never ever an insult.
Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu.