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


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.

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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Follow Amber J. Phillips on twitter: @AmberJPhillips

  • Melinda Hampton

    Nice stereotypes. Try not to be so racist next time, Amber.

    • Jennifer Starr

      Again, you didn’t bother to read the article.

    • Shan

      Have you never stood up for yourself as a woman, in either a specific instance or in general, as Ms. Phillips has done, by speaking out against mistreatment you’ve experienced simply because of BEING a woman?

    • Arekushieru

      Racism is not possible against white people. Learn what racism means. Since Amber seems most likely to be a woman of colour, I would also say that she has a better grasp of what fellow women of colour experience than you do, just in case you’re accusing her of racism against either white or black people.

    • CJ99

      Like those who scream racism in these instances is akin to those who use the word bossy as the article describes are themselves bossy.

    • fiona64

      Racism is a cultural matter. Learn the difference between racism and bigotry (none of which, BTW, the author displayed).

  • nadira alisha

    When a woman leads,she is a leader. NOT bossy. So dont be bossy,be a leader instead. We’re not equal until women being told shes a leader instead of bossy. Pardon my poor grammar.

    • Shan

      Calling strong women “bossy” is a cultural way of trying to keep women – of all colors – from BEING strong by shaming them for it. It’s the same double standard that’s applied to sexuality. Men don’t get called “bossy” for the same reason they don’t get called “sluts.” Because they’re just behaving the way they’re SUPPOSED to behave. But godforbid that WOMEN should do it.

  • nadira alisha

    Oh,one more thing. Bossy isnt only insulting for black women. Patriachy fuck up all women. Whether she is black,white or other woc

    • Shan

      “Patriachy fuck up all women.”

      Yes it does. Patriarchy, in the form of institutionalized sexism, is one of the tools capitalism employs, along with racism and classicism, to profit from the labor of others.

  • Poolu Luisu

    Bossy… Has the world gone childish?
    “Stop bullying me… He called me bossy….” Do you know how much of a child people sound today? “It’s the patriarchy…” Grow up. Stand up. Look in the mirror. That’s not baby-fat. You are a grown adult. Start acting like one. The last time I used the “bossy” was in describing another kid’s attitude in grade school. And to date myself, Reagan was in his 2nd term as President.

    This is a new wave of feminist propaganda. The first wave crippled the Civil Rights Movement when White women started started spouting that you (Black women) are oppressed. And what happened after that? Black businesses started to disappear. Families were broken apart (including mine due to an over-zealous mother that tried to be both man and woman of the house), and the rest is history.

    And you Black women and women of color, why are you following these White women around? They don’t give a damn about you. They give a damn about themselves, because lets say feminists get what the want. Do you think you will be socially equal to them? You won’t be, because you are only valuable on an as-needed basis. You just have to look to history for the answer. These are mafia tactics.

    Look at some of the debates. When Blacks were being busted and beaten in the head by the police on a regular basis, did the Whites say that was wrong. Only a speckle. But decades later, look what’s happening. They are running around crying saying the country is becoming a Police State, because the cops are now showing decades of love that they used on Blacks now onto the White population. So NOW, we are all Americans again and the police must be stopped, but nobody listened to Blacks when it was solely happening to them. This is the same situation. Just because White people say something, we are all suppose to jump behind it. Well I’m not. I don’t have a leash around my neck. Now the rest of you SIT!!!

    • Shan

      Yeah. Here’s some other shite you wrote.

      “Don’t get mad that European women prefer African American dick over White American dick bro. White Americans are the niggaz of Europe and the rest of the world. Funny how that works. lol”

      “Stay in school stupid, because the US population is 70% white where where Blacks and Hispanics are about 22-24% combined jackass. But the white pop stay taken L’s because your sisters, mother and white females looking for the Black D.”

      “I bet you that white bitch had more dicks ran into her than the other one. So pick your STD dummy.”

      “This the type of bitch that will want to go to a drive thru before going home to fuck”

      “Bitch got a stripper pole in her bathroom with toilet paper wrapped around it so she can wipe her ass”

      “These are the moments that I’m glad I didn’t pursue being a tattoo artist. Bitch smellin like perspiration and booty juice”

      I don’t care what race or gender you are, you’re a racist, misogynist asshole.

    • Arekushieru

      And, further to Shan’s point, white women are saying that they, themselves, are also oppressed by the patriarchy. So what makes you think that black women are only oppressed along divisions of class and race (white and black)? Hmm? Didn’t realize that women of colour were all one homogenous group. Oops. That’s misogyny for ya, right there. You (to paraphrase Shan’s words) racist, misogynistic asshole.

  • Savitri

    Interesting perspective. I thought the article was well-researched and thoughtful, a good reminder that feminism isolated and de-contextualized from racial and other oppressions is lacking in substance and true change. Amazing how we can read the same article and take away totally different things, isn’t it?

  • fiona64

    When a man does it, it’s “displaying leadership qualities,” and when a woman does it, it’s “being bossy” … from kindergarten on. I am in wholehearted concurrence with this article.

    • EvanMyers

      You’re right. When boys are rude, obnoxious, arrogant, boorish, impertinent, and disrespectful, others naturally admire and want them to be their leader, whereas girls are called bossy.

      • fiona64

        I think we both know that “bossy” is not about being “rude, obnoxious, arrogant, boorish, impertinent and disrespectful.” I smell a MRA.

        • EvanMyers

          From dictionary.com:

          bossy means: pushy, overbearing, oppressive, despotic, overbearing, and abrasive.

          From thefreedictionary.com:

          domineering, lordly, arrogant, authoritarian, oppressive, hectoring, autocratic, dictatorial, coercive, imperious, overbearing, tyrannical, despotic, high-handed

          The feminists and only the feminists believe that bossy = great leadership qualities.

          • CJ99

            No that is you being stupid, racist, & sexist which leaves you being quite the dou…..and we know where that’s going.

          • EvanMyers

            So, reading the acknowledging dictionary definitions is, in your highly rational opinion, “stupid, racist & sexist.”

            Your comment clearly demonstrates which one of us is stupid.

          • fiona64

            Dude, as you are perfectly well aware, when someone describes a girl or woman as bossy, what they mean is that she is refusing to sit down and be quiet and submissive. “Quiet and submissive” are not leadership traits.

            You must be a yogi, with the BS stretch you made there.

          • EvanMyers

            I already provided concrete proof as to what the word bossy means. Did you not read them? Feel free to Google it for yourself.

            As for your claim, I challenge you to quote any dictionaries that define bossy as meaning ‘girls or women (but not boys or men) who are great leaders and refuse to sit down and be quiet and submissive.’

            I look forward your quotations of the many dictionaries that define it as you claim. If you can’t provide such, that is further proof that the feminists and only the feminists believe that bossy = great leadership qualities.