The Mammy at Work: Study Shows Black Women Still Fighting Negative Stereotypes

We all know her. The ample bodied, tell-it-like-it-is Black matriarch who pulls no punches, and suffers no fools. She’s sassy and strong. No-nonsense, yet nurturing, and ultra-competent in the little slice of the world in which she’s given agency to lead. One hundred years ago her name was Mammy. Fifty years ago, it was Aunt Jemima. Today, her name might be Erika or Candace, and while in 2021 she’s more likely to be your middle management boss than your family’s cook, the study by authors Livingston, Rosette, and Washington reveal that America’s need for a stereotyped, dominant Black female caretaker is still largely intact.

In their study, Can an Agentic Black Woman Get Ahead, the authors examined the degree to which Black women leaders might experience a penalty for displaying dominant (or agentic) behavior in the workplace. The authors presented two competing hypotheses.

The first prediction is what one might expect: that Black women by virtue of both their womanhood and race would experience significant pushback when leading in ways that were deemed “dominant.” The second hypothesis was that Black female leaders would avoid the backlash experienced by white female and Black male leaders for similar behavior. The authors surmised that Black women’s unique position as a marginalized group on the basis of both race and gender would render them “invisible” by the study participants.

To test these hypotheses, eighty-four non-Black participants (64% women, 36% men) selected from an online pool, were shown a description and photo of a fictional, executive-level leader from a Fortune 500 company. All education levels and achievements of the executives were kept equal. The participants were given a description of a meeting between the leader and a subordinate in which the leaders either displayed “communal” behaviors (read encouraging) or “dominant” ones (read demanding). Participants then rated each leader on several questions meant to assess the degree to which each leader was either communal or dominant. Leaders deemed to be “dominant” rather than “communal” were rated lower overall. However, as the second hypothesis predicted, while white women and Black men suffered greatest for perceived dominance, Black women generally escaped such judgments.

If you’re like me, you’re raising a major eyebrow at this finding. After all, if Black women aren’t penalized for expressing dominance in the workplace, why then, are we not given the same opportunities to succeed as white men?

As of this writing, there is only one Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Despite making up 7% of the population, Black women comprise just 1% of C-suite leaders. Offering an explanation for this glaring difference in opportunity, the authors put forth that while Black women leaders may not suffer a penalty for displaying dominance, they may not be offered the same leeway to make mistakes as their white male counterparts. While this is certainly true, this explanation doesn’t go nearly far enough to explain the dichotomous results of this study.

Far from a celebration of parity, what this study reveals is that Black women are still suffering from the same stereotypes that have plagued us since slavery. Not at all genteel or ladylike, the caricature of the Black woman is one of the mammy – a harmless, if sassy, nurturer to white folks, but domineering and overbearing to her own people.

Of course, the study participants did not penalize the Black women executives for their perceived “dominance.” After all, dominance is what has come to define the Black woman. When Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I A Woman?” in 1851, she was noting the difference in the care and adoration afforded white women versus the brutish, man-like treatment of the Black woman. Though we are technically women, we are not women in the same sense as white women- meaning our needs, affect, and being are perceived as being more akin to that of a man’s.

The eye-rolling Black female co-worker who will cuss you out, but also wrap her arms around you and give you motherly advice is a mainstay, mammy-esque character meant to affirm the role that whiteness requires of Black women. Such images have served to shape our perception of Black women as squarely outside of the mainstream view of traditional womanhood.

And while some could consider this agentic view of Black women to be a benefit in the workplace, allowing us to move more readily up the corporate ladder, the truth that any non-fictional Black woman will tell you, and the truth that the actual numbers of our achievement reveal, is that this agency extends only to the degree to which our dominance doesn’t actually threaten the white power structure. Racism and sexism are still very much alive. Otherwise, why isn’t the agentic Black woman actually ahead?

About the Author

Rai King is an educator, nonprofit professional, and host of W.O.C. at Work and Married to the Movement podcasts. She is a wife, mother of 5, and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University. She is also the executive director at Hands In Learning.