Viewpoint: ‘Sassy’ is more than it seems

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been asked what I think defines me. And for as long as I can remember, my mother has told me that I am a black woman first and foremost in all things. I have taken this to heart especially with the realization that even after decades of fights for equality both white and black America still has a prevailing tendency to alienate, demean and dismiss black women.

In response to Sanmai Gbandi’s March 27 column about how black women are underrepresented in the media, I agree completely. However, I think the problem goes deeper than how society has apparently sanctioned these unrealistic portrayals. There is more history at work here than Tyler Perry or Black Entertainment Television, the banes of black America.

As for the “sassy black woman” stereotype, I believe it originated as far back as when American history began with slavery. White slave owners used the word “sassy” to describe a slave who misbehaved or was disobedient in some way.

While it was not necessarily a slander in itself, it was used in an insulting fashion and any black woman labeled as such would be treated more harshly than normal as a result.

The term continued to be used in a derogatory fashion during the Reconstruction and Civil Rights movement by people of all races to describe a black maid or employee who disagreed with or talked back to her superiors. The word developed into a slander to ruin or damage a black woman’s reputation among employers. It was meant to keep black women “in their place.”

And yet the word became common among black communities because of the specific connotations it had. My grandmother, who grew up during the Civil Rights movement, still uses the term today for any person who questions her authority or view on something, as in, “Don’t sass me, girl,” or “Miss sass-mouth needs to be quiet.”

The negative connotations of the word only changed when the media glamorized the outspoken, confident black woman in figures like Foxy Brown, Patti LaBelle, Louise from “The Jeffersons” and other such stars. Through the media, “sassy” seems to have become a general name for all black women who speak their mind, no matter what their character or disposition.

I’ve been called “sassy” by white friends who only meant it as a compliment, yet were unaware of the negative connotations of the term. It has always bothered me, but not to the extent that I am severely insulted or hurt by it.

I don’t want to turn this into a rant. “Sassy” certainly isn’t the worst word in the English language. However, I do think it’s important for people to be informed of the exact meaning and history of such a descriptive word before they use it. I think people use this word with no idea of the racial connotations it has and if they really thought about it first, they would see that it is mildly offensive.

But on the other hand, how can society realize this when it is perpetuated in both white and black media industries? This is why Tyler Perry movies and BET are probably the worst, most detrimental things to happen to the black population since the Jim Crow laws.

Yes, they support and highlight black actors and the issues black people deal with, but when these actors and issues are portrayed as the most ignorant, inarticulate, hostile and mentally depraved characters you could possibly imagine, this does little to help the world’s view of African-Americans. This is why the black film industry will never gain the prevalence and widespread viewership that other industries have. Because it perpetuates the worst stereotypes and elements of our culture. And what’s more, these stereotypes are all so overdone. If you’ve seen one Tyler Perry movie or play, you’ve seen them all.

But I digress. Gbandi is exactly right in the rest of the points she made. Like her I had very few black idols to look to in the media. I relied more on the books I read to teach me about what race, and mine in particular, meant in this world. And the more I learn about this issue, the more I know that America has a long way to go in how it handles race relations.

Ashley Davis is a senior journalism major from Killeen. She is a Copy Editor and reporter at the Lariat.