The Lingering Impact Of The ‘Hysterical Female’ Trope on Women Of Colour

Sitting by the pool with a group of friends, my crush spits on my face. As a 16-year-old who watches too many Jesse McCartney film clips, he meets all my crush prerequisites. He is carefree, with an outgrown early-noughties mop that blows in the wind while he tailgates buses on a skateboard like a concrete surfer. The wet, slimy substance hits my face, followed shortly by the n-word screamed across the pool, with a carelessness that sends me into shock. My friends cackle with laughter and move on to a new topic of conversation. Perhaps in disbelief — or more likely as a defence mechanism — I laugh too. 
Later that evening, the encounter leads to a flood of tears privately realised in my room. As I tried to explain this sadness to my friends that had witnessed the event, I am given clear instructions: "Don't be so sensitive. Learn to take a joke." I am told that it wasn't a racist incident because he wasn't racist. Clearly annoyed by the mood now erected in the room, the group walks away. A shake starts to develop through my body as my mind flashes back to the dozens of times I was told in one way or another that I was less than white people, and that I wasn't allowed to talk about my experiences with racism. 
My message wasn't heard because I was perceived as being hysterical. 

The history of the hysterical female 

A racing heartbeat, a quiet tremble in the fingertips, and a vicious internal monologue of jumbled thoughts: the fear of being perceived as a hysterical woman is not new. Hysteria has a long history across the female experience, following us in every arena we participate in. But before probing into how hysteria has permutated into the 'angry black woman' stereotype, it's vital to first understand how hysteria has been used to patrol the physical and emotional experiences of women. 
Hysteria is defined as any type of wildly uncontrolled emotion. An American Studies lecturer at the University of Sydney, Dr Pamela Maddock provides a historical perspective for how it has shaped women's emotional experiences. "Hysteria was a common diagnosis for hundreds of years. The American Psychiatric Association stopped using the term by the 1950s, but 'hysterical neurosis' could still be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the 1970s. Medical authorities diagnosed men with this in some contexts, but it was most commonly diagnosed in women. Abdominal pain, irritability, nervousness, anxiety, emotional outbursts, hallucinations, and various sexual interests were all possible components of hysteria." 
The story of hysteria has traditionally been told through the lens of gender. But as we move towards an increased awareness of the intersectional female experience, it's essential to understand that while sexism impacts all women, the experiences of white women are very different to those of First Nations women, Black women, WOC and immigrant or refugee women.

Hysteria's impact on BIWOC AND WOC today 

As we cast our gaze forward, the past 18 months have been promoted as the global racial reckoning. It's easy to think that this is a painful lesson that society has learned from, evident in a sea of black squares on Instagram and the start of accountability taking place in several organisations.
Yet, when WOC share their lived stories — in our workplaces, our doctor's offices, on our social media platforms, and perhaps most sadly, in our closest relationships — we learn that the 'hysterical female' stereotype continues to taint our daily experiences. Allyship seems to disappear as our complaints are ignored, our validity questioned, and we're accused of being 'too sensitive'. 

Hysteria's impact on First Nations women in Australia

Proud DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and Greens Senator for Victoria, Lidia Thorpe has had a successful career as an activist and a politician. In September 2020, Thorpe took her seat as Victoria's first Aboriginal Senator in the federal Parliament. Growing up in social housing in Collingwood, the granddaughter of one of the founders of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, Thorpe has not only become a pioneering voice for Indigenous equity, but also for many women across Australia. 
Despite this, Thorpe has seen how the hysterical stereotype has been used to obstruct her purpose. “There’s all of these derogatory labels that you’re given, predominantly by the patriarchy, that derail the message you’re trying to deliver. People become tone-deaf and lose sight of the issue because of their unconscious bias…the headlines are about behaviour or emotion and not about the issue,” she reflects.

For First Nations and Black women, nothing is more insidious than the portrayal of the ill-mannered, angry woman.

Caroline kell
In daily interactions with other political parties, Thorpe sees that she is spoken about as an "angry black woman, or that I'm crazy, or on drugs or drunk. That there's something wrong with me." The implications of this not only impact Thorpe but also the communities she works to empower. "They're missing the message because they don't want to hear the message. They want to be distracted by their ideologies of colonisation and patriarchal power, which are both violent systems of oppression." 
First Nations woman and holistic leadership coach Caroline Kell from Black Wattle Coaching also speaks of the Indigenous experience both her and the community face. "Underrepresented and intersectional minority groups find themselves having to overcome stereotypes and prejudiced beliefs.
"For First Nations and Black women, nothing is more insidious than the portrayal of the ill-mannered, angry woman. I tend to see highly qualified First Nations women who work in large, monolithic organisations where they are only one of a few. When a problematic interpersonal relationship emerges that causes discomfort, a lack of safety and suffering, they don't feel safe addressing the issue; instead, they often shrink, contort, and bottle it down. I've had clients report that they fear their careers will be compromised if they do say anything because the 'do nothing approach' is the safest option," says Kell. 
In her book, Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni-Eddo Lodge conveys a similar sentiment. "Raising racism in a conversation is like flicking a switch. It doesn't matter if it's a person you've just met, or a person you've always felt safe and comfortable with. You're never sure when a conversation about race and racism will turn into one where you were scared for your physical safety or social position."
While there may be an outward-facing shift towards diverse representation within the media and in leadership positions, the hysterical persona and its ties to First Nations and women of colour are harder to identify and, therefore, hold liable. Lodge articulates the nuanced nature of racism that is experienced alongside the more apparent assaults. "The insidious stuff is much harder...You learn to be careful about your battles because otherwise, people would consider you to be angry for no reason at all. A troublemaker, not worth taking seriously, and an angry black woman obsessed with race." 

Hysteria's presence in the female body

There is a long history of racism in medicine, and the data consistently shows marked racial disparities in healthcare in the UK, Australia and the U.S.. The hysterical female was, after all, initially formulated within the medical sphere. As a doctor who is incredibly passionate about the holistic health of women of colour, Dr Prasanthi Purusothaman says that better care for diverse female patients is still needed. "I have looked after several women who have been dismissed and ushered out of rooms for being crazy. Either alone or with the aid of more empathetic specialists, I have diagnosed these same women with conditions including endometriosis, vaginismus, IBS, IBD, migraines, and cancer," she says.
Dr Purusotham explains how these biases can unconsciously present during a medical consult. "Let's take an example of a WOC who has a non-English-speaking background and is unable to articulate gently. Perhaps her voice is raised as this is normal in her culture, and the immediate deep-seated belief of the clinician can be reflexively triggered. I can easily see how this is the perfect recipe for projection of inconvenience and frustration onto the patient, affecting optimal care." 

The intergenerational impact of hysteria

When speaking about her passion for equality, Thorpe reflects on the intergenerational impact of racism. "What comes out of my mouth is lived experience. It's 240 years of intergenerational trauma that comes out when we speak. It's true, and it comes from a place of deep connection." 
The more obvious implications of the 'emotional woman' trope are social isolation, diagnostic delays for treatable diseases and lower wages. But the longer-term trauma that exists from these encounters is spoken about less frequently and harder to report on. "Mental health implications for those who have experienced distressing racial encounters can include anxiety, depression, panic, isolation and loneliness, dissociation, confusion, doubt, vulnerability, hypervigilance, and distress, explains psychologist Rashida Dungarwalla. 

We need to tell our stories because we’ve got to break the chains of oppression. You can’t be what you can’t see. But, also, how much longer do we need to continue to tell our stories?

It's important to mark these stereotypes for what they are — a form of racial gaslighting. "Racial gaslighting occurs when people apply gaslighting techniques to a group of people based on race or ethnicity," Dungarwalla explains. This can include when a person denies experiences of discrimination despite evidence or criticises activists for being emotional in a bid to undermine their message.
Like the damaging effects of racism, racial gaslighting can have detrimental impacts on one's mental health, according to Dungarwalla,"potentially leading to physical ailments and physical illness as well as an experience of conflict surrounding personal identity."
When reflecting on actionable steps that can be taken by those willing to become allies for women of colour, Kell believes that honest conversations start from humble beginnings: at the dinner table. "Humans and emotions are not binary; we're multifaceted. I think societies should genuinely begin to normalise the spectrum of emotions people experience." Kell also recommends the implementation of peer support groups, mentorship and coaching so that stressors can be "recognised and worked through holistically and constructively."
It’s also important to recognise the burden of trying to voice our experiences. Thorpe says, "I have mixed feelings about this. We need to tell our stories because we’ve got to break the chains of oppression. You can’t be what you can’t see. But, also, how much longer do we need to continue to tell our stories? We are tired of telling our stories because no one is listening. We need people to listen and act after hearing our stories to create change so that our stories matter”.

The racialised stereotype of the angry and emotional female stipulates that Indigenous and women of colour can exist, as long as they do so quietly.

Thinking back to the pool incident, I wonder if my then-crush remembers it. He has the privilege of forgetting, of course. It is not until now that I realise the weight of these experiences stacked on top of one another. What may have been a childish mistake for him has had a lasting impact on my adult experiences. It took thousands of dollars of financial investment with a psychologist to unpack how these encounters shape my self-image, and still impact many decisions and actions I make in my workplace and relationships today. 
The racialised stereotype of the angry and emotional female stipulates that Indigenous and women of colour can exist, as long as they do so quietly. While we may be allowed to take more space than we have historically, it is only within a policed realm of acceptability. The 'hysterical' pigeonhole serves to dismiss, discredit, and deny the minority experience by telling us that our stories are unnecessary emotional responses. It’s easy to say that the world is no longer racist, or as racist as it once was, but this reality further imprisons and stifles the opinions and emotions of First Nations and women of colour, who are not only processing their experiences but trying to self-actualise beyond them.
Lodge, perfectly summarising, says, “In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes by their race, and to whom the power and privilege is bestowed upon… seeing race is essential to changing the system.”
Perhaps we are justly angry, and there is room for our anger as a part of the change that is still desperately needed.

More from Culture

R29 Original Series