My slide into the queendom of sass happened the way a toddler walks into a wading pool: tiptoes, at first, followed by a big splash. I don’t remember when my personality dial moved from "funny" to "sassy," but I know at some point my laughter stopped coming from my heart. The story about how I bumped into a toilet paper display at the grocery store and sent the pyramid toppling—not once, but twice? Sassy. When I told our mechanic my car made a "shoop-shoop" sound and not a "bloop-bloop" sound? So sassy. I wore my sass like a pink feather boa. I loved being the say the first thing that pops into your head girl. More importantly, after a childhood of shyness and introversion, I loved the spotlight that came with sass. But the happiness didn’t last long.
T.V. tropes describe the Sassy Black Woman (SBW) as "never too busy to lend an ear, or come along on your wacky schemes. She is flawless to the point of being unreal." The Sassy Black Friend (SBF), however, can be rich or poor, male or female, tightly wound or laidback—the facts don’t matter. However, accessibility does. Day or night, the SBF must be available offer sympathy, then crack an outrageous joke. Most importantly, SBFs never have problems of their own. Pop culture SBFs include Luther from Mission Impossible, Dionne from Clueless, and Lucious from The Incredibles.
I don’t remember when my personality dial moved from 'funny' to 'sassy,' but I know at some point my laughter stopped coming from my heart.
The world loves sassy women, even more so when the SBF is a SBW. Hell, I love sassy Black women, but the real, human kind. Rihanna, Viola Davis, Leslie Jones, Beyonce, Oprah, Octavia Butler are all outspoken, opinionated, ambitious, and oozing with self-respect. But the way the media portrays these Black women is often in broad strokes and without complexity—diva, queen, or icon. Yes, Beyoncé is a cultural icon with impressive clout. But she’s also a Black mother to Black children—children who have no choice but to navigate the world today. No WOC has ever raised their child to be a shell. We were not meant to be the one-dimensional sidekick.
For me, the sass was a projection; forced happiness mixed with fear. The fear was of rejection for being too real. When I felt anxiety or sadness, I pushed my emotions down and pulled the corners of my mouth up. I cried at home. Turns out, I’m not alone. The expectations which follow the SBF stereotype creates an ugly legacy: Studies show daily exposure to racism causes mental health issues in the Black community.
Grouping Black women’s sparkle under the blanket term of "sass" is lazy at best, insulting at worst, and harmful in even the most casual of situations. Happiness is as nuanced as the person experiencing it. The magic of Black optimism in spite of generations of oppression is not a punchline—it’s a facet of an otherwise whole personality. We claim the same emotions as our white counterparts.
According to research by Johns Hopkins University, women are twice as likely to experience depression as men, yet Black women are only half as likely to seek treatment. Maintaining the mask of the SBF pushes emotions behind a curtain.
The magic of Black optimism in spite of generations of oppression is not a punchline—it’s a facet of an otherwise whole personality.
Since George Floyd's murder, I've paid more attention to space I occupy within my relationships. After years of being the only woman of color in the room, I had internalized my otherness. I worried about losing what tiny ground I'd gained within my circle. So I laughed too loud. I cracked too many jokes. After three months of quarantine, I realize I’m a bigger introvert than I originally thought. I began to act more like me. Some of my white friends didn’t like the "less fun" version of myself, which I expected. A larger number welcomed the truer, more introspective conversations that came along with my truth.
Now, I'm focusing on my mental health and pushing myself to have difficult conversations instead of making jokes. Silences don’t scare me. I welcome quiet moments to gather my thoughts before I speak. I’ve spent the past weeks trying to discover myself outside of the "sassy" umbrella. I am more than a sidekick. As Black women, our feelings are not a joke—they are complex, they are mercurial, but they are ours. Being strong, Black, and female can be sassy, but it’s never a side-story.