Colorful line-art painting of a person wearing a hooded garment made of colorful swatches of paint.
Image credit: Yermine Richardson /

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s spring 2024 issue, “‘Stop Drowning Us, and Stop Making Us Disappear’: A Critical Report on the State of Black Woman Leadership.”

I think there are a lot of things that have been said to me—even by members of my own team—that would not have been said if I presented with another identity. People demand things of me, often disrespectfully, because there is an unconscious belief that Black women exist to care for and serve the needs of others.

There is the trope of the Mammy, the beneficent, all-powerful mother who is supposed to take care of everybody’s emotional and physical needs. The flip side of that coin is the Angry Black Woman, who hurts everyone’s feelings. And then there’s the Magical Superwoman, who can do everything for everybody immediately, regardless of organizational constraints like timelines or budgets. Folks, including other Black people, have been socialized to believe that I owe them my labor as a human being. A colleague once pointed out that a stakeholder was engaging me as if I were their personal “race equity doula.” That observation rang painfully true, because it called out both the stakeholder’s inappropriate expectations and my conscious fulfillment of them.

 —Kerrien Suarez, 2022 interview with Whitney Parnell for the “What Does It Mean to Be Black-Led?” research project

Black women are tired. Sick and tired. The physical effects of racism over a lifetime, called “weathering,”1 are illustrated by health disparities among Black women.2 It’s killing us. And everyone is watching it happen.

We don’t mean watching as in viewing the horrifically commonplace video footage of a Black person being killed by police. We mean sitting across from us in meetings and conference rooms observing “death by a thousand cuts.”3

Many organizational executives who identify as Black and women are not sure how much longer they will be able to continue in their leadership roles. The physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual toll of doing the emotional labor expected of us—the labor that racism socializes others to expect us to do in the workplace4 and beyond—has been documented as shortening our lives,5 even as the Nap Ministry’s manifesto that “Rest Is Resistance” inspires us to set boundaries that can protect our minds and bodies from the daily impact of white supremacy in society and organizations.6

Black women leaders have overwhelmingly expressed a shared experience of being labeled as angry and aggressive by our staffs and boards when giving instructions or making decisions.

How do the tropes associated with Black women show up in the workplace, and what impacts do they have? How can our allies and coconspirators within organizations—including others who identify as Black and of color—be in solidarity with Black women by interrupting patterns and challenging expectations rooted in these tropes? Below, we highlight three that predominate in the workplace.

The Angry Black Woman Trope

The Angry Black Woman trope seems to surround Black women like an invisible cloak as we try to exist in the world as our full selves. Most aspects of our basic ways of being are up for potential scrutiny and accusations of aggression, including our expressions, our tones, and even our sheer presence or input.

Notably, while the external barriers that we face with this Angry Black Woman trope are harmful, receiving the same label from our own teams can be the most disheartening and detrimental. Black women leaders have overwhelmingly expressed a shared experience of being labeled as angry and aggressive by our staffs and boards when giving instructions or making decisions. Demonstrating such authority seems contrary to our systemic place in society at the bottom, and is, hence, implicitly rejected in practice. The explicit response is that our actions and posture are problematic and offensive as leaders, when the implicit indication really seems to be the fact that we are their leaders at all.

The Angry Black Woman trope is possibly most glaring when we give feedback. Any sort of feedback that we offer team members relative to performance, accountability, and, especially, the unique problematic behavior that they are demonstrating toward us, is often responded to with defensiveness and/or turned back on us as if we are the problem. To take this further, in more recent years we have witnessed a weaponization of equity, whereby people claim that our decision-making and feedback go against our organization’s equity and liberation values. We get told that we are not allowing employee agency because we are not listening, even when we have considered all the factors and suggestions involved before coming to a decision. We get told that we are not supporting our people-first values when we give feedback, because it is a supposed attack—when communicating thorough and timely feedback is actually a critical component of equity.

The Angry Black Woman trope prevents us from being able to lead authentically because it either inhibits us from showing up fully—given the likely reactions—or we constantly come up against strong defensiveness, attack, and refusal when we assert our leadership. It is abundantly clear that while any Black woman can be subjected to this trope throughout her life, for Black women leaders that label is leveraged as a tactic to altogether reject our leadership.

The Mammy Trope

The Mammy trope may be the most nuanced and subtle trope that Black women leaders face, due to the unique ability many of us possess to implement care through our leadership, and the implicit, irrational expectations of our teams that they will receive an overabundance of caretaking. The combination of these two dynamics leads to entitlement from staff and board members, and exhausted Black women leaders.

It is exhausting to be held to a standard that expects us to lead organizations that demand our constant outpouring and criticizes us when irrational and inappropriate demands are not met.

This ability to genuinely center care and wellbeing at the institutions we run is a special attribute we offer as leaders. While no Black woman is a monolith (and plenty of Black women succumb to the dehumanization of labor that has been systematized in society), we have historically been able to exude profound amounts of care. Part of that disposition may be a unique gifting; other parts can be attributed to standpoint theory,7 whereby our experiences of disregard and harm at the intersection of racism and sexism make us uniquely dispositioned to consider, recognize, and offer care to everyone. However, it cannot be denied that a critical factor is cultural. And while culture has its beautiful qualities that build off the unique strengths and characteristics of its community and people, it can also inadvertently create a standard of expectation and exploitation. We see this in the Mammy trope; since society has only ever known Black women to be exceptional caretakers, that posture is often systemically expected of us. And within institutions led by Black women, that expectation often presents itself in the form of entitlement. Entitlement by way of the Mammy trope is particularly glaring when it comes to demands. Many Black women have shared with us experiences of staff members having unreasonable expectations of the organization revolving around their desires, even if it would come at the expense of the work and the rest of their team.

We discussed a similar trend vis-à-vis the Angry Black Woman trope that comes up when we offer feedback regarding accountability and performance that doesn’t accord with what a team member wants to hear, and we get told that we are not demonstrating our equity and people-first values. However, accountability and care are not mutually exclusive. One can be cared for and still be held accountable for quality work. Furthermore, as from an equity lens, “people first” only works if it is trust based. Everyone must be trustworthy with respect to meeting their responsibilities, so that the organization functions well as a whole.

It is exhausting to be held to a standard that expects us to lead organizations that demand our constant outpouring and criticizes us when irrational and inappropriate demands are not met. On top of that, it is disheartening to know that while infinite care, support, and mothering are (unreasonably) expected of Black women, there is no sense of reciprocation. The same people on our teams who expect us to give wholeheartedly are not only often oblivious to the unconscious nature of their disproportionately high demands of Black women but also neglect to consider how they might offer some of that care back. Ironically, many of the Black women we speak with do not express a desire to receive reciprocal care; we understand that it is a unique gift that we choose to offer. Instead, many of us are just asking for consideration: we ask people to consider our wellbeing when it comes to their actions (and inactions); to consider our capacity and efforts when it comes to their demands and expectations; and to consider that we are human beings doing our best and who are deserving of grace.

We seek to have room for error, growth, and balance. However, when we ask for help, there’s little support, due to the Mammy trope. When we give instruction for alleviation, we are the Angry Black Woman. There is no relief at the top of the glass cliff.

The Magical Superwoman Trope

The Magical Superwoman trope ties back to broader cultural and historical implications whereby Black women are expected to do and carry disproportionately more than anyone else. In her book Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto, Tricia Hersey asserts that Black women have systemically been viewed and treated as society’s “mule.”8 This has certainly been verified by Black women in all positions of work,9 and it is particularly telling that the same applies in even the highest positions of leadership.

Consistently absorbing the labor and covering the gaps is problematic from multiple angles. On the one hand, it is often blatantly obvious that Black women leaders are stretching ourselves incredibly thin; and it is disheartening to know that people recognize this but are not moved to make the necessary changes that would alleviate our loads. That said, many Black women have noted that a major challenge regarding this Magical Superwoman trope is that often our teams do not realize just how much we are carrying. Oftentimes, Black women leaders are dragging the work to the finish line while also thinking several steps ahead, and trying to get their own work done while also ensuring that everybody else is meeting what is expected of them. Black women are trying to deliver at a high level while also covering the gaps and fixing the errors of others. Black women are trying to drive the work forward while also trying to repair past and current harms and challenges. Black women are literally expected to do it all—symbolically steering the ship, rowing the ship, fueling the ship, being the current in the water moving the ship along, and serving as the safety net in case anything falls.

All of this is a load that no human being should reasonably be expected to consistently carry, which is why we are forced to be Magical Superwomen. We are expected to be exceptional at worst and magical at best. And as much as we may be told that we are not expected to be perfect, there is no “failing up”10 for us, because we do not receive grace as Black women leaders. We often only receive one chance to come into an organization and magically save it in a “glass cliff” situation,11 or we are expected to fail as affirmation that we should never have been in charge. Furthermore, given all that we carry, there is minimal room for error, because if we slip, so much would fall apart—and the blame (and repercussions) will be on us. That is not just in our heads, and one need not look far to find real-life examples.

To be clear, many of us desire a different way. We seek to have room for error, growth, and balance. However, when we ask for help, there’s little support, due to the Mammy trope. When we give instruction for alleviation, we are the Angry Black Woman. There is no relief at the top of the glass cliff.

* * *

These three tropes spotlight the internal barriers and challenges that Black women face, and external factors contribute to and enhance these challenges. Black-led organizations receive less funding than their white counterparts, and Black-women-led organizations receive the least of all. We are often operating significantly below our budgetary needs. This affects our abilities to implement all of the desired equitable policies and requires our organizations to deliver with significant capacity constraints. Hence, Black women will often absorb labor to alleviate the rest of the team’s load. In addition, there seems to be an expectation that we will cover all the gaps, as opposed to the team collectively sharing the load when needed. Black women know that often, when things need to get done, if nobody else does the work it will fall on us.

The tropes inform and impact each other, and they create very challenging and isolating experiences for Black women. Clarity around these tropes can certainly provide Black women with relief and alleviation of stress by helping us to understand that we are not to blame for these hardships. And we can also empower ourselves to draw boundaries around what we will and will not do, and establish agency around how we will lead (regardless of the reactions). That is why sisterhood and support among each other as Black women leaders is so critical to our success. There is power in being able to validate and unpack shared experience together and pour into each other deeply amid a world that extracts from us. (Our own friendship—and our practice as accountability partners continuously learning to actively center equity in our daily work—is a testament to that; it enabled us to write this article together.) But Black women are often instructed to empower ourselves to seek and make changes that will alleviate our hardships, which ultimately puts all of the work on us to dismantle these systems that constitutionally work against us. While identity may impact people’s individual dispositions vis-à-vis these tropes, no one is or can be exempt from participating in these systemic challenges in our organizations.

The external experience is hard enough—leading as our organizations’ main faces and voices; the internal experience—understanding that teamwork isn’t easy—should be a place of refuge and recovery from the harm, barriers, and fatigue that Black women face every day as leaders and people. That is why, in addition to external sisterhood, internal allyship is critical to Black women leaders’ success. Having allies within the organization who hold identities of privilege relative to ours can help drive protection against these tropes and can also provide the support that we are often denied. (We can both speak to the incredible impact of having allies in deputy positions—those who identify as Black men and as non-Black people of color—who set examples for what mutual accountability, partnership, and teamwork can look like.) Another way is possible, and the sooner that we can actualize that way, the sooner Black women can be relieved from specializing in the wholly impossible.

“We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible” is the motto of the National Training School for Women and Girls,12 a school for Black women founded by Nannie Helen Burroughs in Washington, DC, in 1909.



  1. Ana Sandoiu, “‘Weathering’: What are the health effects of stress and discrimination?,” Medical News Today, February 26, 2021,
  2. Kayla Yup, “Black Women Excluded from Critical Studies Due to ‘Weathering,’” Yale School of Medicine, November 30, 2022,
  3. Derald Wing Sue, “Microaggressions: Death by a Thousand Cuts,” Scientific American, March 30, 2021,
  4. Frances Kunreuther and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Race to Lead Revisited: Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap (New York: Building Movement Project, 2020).
  5. Patia Braithwaite, “Biological Weathering and Its Deadly Effect on Black Mothers,” Self, September 30, 2019,
  6. Tricia Hersey, website for Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto, and website for The Nap Ministry, accessed February 4, 2024, com. (Although at NPQ we fully understand and support the rationales for capitalizing one and lowercasing the other, our house style is to capitalize both “Black” and “White” as proper nouns. In the case of this article, we are lowercasing “White” at the authors’ request, with respect.)
  7. See Black Feminisms, “What is Black Feminist Thought?,” com, accessed February 4, 2024,; and Sandra Harding, ed., The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies (New York: Routledge, 2003).
  8. Tricia Hersey, Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2022).
  9. “Black women deserve to thrive, not just survive, at ,” Black Women Thriving, Every Level Leadership, accessed February 4, 2024,; and see Ericka Hines and Mako Fitts Ward, Black Women Thriving: BWT Report: 2022 (Raleigh-Durham, NC: Every Level Leadership, 2022).
  10. Zulekha Nathoo, “‘Failing up’: Why some climb the ladder despite mediocrity,” BBC, March 3, 2021,
  11. Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, “Racialized Transitions and Glass Cliffs,” Building Movement Project, October 19, 2021, org/blog/racialized-transitions-and-glass-cliffs/.
  12. Kathryn Coker, “African American Educator and Activist: Nannie Helen Burroughs,” Richmond Public Library, accessed February 4, 2024, org/shelf-respect/history-and-preservation/african-american-educator-and-activist-nannie-helen-burroughs/.