Why the “Ban Bossy” Campaign Doesn’t Matter to Women of Color

I have been called many things in my life, but “bossy” has never been one of them.
Publish date:
March 17, 2014

A year after first preaching the rewards of “leaning in,” Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has launched a new campaign to eliminate the use of the word “bossy.” Featuring a video by Beyoncé and endorsements from the Jennifer Garner, Condoleezza Rice, and the Girl Scouts, “Ban Bossy” promises to “encourage girls to lead.” But, in the same way that Lean In ignored the voices of women of color, the “Ban Bossy” campaign fails to acknowledge the ways in which our specific experiences in the workplace and in leadership positions are impacted by class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality.

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Sheryl Sandberg and Ana-Maria Chavez argue that the word “bossy” has historically been used to describe girls more than boys for the same behavior, effectively “gendering” the word. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the root of the word to an 1882 article in Harper’s Magazine that stated, “There was a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy.”

In today’s online dictionaries, the majority of example sentences used for “bossy” reference a female character. In this way, Sandberg and Chavez are correct in highlighting the reality that “behind the negative connotations [concerning bossy] lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender.” Yet, from her perspective of privilege, Sheryl Sandberg does not seem to take into account the reality that women of color face additional burdens in claiming equality.

While Sandberg has acknowledged that her advice is largely tailored for a particular subset of women, “Ban Bossy” provided her with the opportunity to address the missing gaps left by Lean In. Yet, once more, Sandberg fails to delve deeper into the complexity of women’s experiences largely because the aspects of her privilege have shielded her from the obstacles other women face. Consequently, Sandberg’s brand of feminism embraces the myth of the shared female experience and assumes all young girls run the risk of being called “bossy” for voicing their opinions.

Growing up within the Latino/a community, I never saw bossy as a negative trait. My female role models have always been proud and loud in their “bossiness:” my loud-mouthed tia, music diva Kelis who boldly proclaims her “bossiness,” and Argentine heroine Evita who wielded a great deal of influence during a time when women were not expected to be involved in political affairs. As a young girl, I could only hope to be that “bossy” someday. The negative undertones of “bossiness” are more applicable to white women’s experiences in schools and communities.

I have been called many things in my life, but “bossy” has never been one of them. As a Latina woman, I have been called spicy, saucy, feisty, or whatever heat or food adjective you wish to insert. I’ve been told that I’m loud, flamboyant, and hotheaded. My tone comes off harshly, and I can get too “emotional” or “passionate” when I’m speaking about issues I’m invested in. And while “bossiness” may be an issue for young white women, women of color have been dehumanized and degraded by many variations of the word “bossy” for longer than Sandberg has been alive.

Sandberg’s campaign, like her book "Lean In," refuses to acknowledge the importance of intersectionality when it relates to negative connotations of “bossiness.” A more inclusive project would examine how “bossiness” plays out in women’s lives in relation to their experiences with race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and physical disability. These factors are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.

When a girl or woman of color exerts influence and vocalizes her opinion, she is not only seen as bossy but is also limited by race and class-specific stereotypes beyond those faced by Sandberg: those of the “angry black woman,” the sexy “Mamacita,” or the overly promiscuous and sexualized Jezebel. Women of color in particular have been exploited and sexualized in the mass media, the music industry, and the public sphere. According to Hollywood, women of color are simply “devious maids,” baby mamas or gold-diggers. These stereotypes are just as damaging as, if not worse than, being called “bossy” in classrooms and in the workplace. I personally find Sandberg’s initiative to be limiting and overly simplified.

Sheryl Sandberg’s mainstream white feminist campaign does not apply to me or communicate my experiences. Women’s lived realities vary extensively based on race, sexuality, and economic class. Assuming that all women have shared experiences in the world and that by banning bossy, we are making leadership more accessible to all women, is a dangerous idea that excludes a large segment of the female population. In doing so, Sandberg is silencing the specific population which ultimately needs empowerment the most.

Vulnerability varies greatly from one group of women to another and lumping us all together as one voice diminishes the importance of women of color and their particular experiences. Instead of trying to “ban bossy,” the focus should be on how to address the inequalities facing all women in our society. Rather than trying to dominate the conversation from her perspective of privilege or speak for silenced female communities, Sheryl Sandberg should understand the importance of making space for them to speak for themselves. Successful campaigns must look deeper into the issues facing women of color and break down the ways in which oppression is affected by race, economic class, and sexuality. Banning “bossy” isn’t the solution for women of color, nor an effective way of providing the empowerment and space we need to thrive against centuries of institutional roadblocks and societal discrimination.

Instead of attempting to ban the word “bossy,” women of color should be encouraged to embrace the word and view it as a positive attribute. As I mentioned earlier, society either portrays us as being dominated or as the “angry black women” and “spicy mamacitas”. Out of fear of being branded as the latter, we suppress our thoughts, our voices, and our leadership. We should be encouraged to be who we are, voice our opinions, and be bossy.