How to Push Back on Being Mislabeled “Aggressive”

Dear DW,

I am accused of being aggressive at work. I feel like I am just being assertive. How can I get heard and accepted?

Wrongfully Labeled

Dear Wrongfully,

“Aggressive” is a label commonly used to describe Black women who voice their opinions about something or raise awareness about an issue they are facing, says Samantha-Rae “Dr. Sam” Dickenson, a diversity, equity, and inclusion specialist and founder of DSRD Consulting, based in Baltimore. “It’s a microaggression often tied to the racist stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman,’” she says.

That’s not to say that women of other races and ethnicities don’t experience the same problem. For example, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned in 2019 that women political candidates are often criticized for being too aggressive and angry to lead.

Calling a woman in the workplace “aggressive” is a form of tone policing, Dr. Sam says. It occurs when people with privilege or authority attempt to diminish others’ experiences and emotions. “It’s a way to control the reactions of others while attempting to silence them and dismiss the issues they raise.”

So how do you combat it?

Stand firm in communicating your points and redirect the conversation so the focus is on the issue at hand and not on how you’re explaining the issue, Dr. Sam advises.

For example, you might say, “The topic of discussion is x. It is not about my tone. I would appreciate it if you didn’t deflect from the topic,” Dr. Sam says.

Also, reframe the way you’re thinking about the issue so you aren’t focused on acceptance, Dr. Sam adds. “Your priority should be to be heard and respected, not accepted.”

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