Black Women Can't Get Angry

Serena Williams and Cardi B had very different motivations for publicly getting upset this week, but many common reactions to each incident speak to the same kind of misogynoir.

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Sep 13 2018, 9:33pm

photo: Elsa/Getty Images and Michael Stewart/FilmMagic

We see expressions of anger all the time. We hear about our president tweeting his ire far and wide on a daily basis and watch as white men in middle America burn their Nikes in protest of Colin Kaepernick's recent ad campaign with the brand. It's very normal to want to express anger in this time and political climate—especially for white people, and especially men. Why does it seem like everyone gets to be angry, and be angry publicly, but Black women?

Following all of the conversations surrounding Serena Williams’ display of exasperation at the U.S. Open and Cardi B and Nicki Minaj’s confrontation at a New York Fashion Week event, I was reminded of the ways Black women often hold in their fury, only to find themselves in public positions where they are overcome by it. For both famous and everyday Black women, we see what happens when that burden becomes too much, and all of our frustrations pour out at once: through tears, insults, yelling, and, yes, shoe-throwing. While all displays of rage are tricky things to analyze from the outside, Black women's fury is particularly and cruelly critiqued, overanalyzed, stereotyped, and treated like quite the wonder and let-down all at once. Perhaps that’s why we tend to hold it all in.

“Women of color are always expected to be restrained,” Morgan Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, told Broadly by email. In her book, Jerkins discusses how respectability politics consign Black women to placating white America. In her opinion, the courtesy of expressing anger, or rage, or even passion is not given to WOC because of this country’s oppressive past. In a nutshell: WOC are not allowed to exhibit the same violence that's been inflicted upon them.

“We have to be super mindful of our tone and mannerisms because as soon as we speak up, we're seen as a threat,” Jerkins said. “In a lot of circumstances, our presence alone is threatening. It's all to pacify white people. We are hyper-vigilant over our behavior.”

When Black women in the public eye—who people tend to believe are supposed to represent of all Black women and therefore must be on their best behavior— choose to stop being hyper-vigilant over their emotions, it is frowned upon heavily: They are negatively labeled, protested against, and there are conversations about what these flickers of rage will cost famous Black women in endorsement deals, opportunities, and overall respect.

The tennis world was buzzing all week after a passionate match between Serena Williams and 20-year-old newcomer Naomi Osaka on Saturday. During the game, Williams accused chair umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism, called him a “thief,” and asked for an apology after he accused her of being coached. Ramos responded by giving her a point penalty for smashing her racket and docked her of a round—Williams was also fined $17,000 by the U.S. Tennis Association for three code violations. Osaka ultimately won the match, but in the aftermath of the game, umpires talked about boycotting Williams’ games, and retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova admonished her in a New York Times op-ed. “What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?” Navratilova asked the 23-time Grand Slam winner.

As People writer Jason Duaine Hahn notes, “The match has sparked a conversation around sexism in tennis, and in interviews with reporters following the loss, Williams said she feels her male counterparts are often given more leniency when venting their frustrations at umpires. She has also long spoken about the apparent unfair treatment she is given in relation to the sport, such as being routinely drug tested more times than any other male or female player.”

Hahn notes that white male players like Roger Federer, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors had more combative outbursts on the court in years past and were fined less than Williams was, or nothing at all.

Tennis great Billie Jean King chimed in with a simple tweet:

The double standard exists, and it’s more severe for Black women across industries.

While Nicki Minaj and Cardi B’s recent incident at Harper’s Bazaar’s New York Fashion Week party is not rooted in an institutionalized, WASP-y structure like tennis, it does reflect a similar sentiment of respectability politics. The condemnation both women have received for their public displays of rage is unequally yoked to what men receive for similar behavior.

"I'm not concerned about what white people are not going to invite [Cardi] back to the next function. I'm far more concerned about us discussing what the costs are when Black women don't express their anger," Joan Morgan, the feminist, journalist, and author of She Begat This: Twenty Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, told Broadly.

Morgan contends that constantly being told to suppress rage can lead to long-term mental strife. "I'm not advocating that you go around throwing shoes at people. I'm saying there is a definite correlation between the overrepresentation that we [WOC] have in being victims of cancer, heart disease, obesity, addiction —you name it. Our stress levels and our unexpressed anger kill us in other ways. And so if occasionally, Serena is angry and she lets a ref have it and feels it's justifiable anger, and if Cardi feels like popping off [without doing physical harm] because it's a justifiable anger, I would much rather see those kinds of expressions of Black women, than to watch what happens to us long-term when we don't express it at all."

Being an "angry Black woman" doesn't get Black women far, in terms of how they're scrutinized by public opinion. They are seen as "ghetto," "bullies," and "crybabies," while the anger of their white counterparts is only described as "unfortunate," "complicated," and entertaining. White rage is normalized, while Black women’s emotions are not only seen as anomalous, but also as dangerous. However, the true danger in a Black woman’s rage is not when it is conveyed, but rather, when it is repressed for the sake of respectability politics.

"White people are going to think what they want to think, whether you are angry or not," Morgan said. "Black people have spent...how long? When was Emancipation? 1863? We haven't 'gained' respectability and respect of citizenship anyway. So why internalize the anger and kill ourselves? It's a losing game."