Women & Culture, Women & Race, Women's History

Being Pissed Off As A Woman Is (Still) ACCEPTABLE! Part 2

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In part one we uncovered the policing of women’s anger. Discouraged in them while encouraged in men. There is another layer, because the policing of “women’s anger has never been uniform…Black, Latina, and Asian women have faced racist assumptions about their anger[1].

Race therefore makes anger particularly suspect. The “angry black woman” (ABW) myth expresses this. A triple negative. 

Black women are not supposed to push back

Take the media’s excitement over the Serena Williams’ US Open episode in 2018. During the final match, Williams was penalised twice for coaching and breaking her racket. If you have watched your fair share of tennis matches, you will know this “behaviour” is not special to Williams. It is frowned upon but on the whole, accepted. Especially in men’s games.

In that context we can see why Williams might have been less than accepting in being singled out. We can see why this might have sparked anger which she expressed by calling the umpire a “thief”. It ought to have ended there. However, she was penalised for the name calling, losing the final and £13,000 in fines. 

John McEnroe is famous for emphatic displays of anger on court, a behaviour which only boosted his popularity. He was the first to admit, he has said worse than Williams.

Williams’ punishment for displaying anger continued off court. Inspiring creativity such at this cartoon depiction of her. 

Work by Mark Knight and published by Herald Sun in Melbourne.

What is behind this particular policing? Why does the anger of a Black woman permit such contempt? What do we learn about society? 

This BBC piece by Ritu Prasad gives us useful insight. A history of racism and slavery is where the myth of the “angry black woman” originates from. Introduced into popular culture in the 19thcentury. White men would paint their faces black (see example below) for their onstage portrayals of African Americans. They wore fat suits and these characters would be seen screaming and fighting in a way of communicating. Portraying Black women as fat, ugly and masculine looking. Elements I think we can see captured in the above cartoon. 

Blackface, a form of theatrical make-up used by white performers to represent a caricature of a black person. This picture was published to show the transformation from “white” to “black”.

Other reporters took a different approach to Prasad. BBC Sports went with; ‘There’s sexism in tennis but that doesn’t excuse Serena Williams’ behaviour’. A pretence then to understand the context of racism and sexism in professional tennis, for it is refusing to acknowledge their impact. Its real purpose as we read on, is to dismiss their relevance to Williams. By discrediting those who supported her because they had also supported Maria Sharapova during her drug cheating fiasco. By pointing out men have also been fined. Men like Italian’s Fabio Fognini for misogynist comments. The author here knowingly or not, implies Williams’ expressed anger is comparable to drug cheating and contempt for women. And calls for as severe punishment. 

It, begrudgingly, concludes that Williams, a 23 grand slam winner, cannot be viewed as a victim. There is malice in this torn. 

This is a stupid attempt to change history. To alter what we saw. What we know to be true. That; “Black women are not supposed to push back and when they do, they’re deemed to be domineering. Aggressive. Threatening. Loud.”[2]

We encounter the “angry black woman” myth in our daily interactions 

You do not have to be a star on the world stage to experience this severe policing. These examples would not resonate with us so deeply I do not think. 

Take this piece[3]by Black Ballad, a UK media platform for Black women. Here our journalist recounts a personal experience of living this stereotype. At a dinner gathering with friends, a guest asks about her marriage. The guest’s male companion jumps in before she could respond, saying; ‘I can imagine you at home telling your husband to do this, do that,’ “complete with hand gestures”. She, like those of us with the misfortune of this experience, was shocked into silence. 

Shocked because in that moment she is reduced to “a bossy, demanding … aggressive” woman. A caricature born out of the 19thcentury racism.  

Let us explore briefly the emotional state when this ‘ABW’ is thrown at you. It injures, insults and harasses. Concretely. 

This racist tool has the power to shake you. To question your sense of self. To feel gravely wrong. For it reduces your identity, which up to then you had considered specific to you, to a caricature. It has the power to thin, mute yourself so to present a version “more palatable to what others think we should be”. This feeling is isolating and alienating. This is painful.

A society that does not respect women’s anger is one that does not respect women, not as human beings,”

This is the fundamental truth behind the policing of women’s anger, as expressed by Soraya Chemaly. As she outlines “Why Women Don’t Get to be Angry”, a peek into her 2018 book[4]. It confirms our view that society “sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.” 

She reminds us further; social regulation steers women to express remnants of their anger so to make it ineffective. Let’s explore three possibilities where women can display anger;  

  1. In private or isolation from direct cause. Chemaly provides us with a scene of her mother throwing plates. She remembers nothing else out of place. Just broken plates communicating that something was amiss for her mother. This scene has been romanticised. Take the film He’s Just Not That Into You. Jennifer Connelly’s character is upset with her husband for lying and cheating. She rationalises, self-blames before showing any outward sign that she is angry. At home by herself, she breaks a mirror. Her quick composure ensures no one is ever witness to her anger. A heroic scene through comical lens.
  2. Towards other women. Audre Lorde[5]gives us accounts where white women would witness a racist comment. They would get mad but say nothing of it. Suppressing the anger, which mutates into guilt and shame, and unleashing it at the first black feminist to speak about racism. Or those who expressed wanting to “deal with racism without dealing with the harshness of Black women.” These resonate with our experience today. Also evident in romantic unions. Where a husband has an affair, and the woman avoids the risk of losing him were she to express anger. She instead, directs it at the woman he has cheated with. Often adopting sexist rationales to justify her choice[6].
  3. In activity to find ways to express anger without anger. Chemaly here writes of girls and women who ask her this question. No one would ever think to ask; how do you express love without love. Seems silly.

What these tell us is that women’s anger is used for drama. Not action. Ineffectively targeted at objects and other women. Misused by women more socially advantaged towards those less. Poor women and, especially Black women, are seen as safe targets for this. 

Or we are sincerely engaged in efforts to solve the imagined problem of our manner. And this is how I am understanding sexism working. It traps women into activity we stand to gain nothing. Distracting us from real problems, the causes of our anger. This activity is even more wasteful for Black women who are considered ill-mannered by nature. 

Society encourages these so-called outlets because they go to sustaining “a profoundly corrupt status quo”. 

To conclude then; while men are encouraged to use anger, to defend interests that keep women under their control, women have been stripped of theirs. Taking away our ability to defend ourselves from this aggression. We can see then, that men gain further from the regulation of women’s anger. 


[2]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45476500, Ritu Prasad

[3]The Problem With The Domineering Black Wife Stereotype, 14thApril 2019, by Founder and Editor, Tobi Oredein

[4]Her Rage Becomes Her; The Power of Women’s Anger, 2018

[5]Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism

[6]Britain’s Relationship Secrets with Anne Robinson, BBC One, 30thAugust 2017

About A Collective Feminism

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