In a column I wrote last week, I mused about Mia Love (R-Utah), who lost her reelection bid to return to Congress, had strong words about how Republicans fail to support black and minority communities. I described her highly publicized concession as an “angry-black-woman speech.”
That phrase — angry black woman — is a well-worn stereotype. I knew this as I wrote that highly-charged sentence. But my intention wasn’t to cause harm to black women even though I feared some may be offended by my depiction of Love’s candor, forthrightness, and self-valuation — thinking it yet another case of the media stereotyping black women for having an attitude, displaying hostility or exhibiting human emotions.
Sure enough, a colleague took me to task.
“My thoughts on the ‘angry black woman’ is that there is no such thing,” she wrote to me. “It’s a meme used by white people that ‘otherizes’ black women and that is used to keep them in check.”
She makes a valid point, one that I totally understand. But I disagree when she says angry black women don’t exist. They do. In fact, I’d argue that the great majority of black women — and men — in America are in a near-perpetual state of anger.
Except for cartoonish reality shows, the black women I know simply refuse to allow their emotions — whether anger or passion, fear or joy — to be seen in public and, especially, in front of white people.
To be sure, that’s precisely — and accurately — what Love did in her concession speech. Fed up by the racism that she’s seen and experienced as a black woman in the Republican Party, Love’s frustration exploded into public view as she accused party leaders and President Trump of not taking black Americans seriously.
What makes Love’s outburst newsworthy isn’t that she’s angry; it’s that she showed her anger in public. She broke with political protocol and suppressed niceties to express her authentic feelings. Doing so, risked the dreaded opprobrium of angry black woman. Bully for her, I say.
Let me be clear: I know that the stereotype of black women and girls as “angry” is pernicious and damaging. As Brian Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, notes, the stereotype has its roots in 19th-century minstrel shows that made fun of black people, and women in particular, as less than human. Black women were depicted, by white male actors, as overweight, unattractive, and prone to violence.
“The real problem in their everyday life was not the structural things that black people faced, but the mouth of the black woman — her tone, her irrationality and her anger,” Kelley said in a recent BBC News interview.
Rather than deal with the pressure of stereotypes that feed into policies and practices to be used against them, far too many black women and girls refuse to speak up for themselves, she said.
When they do, the glare of the media spotlight casts its harsh view of their behavior. That’s what happened earlier this year when tennis superstar Serena Williams angrily defended herself against the unfair treatment she received by an umpire during the 2018 U.S. Open. But like Love, Williams was justified in expressing her anger — so to hell with who was watching.
Of course, this is far easier said than it is to do, according to my colleague.
“I do know lots of black women, myself included, who understand only too well that the stereotype exists,” she wrote. “And that it would be the kiss of death personally and professionally to ever be seen being loud, aggressive or threatening — even if the behavior of others toward them could be described as such.”
Maybe. But I think fear — of being judged by white people, of being stigmatized as loud and obnoxious, of expressing righteous anger — is worse than the damage of stereotyping. What’s more, living with repressive fear and anger is an unhealthy lifestyle, one that contributes to the disproportionately high rates of stress, elevated blood pressure, obesity and other unhealthy coping mechanisms that stem from black people bottling up their true feelings.
While I don’t share Love’s politics and was clear in saying she is late to acknowledge the racism in the GOP, I applaud her forceful — angry, if you please — denunciation of what angers most sentient black Americans. If Love’s comments are interpreted as making her an angry black woman, then she ought to wear the pejorative with racial pride.