Serena Williams and The Angry Black Women Stereotype


Jeff Gross

Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Tyra Hughes, Copy Editor

WEST ORANGE, NJ: Last week, as I waited to be called to speak in my French class, my teacher, alarmed by my soft spoken nature, said to the class, “Whispers don’t get women far in the workplace. Speak up, because if not, people will perceive you as weak.”

I had wondered then, that if being soft spoken doesn’t get women far in life, what can being outspoken bring? In professional tennis player Serena Williams’ case, as a black woman, being outspoken earns you punishment in the workplace, and a negative media backlash ridden with racist stereotypes.

Serena Williams, who during the Women’s US Open Final was accused of cheating, had her game taken away by the umpire, Carlos Ramos. She was fined a total of 17 thousand dollars for verbal abuse, warnings of coaching, and breaking her racket. Undoubtedly, Williams was penalized for openly defending herself. She was expressing her anger in a profession in which numerous male athletes have done the same, if not in a much more aggressive way.   

The athlete responded to her repercussions in an interview. She recounted times in which male athletes have expressed their anger, but did not face the same consequences as she did. The Boston Globe listed off many male tennis players that have had verbal conflicts with umpires. Including 2016 Wimbledon competitor Viktor Troicki, who yelled, “What are you doing? You are the worst ever!”, to the umpire as the crowd roared with applause and found amusement in his behavior.

Another athlete, was Roger Federer, who was fined but not revoked of his game. Federer said to an umpire at the 2009 US Open Final, “Don’t tell me to be quiet okay? When I want to talk, I talk okay? I dont give a — what he says… Don’t — tell me the rules.”

If male athletes have behaved in a far worse way of expressing their anger on the court than Serena Williams did, why is it that only Williams faced such a backfire for her actions? There is only one explanation for such backfire and it is the fact that Serena Williams is a woman, and she is black.

The misogynistic and racist nature embedded in American culture was exposed in the way that Serena Williams was treated earlier this month. Because of that, she had every right to yell, shout, break her racket and call out the umpire, Carlos Ramos, for attacking her professionalism and integrity. Her “outburst” may have very well been a temper tantrum, but it was one that was very valid in the circumstances of why she was treated that way.

On account of the previous behavior of male tennis athletes and their lack of punishment, the 2018 Women’s US Open final was a hellfire of disrespect, sexisim and racism. Yet another example of how women, black women especially, are treated unfairly. The backlash that Serena Williams received can show a lot about what it means to be a black woman in the professional world; including the power the media has in shaping stereotypes and perceptions of people.  

In the days that followed the Women’s US Open Final, Serena Williams was the face of news articles, a prejudice cartoon, and was society’s new embodiment of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. Nearly every article covering Serena Williams at the Women’s US Open final were flooded with the photograph of her angrily pointing and shouting at the umpire. The articles placed more emphasis on Williams being angry at the umpire, rather than her comforting her opponent, Naomi Osaka, after she had been publicly shunned for her success.

The dangers of facing the Angry Black Woman stereotype when speaking out and expressing anger is something that all black women, not just Serena Williams, have encountered. As a black woman, let alone a human being living in 2018 America, there is a lot to be angry about. It becomes an issue when a black woman decides to openly express her emotions in a rather authoritative way because of the standards that society has set for how women should act. As Professor Boylum from University of Alabama put it, “Men are allowed to be angry as a performance of masculinity. White women are allowed to be angry as a clarion call. So black women should be encouraged to express their anger as well, particularly in the face of injustice.”

Unfortunately, through the eyes of misogynist America, anger and authority in the hands of black women is intimidating. Society has become accustomed to the idea that authority and an outspoken nature is only rightful for a man, which is why women are seen hyper-emotional when expressing their anger.

Rather than being applauded for their authority as a man would be, women are constantly silenced and told to suppress their anger. They’re told to hold their tongue in the presence of male authoritative figures, and are punished for speaking their mind. Serena Williams deemed her treatment from Carlos as a double standard when she said, “I’ve seen other men call umpires several things and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff and for me to say thief and for him to take away a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man cause they said thief.”

On top of the influence that gender roles and standards that society has created, media is also to blame for mindlessly influencing the Angry Black Woman stereotype for decades. Black woman have particularly been negatively represented in the media since the times of Jim Crow and minstrels. Research has shown that in these portrayals of black women, white men, according to Professor Blair Kelly of North Carolina University, “painted their faces black and donned fat suits to make them look less than human, unfeminine, ugly.”

In Amos ‘n Andy, a 1930s minstrel TV show, the angry black woman stereotype was particularly portrayed in a character named Mrs. Sapphire Stevens. Professor Blair Kelly described the character to be branded by, “her tone, her irrationality and her anger.”

With that being said, media has the power to transform the way that we perceive people. Whether it is a 1930s minstrel, a racist cartoon of Serena Williams having a “temper tantrum”, or a collective publication of articles and photographs of Serena Williams fuming with anger, stereotypes only live on if we allow them to.

Black women are faced with the stereotype of being angry because of the influence that media has on society, which is why in all aspects of society, whether it be in the workforce or everyday life, it then becomes an obligation to try not to embody such a stereotype. The question that may arise from this is, how can one suppress their frustration and anger when those very feelings are valid? More importantly, why can’t a black woman just be angry because she feels disrespected, not because it is believed to be in her nature?