When comedian Louis C.K. appeared on late-night television show “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to promote the upcoming season of his show Louie, Kimmel asked the comic about his decision to cast a black woman as the mother to two white children. Louis C.K. said that his choice was due to needing a particular one-liner delivered with ferocity: “It just hurts more when a black woman tells you to get a job.”
Tongues went wagging, chins were rubbed, and heads were scratched while folks tried to figure out exactly what Louis C.K. meant. I think I’ve discovered the answer: The idea of a black woman being angry is extremely scary to many people. Kinda like a ‘when mommma’s not happy, nobody is happy’ sort of situation, where black woman get placed into the role of archetypal ‘momma’ to all of humanity. When black woman as ‘momma’ meets ‘black people are scary,’ they make a baby and that offspring is ‘black women are really scary.’ This stereotype can be neatly summed up under the label of The Angry Black Woman. Supposedly, black women are known as being angry and confrontational. A black woman will ‘tell it like it is’; she can be counted on to ‘keep it real.’ A lower-class black women might snap her fingers, roll her eyes, and even twist her neck if you manage to make her really angry with you.
The reality is that sometimes black women do, in fact, get angry. And that anger occasionlly manifests itself in the typical mannerisms that have long been associated with anger: hands on hips; raising of the voice; getting in the face of the person who angered you, etc., But lets not act as if black women are the first people or the only people to ever get angry. And most important of all—and contrary to what some people seem to think—black women have just as much of a right to get angry as anyone else.
Black women and righteous anger
However, it’s important to differentiate between righteous anger on the one hand and, on the other hand, the angry outbursts of the emotionally immature. When a black woman is being irrationally angry, i.e., expressing her anger in an emotionally immature way, that women should be shunned and discouraged from behaving that way. People can’t be allowed to go around cursing people out and starting fights just because they got their Puma’s scuffed at a house party. But when a black women is being wronged—when someone is pissing on her leg and telling her it’s rain—then she has every right in the world to be angry and to confront–in a mature way–the person who angered her.
Because you see, the flip side of encouraging black women to avoid confrontation so that they can avoid being seen as the angry black women is to encourage black women to remain silent when they really are being mistreated in some way. When the landlord doesn’t get the heater fixed in the dead of winter, after I’ve been asking him or her to do so for the past week, then yes, a black woman has a right to her anger.
Black women are “getting played”
Black women are often in a double-bind when it comes to expressing their anger.
Jody Miller, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis published a book entitled “Getting Played: African American Girls: Urban Inequality and Gendered Violence.” Getting Played uses the words and experiences of black girl and boys growing up in urban poverty in St. Louis, Missouri to explain how poverty, social isolation, and inequality coalesce to explain the exorbitantly high rates of violence that black women in experience impoverished urban neighborhoods.
Travis, a black male interviewed in Getting Played is quoted:
“You got some girls that when a boy call ‘em a name, they just figure, ‘Aw, well, he always playing like that, talking stuff,’ but you got some girls that if you call ‘em a name and they ain’t used to being told something like that, they’ll just jump in an outrage, you know, and start something, and it’ll turn into a big issue.”
Jody Miller then points out the conflict in what Travis just said: It was not the boys’ inappropriate behavior that caused the conflict; no, the conflict was caused by the girls’ supposed overreaction—when girls “ain’t used to be being told something like that, they’ll just jump up in an outrage…and start something.”
Black girls are supposed to smile, laugh, and giggle when disrespected because, after all, the boys are just ‘playing’. Hence the title of Millers’ book: Black girls are literally “Getting Played” by the way that they are supposed to smile through clenched teeth while being disrespected.
Miller notes: “Such incidents were indeed a big issue for girls: by not responding with sufficient outrage, they risked being labeled a hoodrat.”
Several men Ms. Miller interviewed remarked that certain girls were targeted for harassment—girls that were deemed to be acting too big for their britches, i.e., stuck up, or young women that had refused the earlier sexual advances of a particular boy. Targeting the young women was done to ‘put her in her place’ and to pay the girl back for insulting the boys’ manhood with her refusal.
In poor urban neighborhoods black women are walking a tightrope where they are expected and encouraged to be brash, feisty, and angry—if they want to show that they aren’t a hoodrat and can’t be easily taken advantage of; yet a black girl can’t afford to be too feisty, lest she get feisty with the wrong person and ends up making herself a target to constant derision and ridicule.
Is it any wonder that young black women who grow up in these urban environments are 1) often unable to moderate their anger, 2) feel as they have to be on constant look-out to make sure no one is disrespecting (or “playing”) them, and 3) are confrontational?
African-American women who are groomed in these types of environments will have to learn new ways to express themselves–or they will continue to be living breathing proof that there is a kernel of truth to the ‘Angry Black Woman’ meme.
Black women and the politics of respectability
When young black girls leave the urban environments that they grew up in, they take the behaviors and thought patterns they acquired over the years with them wherever they go—to work, to graduate school, to the workplace, and every else in between.
If being loud and confrontational has been your only defense against harassment for your entire life, how do you suddenly turn that behavior off? How would you even know that you are behaving in an inappropriate way if the way you are behaving is all you have ever known? If “keeping it real” is the only acceptable way to talk to get respect, then how and where do you learn to stop “keeping it real”?
Black women who leave their childhood with one mindset at the “normal” setting while the larger society has pegged an entirely different mindset a different mode of behavior as “normal” will have trouble making the adjustment. And there might be some embarrassing mishaps along the road to adjustment.
For those black people who have already made the adjustment—or those who never had to make the adjustment in the first place—the behavior of their keepin-it-real-country-cousins can be quite an embarrassment, particularly for those who feel that the behavior of other black people will provide more fuel to the fire of the stereotype that says all black people are alike.
This is where the ‘politics of respectability’ comes in. As a way to fight the negative stereotypes and caricatures of black behaviors that mainstream society has oftentimes promoted, black people at-large and black academicians in particular, have sometimes chosen to propagate a politics of respectability for black people. This political platform states that black people must always remain nice, quiet, respectable, and not easy to anger, if black folk are to be accepted by society. Black people have to be extra careful to be ‘respectful’ so that they can not only paint themselves as innocuous to white people, but also to make up for the behavior of those black folks who aren’t so respectable. For black women, this means that black women have to be ‘extra nice’—or else they are “angry black women.” Even when a black woman is justifiably angry she may be told to ‘pipe down’ so as not upset other people. As if the potential anger of other people is more important than the real and legitimate anger of a black woman.
The bottom line is this…
Black women should be nice and courteous because everyone should be nice and courteous.
Treating others the way that you want to be treated is still the golden rule. But black women should not be expected to behave inordinately nice nor should they be expected to remain quiet when wronged.
And finally, no Black woman should give more time and attention to trying to appease others than she does trying to appease herself.