When you look at this image, what do you see? Do you see the large animal-like figure that is front and center? The uncivilized behavior portrayed by the figure? What about the small innocent-like characters in the back? The presence of all these factors makes this image the definition of the destruction that arises from the presence of any implicit bias held in society, and in particular, the Angry Black woman stereotype. This cartoon was created to portray a tennis match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in 2018. When Williams expressed frustration with calls made throughout the sets, and questioned the umpire’s intentions and authority, the umpire made calls that resulted in Serena’s defeat. This perpetuated Williams’ frustrations, causing passionate responses to the injustices. This resulted in the media characterizing her as an Angry Black woman. This stereotype unfairly classifies Black Women’s emotions and opinions as unrealistic and unprofessional in order to deem us unqualified to occupy powerful positions and spaces. This image is a perfect example of how dangerous this stereotype is.
The artist makes Williams the center of attention by making her take up the most space, and making her so apparently different from the characters in the background. Her enlarged head, mouth and body suspended above the smashed racket work to exaggerate the anger she expressed, through an apparent temper tantrum. The two other characters are small in comparison to Williams, with features that represent innocence and purity, to establish her as an animal. The artist makes Williams’ emotions seem irrational, and labels her as an Angry Black woman, something powerful Black women are constantly reduced to. The emotion she expressed during the match was no different than that of other professional tennis players, including the famed Roger Federer. So why was she punished with the creation of such a dehumanizing and false image?
Seeing Kamala Harris, a Black woman, make history by running for one of the highest occupations in the United States is empowering to see as a Black woman, but also extremely nerve wracking. As I watched the Vice Presidential debate a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but shake with nerves the whole time. Knowing how the passion Black women express can be redefined by others as aggression, I was scared to see how the media would respond to her demeanor. Throughout the debate, I was constantly refreshing my Twitter timeline to see how people were reacting to every word that came out of her mouth. I was scared that one slip of the tongue would cause her to be labeled as an Angry Black woman, and create a loss of respect from everyone, simply for speaking her mind. Joe Biden showed an abundance of emotion in calling Donald Trump a clown a few weeks before in his own debate. His outburst was commended, and even seen as comical. Aside from the immature behavior he showcased in the same debate, Donald Trump’s carelessness and negligence during his presidency have put millions of Americans in grave danger. Trump and Biden were able to get away with acts of unprofessionalism, but I knew from my experience of watching other Black women like Serena Williams and Michelle Obama, that the critics would not be as forgiving of any degree of emotion communicated by Kamala Harris.
Now, some may say Serena’s emotions during that tennis match did get a little out of control, and that she deserved the label. But the problem is not how much or what kind of emotion a Black woman expresses, the problem is our emotion will always be exploited and used to twist the narrative of our character. When Michelle Obama was on the campaign trail in 2008, supporting her husband President Barack Obama’s campaign, she also suffered the cruel consequences of the stereotype. In her documentary Becoming, released this past May, she described how the vulnerability, passion and love she expressed for America on the campaign trail was depicted by the media as anger, and devalued the abundant success she had in her life. Much like the one of Serena Williams, a caricature was drawn in an attempt to portray her as an enemy of the very people she loved. In the image below, the artist enlarged Obama’s head and bulked up her muscles, giving her an unrealistic and manly appearance. Her eyebrows were tweaked to appeal to an evil facade. The words “Bully Pulpit” on the podium described the meaning of her speeches as expressions of rage. The image embraced everything the media said about her. The artist transformed her into an Angry Black woman.
Michelle Obama admitted feeling hurt by the false ways the media has portrayed her. The backlash influenced her to change her approach to one that was robotic and scripted in order to be taken seriously as the future First Lady of the United States. At seven years old, I vaguely remember watching the news and hearing this narrative be constructed of her. They turned my idol into a monster. Everything negative the media said about her was hurtful to hear, being my first introduction to the Angry Black woman persona in real time. It hurt even more because I saw myself in her. Every time they picked her apart, I felt like they were picking me apart as well. I started to become weary of how I acted in public spaces in order to avoid being falsely stereotyped, because when you start seeing parts of yourself being told they don’t belong, you start to believe it.
Kamala Harris is pursuing a dream the Black community has had for a long time. The rarity of her situation should be celebrated. In addition to the praise we give her, it is important to note that Kamala Harris is a politician and corruption is inevitable. In her career as an Attorney, she has already done some pretty controversial things. Harris faced scrutiny over her claims of working to decrease the racism in the criminal justice system. Many have argued that these statements are hypocritical with her failure to investigate shootings involving police officers and implement reform bills that would help decrease police brutality. It is important to hold politicians accountable for the decisions they make, but while we are condemning her harmful actions toward minority communities, we need to recognize the implicit biases that may influence how we perceive her actions. She is the first Black woman in American history to be a vice presidential nominee for a major party, so she will be held to an extremely high standard. Because of this, when we criticize her decisions we need to make sure that the criticisms don’t diminish her worth based on the stereotypes held of Black women. While we acknowledge her accomplishments, we must also address her faults appropriately.
Reflecting on Michelle Obama and Serena Williams’ experiences I can’t help but wonder how much of herself Kamala Harris is concealing in order to avoid the creation of another Angry Black Woman caricature. I worry that young Black girls today will be driven to change themselves in order to appeal to the masses because of the false narrative the media may use to portray her. Despite the implicit biases that I know will be held against her, seeing her in that high space gives me hope that there will be positive change in the systemic racism this country embraces. I hope little Black girls are able to look up to Kamala Harris the same way that I looked up to Michelle Obama.