The past several weeks have sparked an unprecedented conversation about women’s collective fury in this #MeToo, #WhyIDidntReport and post-Kavanaugh hearings era. Three recent books and a flurry of op-eds, essays and social media energy has everyone talking about rage in a brand new way.
This is good news for women. But what’s been blatantly missing from mainstream dialogue is a nuanced understanding of how rage is perceived by and received from black women ― and whether this alleged new moment in the ongoing liberation of women will actually be an equitable one.
Black women have been furious for decades, and our collective rage hasn’t exactly led to any revolutionary change in our lived experience. Quite the opposite: The “angry black woman” trope is a powerful tool that’s been used to dehumanize and silence black women for decades.
The dangerous stereotype of the black female as an angry, finger-snapping, emasculating, neck-moving, “oh no you didn’t”-spewing being has done deep harm. Our anger has never been viewed as legitimate or warranted due to unfair treatment; instead, it’s been twisted into a pathology.
“White women’s rage is given prominent position as a healthy exercise of power acquisition,” says Dionne Grayman, a career educator and the co-founder of We Run Brownsville, an organization that uses walk/runs and an “active activism” model to empower women in their physical, mental and emotional wellness. “It is their right to be angry in the face of their oppression.”
She adds: “Given the same consideration, though, black women’s anger has to be tempered and detached from the fire and fury of white women to make other people feel comfortable. … White women get to be mad and are not asked to explain why. Our anger has to pass the smell test.”
As a result, black women have been limited in how we can forcefully and convincingly advocate for the issues that matter to us. Our female fury is seen as threatening, not radical ― as disconnected from reason, devoid of any intellectual underpinnings. The weight of being viewed as angry, often by white women, has prevented us from demanding an equal seat at the policymaking table.
Trust me: Black women have been in a legitimate rage for decades ― and invisible and silenced for just as long.
The story being told and sold about us as angry women is so pervasive it’s accepted as a cultural norm. In 2014, TV critic Alessandra Stanley began an article about Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder” (and one of the most successful women in television production) by suggesting her autobiography should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman. The outraged response from readers was immediate and severe. But more to the point, not one skilled editor picked up on the blatant perpetuation of an insidious stereotype.
Being labeled as angry and harsh ensures black women aren’t seen as real human beings with a full suite of emotions, including fear, fragility and vulnerability. When the media, pop culture and society have already framed you as angry, you live every moment trying to disprove a lie. And because we know you think we are angry, we diminish ourselves to appear happy, passive or docile.
This paradigm goes all the way back to slavery, when black people had to smile in front of the master and other oppressors while hiding their pain and hatred. Later, black women adorned smiles as they took loving care of white women’s children and homes ― while masking the emotional pain and frustration of having to ignore their own children.
I feel these stereotypes every day as a mother. I recently showed up at my daughter’s school to address a major issue: She was called the N-word at her middle school, and there had been no disciplinary action taken against her attacker. I walked into the school mad as hell but was also acutely aware that anger isn’t an emotion I have the privilege to display, even when it’s very much warranted.
I envy the white mothers I’ve seen at my children’s private school hurling F-bombs and berating school officials, knowing that if I exhibited the same behavior it would be viewed as “threatening” and would most likely lead to a call for security. In my work as a strategist and public speaker on issues I care deeply about (maternal and child health), too often my passion is mistaken for anger.
Black women are constantly battling the image others hold of us and fighting to be seen as who we really are. Yes, we too are angry. But we are also exhausted. It’s physically painful and can be detrimental to our health to be constrained by such stereotypes.
Brittney Cooper’s book Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, released earlier this year, is a key standout for offering the kind of in-depth exploration, not cursory mention, that the perniciousness of this stereotype deserves. But Cooper’s analysis did not and is not receiving the same media attention and airtime as other recent offerings (which are by a white woman and a nonblack woman of color).
Black women should be at the core of any analysis of women’s rage, not an afterthought or side chapter. Delving deeply into the experience of those most oppressed by an issue is the basis of any meaningful cultural analysis. When we lift up those most burdened, we all rise. Alas.
So yes, as a black woman, I am proud to see the collective rage of women being touted as a pivotal turning point in our history. But we cannot forget that the privilege of rage is not given to all of us. We can’t celebrate anger without specifically and deliberately acknowledging the ways it’s been used to control and suppress black women. That includes having uncomfortable conversations about “white female fragility” (and the tears that often follow). In the end, the revolution will only happen when all of us get to be furious.
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and advocate for maternal and infant health. A former senior editor at ESSENCE and writer at FORTUNE, she writes frequently on the social and racial complexities of motherhood. Her latest book is The Big Letdown. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram at @iamKSealsAllers.